VISUAL ARTS ‌ Back to Basics 

One of Charleston's best-known artists enters a brave new experimental world

Start looking for John Carroll Doyle's work and you'll find it all over town: Carolina's, 82 Queen, A.W. Shucks, Charleston Place Hotel. But from New Year's Day there's one place that Doyle's work won't be found: his own gallery.

After nearly 10 years in business, the John Carroll Doyle Art Gallery at 54 Broad St. will shut its doors for the last time at the end of the year. The reasons aren't financial; according to Doyle, this has been his best ever in terms of sales. Instead, they're personal. The painter who's widely known for capturing the complex splendor of the Lowcountry wants to go back to basics.

Last year was another good one for Doyle, Chucktown's premier homegrown artist. He became the first Charlestonian to headline the Southeastern Wildlife Expo, with carte blanche to paint whatever he wanted for the official poster (he chose an egret). More recently, his third book is proving as successful as its predecessors; I See London, I See France, a frisky compilation of black-and-whites of panties and their owners, has already garnered enough word-of-mouth attention to prompt the likelihood of a second edition with extra photographs. Hotels, restaurants, and clubs continue to purchase his work, reflecting a growing fondness among collectors and the public for his glowing depictions of jazz musicians, sport fishing, and wildlife.

Although he delegates much of his retailing to managers Sharon Crawford and Belinda Cole, Doyle still has gallery business on the brain and he's decided to devote those energies to other things — specifically, creating more art.

"I want to use 90-95 percent of my time painting instead of 50 percent," says Doyle, who sees his move away from retail as a leap in the right direction. "It will give me a chance to explore new territory. I don't think I'll become an abstract expressionist, but I'll see which path my work takes." For 36 years, the artist has been painting with sales in mind; this will be his first chance to let loose without concerning himself with creating a commercial product.

The 64-year-old Doyle's earned his chance to live a little. He's still mindful of the times when, early on in his career, he was drinking heavily, happy to have commissions and be alive at all. In 1983 he quit the sauce for good and continued to devote himself to his self-taught, loose painting style. The results of his labors are all over town, and have appeared on sport-fishing magazine covers, the Illinois-based Blue Chicago nightclubs and even in an ad campaign for Absolut Vodka. These days, his work is nationally known, and the past five years in particular have seen an output of increased maturity and popularity.

All the same, in the art world there's no such thing as being too popular. Hence a new association with Joe Sylvan, who'll be selling Doyle's work at The Sylvan Gallery on 171 King St. from Jan. 1 onwards. "I picked him because I felt like he's bringing a lot of well-known painters to Charleston," says Doyle, who was lobbied by several local gallery owners. Sylvan's contacts from his days running a similar business in art-centric Santa Fe, N.M., mean that Doyle's work will reach more collectors out West.

Sylvan is modest about his part in setting up the agreement. "I didn't do much," he shrugs. "When we first came to town four years ago, John was very supportive. I consider him to be a friend and his art makes me smile. I won't carry anybody's work that I don't like or enjoy, and I love his enthusiasm for the whole art process."

Doyle is also enthusiastic about having his work displayed beside art by the likes of Rhett Thurman and Glenna Goodacre. "Stan Gerhartz is one of hottest painters in America right now," he explains. "I'm proud to be shown alongside him."

Doyle will keep his studio above La Hacienda on King Street, in a space that used to be a ballet school. He'll still have work for sale there to appointment-only visitors, though he doesn't intend to spend as much time there as usual. As all the artists he admires worked outdoors, he's eager to paint on the streets of Charleston. "I tend to stay in the studio too much," he says. "It's like being a chef. It's easier to cook in my own kitchen than do a picnic. But I definitely plan to do more plein air painting."

There are plenty of other interests that Doyle wants to pursue. A children's book is scheduled for next year, and the artist hopes to hearken back to his work as a fashion illustrator "many years ago." Although Doyle has designed suits for himself, he'd rather develop clothing for women. "Their clothes are much less limited," he believes, hoping that he'll be able to design a gown for 2007's Spoleto auction.

In between bursts of designing, painting, and photography, Doyle will continue to support the American Heart Association, to which he donates a painting every year. He'll also be ready and willing if Darkness to Light ever needs him.

'I was there in the beginning," he says of the locally founded child sexual abuse awareness organization that's gained international attention in recent years. "I did some commercials and paintings, donated money." Sexually abused in his early teens, Doyle has realized how important (and rare) it is for male survivors of abuse to speak up about their experiences, giving others the courage to come forward. "We get calls from places like Maine and California from people who have been abused," he adds, praising Darkness to Light President/CEO Anne Lee for her work as the organization's main mover.

With so many irons in the fire — art, publishing, philanthropy, clothing, and even interior design — something had to cool, and while it might take a while for buyers to make the switch to the Sylvan, it seems like Doyle's made the right choice. He's entering a brave new world of plain white canvasses, no strings, no pressure, just a willingness to experiment and grow.


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