VISUAL ARTS ‌ The Year in Visual Arts 

More galleries, a toehold for progressive artists, and scads of offbeat group shows

click to enlarge Sara Frankel's 'Aftermath'; Sol Le Witt at the Gibbes; 'Tiny Tango' from Alive Inside
  • Sara Frankel's 'Aftermath'; Sol Le Witt at the Gibbes; 'Tiny Tango' from Alive Inside

In a year when our readers voted the Market as the best place to buy art and the Gaillard still gets confused with the Gibbes, it's worth taking a look back at Charleston's array of exhibitions this year, which, despite it all, were remarkably diverse. If art is influenced by the context it's viewed in, then the sheer number of different spaces used -- from houses and hotels to gutted stores and offices -- indicate local artists' willingness to stretch their abilities and trust that art buyers won't be too snotty about where they find their wares. It's like asking a dog lover to buy a puppy in a back alley; if the pooch is good-looking enough, it'll get plenty of attention.

Not all of 2005's shows were city-bound. The number of galleries has grown to meet the increasing demand of newcomers and visitors to the area. The Gallery at Freshfields, in a brand-new village at the entrance to Seabrook and Kiawah Islands, is a good example of this. Owned by Robert Hicklin Jr., it specifically targets vacationers and opened before Freshfields Village was fully occupied. With a mix of representational oils, sculptures and photography and a high-tech viewing room, it represents a leap of faith for Hicklin as well as a chance to test ideas that might not fly in his more traditional Charleston Renaissance Gallery.

Similar risk-taking has led to the successful launch of new galleries in the city as well as some notable one-offs. At 53 Cannon Street Gallery, the McCullough family transformed a cozy house into a site for some innovative shows, including Women Having Fun (a benefit for the Center for Women) and their current All Seasons of South Carolina Landscape Painting. Featuring meticulous work from William McCullough and several other locals, the organizers have a habit of giving hackneyed themes (nudes, still lifes) a fresh twist. It doesn't hurt to find the work displayed in innocuous settings that include the kitchen and bathroom.

Capitalizing on the continuing resurgence of Upper King, some unlikely spaces became outlets for talented artists like Seth Gadsden and Krist Mills, who ran The Floating, a wide-ranging multimedia show, in parallel with last spring's Spoleto Festival. Their 5,000-square-foot space proved too small to hold their many artists' ideas, with mounds of carpet bleeding into a back lot for a tree-sized installation by Shelby Davis.

Pieces of Sanity and Curious Tales were equally ambitious multimedia shows at the Humanities Center on Rutledge Avenue. Sanity had enough strong elements to carry its weak video art, while Tales combined original new music, poetry, visual art, film, and interactive installations, including a room with 3-D projections courtesy of Tripp Storm.

The influence of our institutional galleries was proved by an exhibition at the Gibbes. Henri Matisse's work got plenty of international attention through retrospectives at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, coinciding with a continued interest in abstract art. This was reflected locally by Beyond Representation: Abstract Art in the South, a wide-ranging show with pieces by Matisse, Joan Miro, and Roy Lichtenstein alongside familiar local names.

"During Spoleto there were a lot of shows that highlighted abstract work," says Brian Rutenberg, a College of Charleston grad now painting and exhibiting successfully in New York, "including the terrific exhibition at the Gibbes and one at the Ella Richardson Gallery on Broad Street. The response was very positive."

Beyond Representation led viewers to Eva Carter's non-representational gallery, and there was a distinct sense of crossover as she opened an abstract show last month, highlighting work by Carter, Michael Tyzack, and William Halsey, all of whom had work in the Gibbes exhibition.

Rutenberg also nipped down from New York to curate Cooperation of Pleasures, the Halsey's intriguing contribution to the abstract milieu. While Julie Evans drew her inspiration from Indian miniatures with tiny, detailed gouache and acrylics on paper, Barbara Takenaga went large and cosmic with her hypnotic space scenes.

Sporting a new name, the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art stated its intention to be an "adventurous and innovative venue." Its crowning achievement this year has to be its collaboration with Redux Contemporary Art Center, Magar Hatworks, RTW, and the Music Farm during Spoleto for the Alive Inside sideshow spectacular, allowing each space to keep its own identity while retaining the strong theme of freaks as art objects. Ironically, the work involved in running the show put extra pressure on Kevin Hanley, who became Redux's first executive director in March and quit the role before the dust had settled on Sawaguzo!, the first event he personally instigated. The gallery has yet to announce a replacement.

2005 provided opportunities to sample all the major media, with unique installations at the Halsey (ElseWHERE), Shimon Attie's emotionally charged photography at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park for Piccolo, actor Billy Dee Williams' airbrushed acrylic figures at the Richard James Galleries, and sound art at CofC's Addlestone Library (an Arnold Schoenberg retrospective). While Charleston may not be known for innovation -- tourist-targeting landscapes and figurative artworks continue to outweigh their contemporary cousins here -- it's clear local artists haven't lost their inventive attitudes toward creating and showing their more progressive stuff.


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