Fusion of the Arts
Opening reception Feb. 10, 4.30-6.30 p.m.
On view through March 7
City Gallery at the Dock Street Theatre
133 Church St.
On view through March 18
Studio Open
106 W. Hudson Ave, Folly Beach

In an art world where embalmed sheep and semen-stained beds are considered old hat, it’s getting tough to cause a stir. When anything can be classified as an artwork if it’s labeled as such, is it possible to create something shockingly different?

In Charleston, it’s a little easier to present a memorable, alternative show; any non-traditional work stands out. But that’s not always a positive thing for the artists involved, according to Culture Shock Movement, Inc. founder Calvin Dilligard.

“You have to justify everything you do,” he complains of Charleston, making the oft-heard observation that contemporary art here is less accepted and harder to show than more conventional, tourist-friendly fare. “Who’s to say that one piece is better than another?” Dilligard asks. “Every artist is unique. Everyone has something to offer.”

But shouldn’t artists be required to justify their work if it’s meant for public consumption — doubly so if they’re trying to sell it? And arts criticism — and the marketplace — are, for better or worse, predicated on some work being qualitatively “better” than other work. With price tags attached to Culture Shock’s current output at the City Gallery at the Dock Street Theatre, Dilligard’s notions of artistic relativism seem outweighed by other, more material concerns.

Culture Shock’s first exhibition is the second in the gallery’s 2006 invitational schedule, and Dilligard hopes that the reception will help him share his ideas with lots of new friends.

“I was living in Charlotte for a while, and I saw what artists were doing in their community. An art gallery would do a fashion show or a concert, and I thought that was unique.” With a new website and the City Gallery show, Dilligard plans to bring a similar sense of community to Charleston. “If there’s that kind of thing here already, I haven’t heard about it, and it would be hard for an artist to get into. We want to help people to get more exposure and get projects going. For us it’s not about profit, it’s about helping people to achieve their dreams.”

The art itself is less ambitious. Religious iconography informs Rodney Jackson’s work in oil, acrylic and pencil; although it’s fun to see classical motifs rendered with a contemporary sensibility, the results are mostly too naïve to resonate.

Dilligard also appears inexperienced and lacking in focus. His sketches range from figurative experiments (“My Gift to You”) to pencil portraits with busy narrative elements in the background (“MLK The Dreamer”), alongside acrylics and watercolors that indelicately dabble with red and purple.

“Calvin hasn’t found his niche yet,” says co-exhibitor Mark Blackmon, whose work is the most assured yet the most traditional in the show. His abstracts are as vibrant as Dilligard’s colorful creations, with a similar sense of wonder. Blackmon tries out different forms, textures, and hues, with notable success in the Orient-flavored “Bamboo.” “Topografuck” also stands out as a scrappy, multilayered piece that’s anti-graphic by design.

Dilligard promises to “put a little shock in Culture Shock,” with this show. Whatever surprises he has in store, the reception should allow him to network with local art groups that have eluded his radar till now.

R.T. Shepherd’s assured work has appeared in several recent group shows, including The Erotic Show at Belle Muse in 2004 and last December’s Different Artists, Different Mediums at the old 96 Wave office in West Ashley. But his solo exhibitions are less common, so Studio Open’s Mindscapes provides a rare chance to get a good look at his paintings, mostly from a new series inspired by his drives from James Island to Folly Beach and back.

“Roundtop Seen from Folly Road” (egg tempora on panel) is a complex landscape with a strong sense of composition and depth accentuated by murky brown shades. Natural formations gradually appear as if the viewer’s eyes are adjusting to the darkness. “Carolina Bay” is one of the artist’s “unrepeatable” works that he can’t hope to replicate. Using thinned oil on unprimed canvas, he creates green waves and a sky clouded with a wisp of Japanese influence.

A mixed media piece called “Burned Love Notes” uses found love letters interspersed with small watercolors; the notes, and their possible history, are far more intriguing than the accompanying nature studies.

Shepherd’s fascination with found items culminates in a tabletop’s worth of objects that mix the everyday with the bizarre. “Please play with them,” Shepherd tells visitors, and each object begs to be fiddled with. Some are whimsical — a painted rock, a padlocked “Football Done Wrong;” others are more functional than ornamental, such as a box of ball bearings. There’s even a jar filled with beer bottle caps.

Even here, Shepherd still doesn’t have a space all to himself — work by gallery owner Sherry Browne, James Island artist Gail Strickland, and others are also on display at Studio Open. But Mindscapes allows viewers to follow Shepherd’s progression from paintings that seem like prototypes for his new series (the ambiguous “Folly Seen While Driving to Folly”) to assured depictions of pines peering through the dusk. With examples of his art dating back to 1992, Shepherd has no need to shock; in his words, it’s “a show for grown ups.”

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