Faces You Cannot Ignore
On view through May 16
Studio Open
106 W. Hudson Ave., Folly Beach

The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kirschner once said that there’s nothing so fascinating as the “landscape of the human face,” and he wasn’t talking about Dave Prowse when he said it. (Obscure reference alert: David Prowse is the actor who played Darth Vader. — Ed.) The way a portrait is painted can say a lot about the subject’s life and character; one brush stroke is all it takes to add an evil streak, or a dash of intelligence. Studio Open’s current parade of mugs is intriguing and varied, merging ancient and modern-looking folk in a show that highlights the work of five contemporary local artists.

R.T. Shepherd contributes several graphite studies in his Many Faces of Francis Bacon series. This is Shepherd’s “smoky and indistinct” tribute to writers and artists, with Bacon rubbing shoulders with Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, each shown in a small, self-contained portrait. Their smooth faces are simply depicted, giving them an almost childlike quality, transforming the subjects into innocent, idealized images of their true selves.

Shepherd also provides more colorful variations on the theme. His smudgy “Portrait of Francis Bacon” (acrylic and casein on panel) places the painter on an orange background with green skin, and Lucian Freud (also acrylic) is given a face of burnished soot, like a coal miner caught in a bush fire.

Bacon’s boyfriend George Dyer is an obvious choice for inclusion, unlike murdered Leningrad party chief Sergei Kirov or Carl Switzer (Alfalfa in Our Gang). But with his choice of characters and his use of alkyd and graphites, this series is another example of Shepherd’s bent for experimentation, which neatly complements his last Studio Open show.

Gallery owner Sherry Browne shares Shepherd’s restless nature, always tinkering with her paper cut (or “snipshot”) collages. The largest of her pieces on display is more traditionally rendered: “The Lady in Red” is a large, acrylic painting of a scarlet woman, bold and sad, with carefully balanced shapes — for example, the similar forms of her earring, chin, and part of her forehead. Browne’s pink “Piccassoid Liz” places Elizabeth Taylor with her eyes all over the place in a Warholesque foursome.

Another series of portraits is presented by Mike Sheppard in a rare instance of the artist exhibiting his work. People in Vincent’s World takes Van Gogh sketches as their starting point, but Sheppard renders them vibrant painted subjects, altering their poses slightly to avoid making direct, colorized copies. Van Gogh’s studies of a peasant woman and a man with a top hat become brighter, more hopeful portraits, and this sense of hope carries through all of Sheppard’s work. His family portraits apply clean, contemporary brushwork to 19th-century posed portraits; his Afghan figures are more fluid and lively, but stick to a muted blue, brown, and green color scheme.

The strange poses or angles of some of Erin Eckman’s paintings give them an eerie quality, helped along by the pinched facial features of her sitters. The pastel “Shut Up and Listen” seems to show the bastard brothers of cartoon fools Ed, Edd, and Eddy gagged with straps or stitches, in what could be the nightmare (or dream) of a mom who’s always telling her kids to be quiet. “Grace” is a strong piece thanks to its solid outlines and colors, while the figure in “Sold Out” is part freak, part pestilent bum.

The gallery’s jam-packed with other paintings, sculptures, and found pieces in an environment where anything can become art, including miniature quilts (by Elizabeth Larson, who gives her work a complex Far East look), dainty marine-hued jewelry (Heidi Poore), stained glass (Gail Strickland), and beer cans (in Kim Alsbrooks’ series My White Trash Family). The crushed but still recognizably branded cans are painted with 18th-century-style miniature portraits that deftly flirt with caricature. The dirt and rust still on the ring pulls suggests the grot beneath the surface of those gentle faces.

There’s so much on show in this working studio and gallery that it’s easy to miss some of the smaller pieces. But maybe that’s part of Browne’s plan to get people coming back for more, inspired to look at portraits in a whole new way.

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