This year continues a disappointing and longstanding trend for what’s often referred to as one of the best arts festivals in the country. As in recent years, there’s plenty of high-class theatre, music, and dance on offer from Spoleto Festival USA, but one of the key art forms is virtually ignored. The token visual arts component of the festival is a seemingly last-minute link with the Phillips Community Project — certainly nothing treated with the same seriousness and respect as the festival’s performing arts events.

Piccolo takes up some of the slack, with a major retrospective of Southern realist and local William McCullough at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park, invitational shows at the Dock Street Theatre (by Eva Carter and Lin Barnhardt), its regular juried art exhibitions, unique multimedia work at the Circular Congregational Church (Wild Things and Wonder), and a good mix of traditional and progressive art. Beyond that, a string of galleries and alternative spaces are capitalizing on the influx of festival-goers to launch their own shows.

After its ambitious, multi-site Alive Inside show for last year’s Piccolo, the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art’s Penumbra is simpler but still effective. This year the theme is collage, embracing mixed media, video art, photomontage, and the use of found objects.

Penumbra‘s star player has to be the Hilton Head-based Aldwyth (who goes by just the one name); some of his work is so intricate that a magnifying glass is provided for viewers to pick out the details. He’s fascinated with space, time, and the cataloging of objects, depicted in “Encyclopedia,” a series of alphabetized boxes that open up to show photocopied images, mutilated Barbie dolls, and organic bits and bobs. H is for hair, J is for jawbone, but don’t let the nursery motif fool you — Aldwyth adds an occasional grown-up edge (best example: R stands for rusty razor).

While Aldwyth’s art is the most impressive in the show, Erica Harris’ work gets second place for inventive use of unexpected media. She places cut-out photos on acrylic backgrounds to create unusual tableaux that often feature children and vehicles flitting through the sky. Her video “The Big Ship” is the best of three looping on a TV screen — the other two, by Shannon Holman, share a common method of editing snippets of voices, sounds, and music to create a mesmerizing aural collage.

Charlestonian Johnny Tucker uses photomontages nabbed from women’s magazines to comment on our current preoccupation with beauty and looks. He mixes modern images of gormless models and contemporary fashions with ’20s surrealist forms, upturning body parts and creating disproportionate faces to get his point across. Betsy Chaffin’s mixed media collages are more subdued, with a cosmic scene that complements Aldwyth’s work (“A Night Mysterious”) and an effective underwater piece that incorporates her own brand of bubbles and currents on a tranquil blue background.

Vickery’s Bar and Grill on Beaufain Street doesn’t have the right light or space to do justice to the work in its Human Architecture show, but fortunately Philip Hyman’s contributed some smart art that elevates the whole body-conscious exhibition. Only “Brain Autopsy” is obscured in the shadows, its dark, dead colors juxtaposed with the livelier “Brain Synapsis.” Contemporary painter and sculptor Hyman has been prominent in Piccolos past with his accessible pop culture subjects. This time, grey matter is his inspiration; his meticulous depiction of dendrites and axons in “Dying Brain Cells” gives the painting a truly organic feel. He gives “Firing Brain Cells” individual personalities, accentuating their “eyes” and the fluidity of their electrical activity as they fire at a thousandth of a second. Never has automaticity looked so lively.

The other contributions to Human Architecture suffer in comparison to Hyman’s strong work. The best of the bunch are Christina Bailey’s gory “Hand = Muscles” and “Hand = Bones” on small wood panels; Tod Wilson’s “Grenadier,” which evokes news footage with its military subject and use of solid highlights, obscuring parts of the action; and Jesse Hendrix’s studies of the heart. Her “True and Ugly Things” shows a heart snipped from the brain with a pair of scissors, while “Are You Strong” combines floridly curling veins and arteries, blue and red highlights, and male and female symbols. The group’s “celebration of the human structure” will be on display until the end of Spoleto.

As Vickery’s proves that any building can be used as an art space (as long as it’s lit properly), some artists have gone one step further and opened up their own homes to the public. Bea Aaronson has transformed her Little Yellow House at 82 Warren St. into a gallery packed with paintings, photos, Dadaist collages and work by fellow artist Stephen Eaker, who’s in an unashamed Picasso groove.

Aaronson’s no stranger to Piccolo — she’s been the official poster artist three times — but this year her work seems omnipresent. Her housebound Allegro Creshendo is one of six visual art shows she’s involved in; her eclectic work can also be seen at Millennium Music downtown, Pane e Vino on Warren Street, and Khoury Persian Rugs on Wentworth. Cannon Street is Aaronson Central, with her art in the Cornelia Gallery and Lana Restaurant. It’s a testament to her versatility that the artist can contribute art to all these spaces without saturating the market, and still have sculptures left over to display in her back yard, including anthropomorphized collections of scrap metal and bric-a-brac.

One artist who doesn’t even have a present show is still making his presence known. Michael Lachowski aims to sex up city planning in the fall with his exhibition of photographs and drawings, CHAD: Charleston Historical Art, Dude. In preparation for the October event, he’ll be asking the public for “Suggestions for the Future of Charleston” at a City Market booth this weekend. The comments he receives will be incorporated into CHAD and its accompanying panel discussion, “A Visitor’s Guide to the Future of Charleston.”

As in recent years, local artists are making the most of Spoleto’s uptick in visitor numbers with minimum support from the official festivals. Several shows are yet to open — most major galleries are waiting for the festival to begin in earnest before they launch their own wares — so this is a great time to avoid the crush and catch original, imaginative art in some unexpected settings.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.