Cave Dwellings
Fletcher Crossman makes the crossover from tasteful classicism to up-to-date art

Long ago, giant art exhibits brightened our city during the Spoleto Festival. 1991’s Places With a Past: New Site-Specific Art in Charleston gave us a two-story structure on America Street created by David Hammond and a 14,000 pound cluster of workclothes on Indigo Street. Joyce Scott suspended beads and a large black tree in a local park, and the Old City Jail was filled with Antony Gormley’s copper tube, legions of terra cotta figures, and three enormous iron globes.
The 13 other installations in Places, an event that utilized historic houses, empty warehouses, streets, and other public spaces, was a big deal — even for Spoleto — at a budget of almost $1 million.
Charleston hasn’t been treated to such a spectacle for a long time — apparently, visual arts don’t justify that kind of expenditure. It’s been up to Piccolo to pick up the slack with large-scale shows or in-depth retrospectives at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park. This year, the festival organizers have chosen wisely with Fletcher Crossman, a serious British-born artist who goes seriously big, and his Illuminations in the Shadows invitational exhibition.
Some of his acrylic paintings are so big that they hang from the second floor of the gallery and can be easily seen when you’re on the first. His subjects are contemporary, healthily critical of our society and often infused with wry humor. There’s also a knowledge of art techniques that extends beyond the usual scope of Old Master appreciation.
The bovines of Crossman paintings like “The Aries Character Type” and “Fixed Panels” are reminiscent of the Paleolithic cow art found in the Lascaux caves. The resonance is no accident. The size and efficient simplicity of his beasts stem from an interest in prehistoric paintings. Instead of chicken scratchings, Crossman places powerful text on his canvasses. Some of the lines are poetic, others are matter-of-fact. In his series, graphic design meets Geico caveman ingenuity.
“Fixed Panels” is composed of six canvas panels magnetized to a 48” x 96” steel plate. Visitors are encouraged to move the panels around to form a bison image, simultaneously making a sentence out of the incorporated text: “I sense much fear in you.” It’s one of the few and far between times when a line from George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode One could be construed as deep and meaningful.
“Fixed Panels” is part of a running theme in Crossman’s work that takes a wistful yet brawny look at the world’s dwindling resources and our eagerness to squander them. By hearkening back to prehistoric times, he reminds us that bison were once plentiful and deemed worthy of elegant documentation even by savages. Now we have other concerns, mesmerized by modern cod-philosophical icons like Yoda (speaker of the “fear” quote), filling our SUVs, pumping chemical crap into the air (“This is How They Make Clouds”), and purchasing junk (“Fat People Buying Stuff”). In the latter, the artist’s corpulent subjects crowd around a counter case. A blonde, middle-aged woman in a velour tracksuit passes through, hands in her pockets, asking us to look at all the daft fatties. A sad, hopeless, lonely-looking man in the foreground looks off to the side as if he’s searching for something more meaningful, better or different. “Stuff” sums up Crossman’s ability to communicate with modern viewers in a stimulating way.
Another, related series takes the young nieces, nephews, and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and places them in situations that dramatize or symbolize events that happened to their persecuted kin. A case in point: “Pincus Got a Splinter” relives an Auschwitz incident where the subject’s grandfather got a four-inch chunk of shrapnel in his neck during an American bombing raid. Thanks to a Red Cross inspection, Pincus was saved in the name of German propaganda. Viewers are reminded not just of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, but also that the children in the paintings wouldn’t be around if not for a twist of fate, luck, or an indefatigable will to survive.

Illuminations in the Shadows: A Piccolo Spoleto Invitational Exhibition • Piccolo Spoleto • Free • May 25-June 10 • City Gallery at Waterfront Park, 34 Prioleau St. • 724-7305

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.