If you’re looking for exceptional contemporary art, Piccolo’s Juried Art Exhibitions aren’t usually the place to go. A lot of tourist traffic trundles past the art, and it wouldn’t make financial sense to scare them off with anything too wild. But this year the judges seem to have their heads screwed on the right way, striking a healthy balance between traditional and more challenging stuff.

Inside the Visitor Center on Meeting Street, photographs and paintings from all over the state are displayed in the foyer next to the regular big-ass maps of Charleston and video screens that pour out local images and Muzak. It’s not the perfect place to have an art show, yet the organizers have made good use of the space and squeezed in lots of entries (58 paintings and 40 photos).

The juror for paintings and miscellaneous two-dimensional artwork is Myrtle Beach’s Alex Powers, who produces fascinating content-driven progressive art in gouache, charcoal, and pastel. He’s made some interesting choices for this show: the colorful figure of John M. Dunnan’s “Man’s Reflection;” Lemuel Reiner’s painstakingly-wrought soft pastel “Her Beautiful Dance,” and Tracy Schaal’s pop/psych art in the vector renderings, “Pipe Dreams” and “Star Food.” It looks like Powers has tried to represent a gamut of styles and media, including an intricate watercolor storybook illustration by Charlestonian Tony Waters, “Thumbelina.”

Best of all, the first-place winner is the emotive “Lil Boy” by Kevin Morrisey from Summerville. It incorporates stencil work and painting, with a blue wave motif looming over the subject’s head. It connotes astrology, the sea, a military rank, or a more elusive twist of destiny.

The photos are judged by Nancy Santos, a former City Paper photographer who’s now a notable freelancer. Her picks include Susan Chiacchio Brand’s atmospheric, cloud-ridden landscape “Storm, Norway;” Donna Goodman’s photomontage, “Nobody Home But Me,” and the black-and-white first place winner, “In the Tobacco Fields,” which incorporates a farmer into the landscapes as if he were part of his environment.

Like Powers, Santos has chosen a crosssection of different photographic styles, including extreme close-ups, cityscapes, portraits, and experimental shots. Hopefully it won’t be too long before both artists are invited back to judge another exhibition for the city.

Out in the hot spring sunshine, dozens of artists sit at booths showing their work at Marion Square’s Outdoor Juried Art Exhibition, including Mayor’s Choice award winner Jennifer Black and first-place winner Amelia Rose Smith. While there’s nothing as progressive out here as there is in the Visitor Center, many local lights of the art scene are present to demonstrate or talk about their techniques.

There’s Fred Jamar, whose night-set street scenes can usually be seen at The Wolf Gallery and The Charles II Art Gallery; Kevin LePrince, who recently contributed work to the City Gallery at Waterfront Park’s Water for Life; Piccolo poster artist Elaine Berlin; and Renee Kahn, a painter based on James Island. Her grasp of color — especially some subtle shades of blue and yellow — catches the eye, then the viewer is drawn in by Kahn’s conceptual depictions of family life. “Relationships are my forté,” says the artist, pointing out images of couples, children, mothers, and matriarchal oldies.

Not all of the art on the Square is as interesting, though. Some of the artists seem afraid to use any bright colors in the work, lest it should offend a buyer who’s looking for something to blend into the living room wall. When these artists paint local landscapes, surely they recognize some color in their surroundings. So why don’t they live a little and slap some on the canvas?

According to the artists, this year’s exhibition has been quieter than usual, with a slow first weekend. They’re assuming that high gas prices are to blame, although other, similar art festivals — Greenville’s Artisphere and Columbia’s ever-expanding Festival of the Arts — have probably taken a bite out of Piccolo’s market. There will always be a market for the show’s safer, blander decorative art, though. Fortunately for collectors with gouged wallets, there’s some reasonably priced art in the exhibitions, especially at the Visitor Center.

After the hustle-bustle of the Piccolo exhibitions, the Charleston Tibetan Society is an oasis of meditative calm. They are showing mandalas created by art therapists and their clients. Each piece is a group effort, some carefully constructed, others haphazard and energetic.

In To Be Seen, adults recovering from life difficulties at Spartanburg’s Open Art Studio were each given a section of the canvas to use. The mandala is soothing and quite simple.

Circle of Creation is all over the place, with cartoonish people and animals, Wizard of Oz characters and storybook figures, all with smiling faces. It’s by traumatized, institutionalized adolescents who were given more freedom to paint what they wanted, where they wanted.

The World is on Fire (acrylic on pressboard) is a naïve, expressive collection of violent images by 13- and 14-year-olds in special ed. When they were first given their remit for the show (the theme is hope and healing) they wanted to paint cannabis leaves. When facilitator Carol Tait encouraged them to delve deeper into their emotions, they came up with bloody axes, violence, and depictions of the world ablaze.

Art therapists Mary How, Betsy Clem Brown, Lucy Lee Collins, and Robin Norton have created their own work with We Cry for the Children, a mandala of multiple baby faces swaddled in sea green and muted blue colors. Juxtaposed with the trappings of the Tibetan monks, the art has a generally restful effect and there’s an opportunity for visitors to create their own, small mandalas to help them appreciate the artistic process. Collaboration Among Art Therapists: Education and Advocacy through Mandala Drawings is at 12 Parkwood Ave. throughout the Piccolo Festival.

Over in West Ashley, Modernisme on Magnolia Road is showing the work of photographer Glenn Friedel. The non-Piccolo Awakening is the most uneven exhibition the gallery’s ever held, with dashes of brilliance and several unappealing slumps. Inspired by early Man Ray, Friedel creates photograms that show the silhouettes of his models with a kind of heat sensor haze around them. If you can imagine what the alien from Predator would see if he hung out in a ladies’ locker room, you’ve got the idea.

Friedel’s fond of vivid colors. Some work, some don’t. His four-stage experiment in radiance “Awakening,” created in 2004, shows a fetal female figure gradually stretch out and dissolve in an amber sea of beer bubbles. It looks lovely. Other, redder pieces are too blunt to be effective. Subtlety isn’t really a factor when the artist is objectifying naked women floating in blood-colored fluids in a show called Awakening.

Friedel just doesn’t seem to know when to stop. When he gets it right, he creates objects of beauty. When he gets it wrong he approximates a Maurice Binder James Bond title sequence, circa A View to a Kill.

Another fringe show, Outsiders Looking In, involves some of the rogue artists from last week’s Tricks of the Trade. Phillip Hyman and Johnny Pundt are joined by Ted Pickering, Erin Eckman, Philip Estes, and Geoff Cormier, who has created a set of “Philip Glasses” (drinking glasses with the name “Philip” on them) for this Vickery’s Bar and Grill exhibition.

The number of artists present at Piccolo can be overwhelming. There are over a hundred on Marion Square alone. But it’s good to see various artists, galleries and institutions working together so that visitors will be led from one to another. The strongest example is an Alfred Neumann exhibition at Ann Long Fine Art Modern on King Street, which is intriguing enough to send Spoletians hurrying over to the Gibbes Museum of Art. The Gibbes has more of Neumann’s work plus a brand-new Rodin show, In His Own Words. Similar tie-ins between the Museum and private galleries would be gratefully received, and may help boost interest on any slow weekends in the future.

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