The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art opened its first exhibit of the new year last Friday with Red State Blues, a showcase of S.C. artists concerned about the current state of politics in the Lowcountry, the Piedmont, and beyond. Kevin Murphy went to see the exhibit. He sent us this review. —J.S.

Bombs hang from the walls at the Halsey Institute. Bombs in the sense of incendiary forms of expression, as displayed here in Red State Blues, a provocative new exhibition that opened last Friday.

An elevated, multi-colored sculpture called “Eden Eaten #2” greets you like an open-mouthed vacuum. Larry Merriman, an Upstate artist whose recent work has focused on consumerism and waste, created the piece from various products used by his family. He flattened cereal and detergent boxes and turned them into slopes that pan out of sight. Acting as a reflection of society, Merriman brands an ironic message: You are what you waste.

Like a true consumer, “Eden Eaten #2” draws you in and spits you out. That ironic mischief serves as an essential component to Red State Blues’ displays. While it may be familiar, the irony here resonates slowly. It enriches the viewing experience like a discussion with unforeseen twists and turns.

“As a gallery, we are trying to take advantage of that discussion,” says Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey. “This show is really about artists not accepting the status quo, and about building a sustainable future.”

According to featured artist Alex Powers, that very optimism is doomed by our current predicament. “We Are Fucked,” reads a caption beneath George Bush’s head, pasted on the cover of a mock issue of Time. Powers’ images represent some of the show’s most aggressive protests. His pieces are collisions of images and text. It asks questions, offers observations, and doles out criticism.

“Do You Believe in God? What is the Best Way to Live?” he asks, and answers with sketches of Frederick Nietzsche and Noam Chomsky. In “I’m Always Disappointed,” a blurred quote reads, “I’ve always been disappointed in how contemporary artists have given over some of the big issues to other disciplines.” Powers challenges the big issues with an affecting creative assault.

Red State Blues features paintings, mixed media, ceramics, and prints. A panorama from 11 South Carolina artists whose breadth and scope touches the potent issues facing our society. On display are the hotbed topics of race, religion, consumerism, and politics. The work is arranged in a seamless fashion and leaves the viewer stimulated and disturbed.

But even as the provocative, timely nature of this show suggests, it’s best not to describe Red State Blues as overly political. Though it does yank the Bush administration’s pants, the show’s ambitions are greater than merely addressing the ideals of left-leaning artists. It refrains from heavy-handedness, relying instead on reasoned analysis delivered by artists whose chief concerns are liberty and justice.

“The analytical aspect of the show is important,” Mr. Sloan explained. “Beyond red and blue, we wanted to bring to the surface the cultural topics of the day. There aren’t many easy answers offered here. This is not art about art. This is art about humanity.”

From that humanity, the historical implications of Jean Grosser’s art gains perspective. In “Transforming Hate,” she’s cut a three-dimensional star of David from pages of Neo-Nazi propaganda. A string suspends the star above a white shelf. The star sways gently, highlighting the fragile space between survival and destruction. Like a wind chime this piece has a song, but it’s the star’s quietude that sings the loudest.

Visitors can see Grosser’s work, along with the 10 other South Carolina artists, through Feb. 29. Wim Roeffs, the guest curator, selected each of the displayed items. Roeffs, whose background in political science and art lends him, in Sloan’s words, a “particular expertise” in this field, has nurtured a theme of observation and conversation. He’s chosen artists based on their ability to fully integrate context and craftsmanship, and fashioned the show to deliver a message with slow-burning effects.

“Wim had a good deal of freedom. I knew he’d select visually powerful pieces that would frame, through a visual means, the large issues of our day,” Sloan said. “I think the collection’s strength lies in its balance of voices.”

One of those voices has a dialect all its own. Russell Biles, a self-described country boy and stay-at-home dad, works with porcelain. His pieces burn with talent, are strapped with humor and spite. They tackle religion, colonialism, and terrorism. Viewing his work, I heard certain audience members gasp with unprintable praise, dropping enthusiastic f-bombs as descriptors for his technical achievements. “Lesser Evil” displays a horned, devilishly coy Osama bin Laden tucked comfortably on Mother Teresa’s lap.

“Injuns!” shows a swollen cowboy holding two bleeding native Americans above his gaping mouth. The pieces have a ribald attitude, a weariness occasioned by explicit candor. They are finished in contrasting colors and textures (Osama’s glossy, his red devil-suit afire. Mother Teresa matted, her wardrobe dull and gray), and provide the audience with shock, laughter, and pause.

Red State Blues unfurls a discontented flag in a time of grave social awareness. But beyond race or religion or politics, people here seemed genuinely interested in appreciating technically proficient art that risked voicing controversial opinions. The exhibition promises to galvanize the Charleston community and reflects a frustration spreading across the state.

Perhaps in time the bombs at the Halsey Institute will bear fruit.

Red State Blues

Through Feb. 29


Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

54 St. Philip St.,

(843) 953-5680

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