I’m generally skeptical of juried exhibitions. They tend to be a sticky business that largely comes down to the personal taste of a few jurors, especially when submissions include works by many disparate artists. This jurors of this year’s Piccolo Spoleto Juried Art Exhibition are Leo Twiggs, a renowned batik artist, and Stacy Pearsall, the director of the Charleston Center for Photography. Twiggs chose the two-dimensional works, while the photography was naturally left up to Pearsall. However, while I may not agree with the winners of this exhibit, I was impressed by the overall quality of the work, both the range of styles and media, as well as the subject matter.

It was gratifying to see so many South Carolina artists tackling contemporary sociopolitical issues through their respective media. In Building Card Houses, Claude Buckley portrays in oil a young boy making the tenuous paper townscape, crouched within a surreal background of a giant dollar bill, the tall buildings of Wall Street lurking further behind. In another oil painting, Abandoned Bank Vault Door by Janet Kozachek, soothing blues and greens are abruptly interrupted by the ominous black of what lies beyond the gaping door, which, we can imagine, is not a whole lot. Goodbye Detroit, a color photograph, shows the front end of a broken-down, vintage Chevrolet, an homage to the declining U.S. automobile industry.

Charleston and greater South Carolina are home to a number of fine portrait artists, several of whom were well-represented in this exhibit. Colleton Girls by Melissa Gravano is a thoughtful graphite rendering of three young African-American women that conveys the simultaneous strength and tentativeness of youth. Steve Neff’s The Pouter is a larger-than-life oil depiction of a little girl, the depth of her emotion picked out in the contours of her face by an unusual light source. While not a direct portrait, Captivation by Monique Morales-Kroll captures a crowd fixated on something outside the bounds of the black and white photograph. The picture’s grainy quality emphasizes the inevitably ephemeral quality of the shared emotion that causes the crowd to become captivating in its own right.

Naturally, there are a fair number of regionally themed works, featuring marshes, beaches, and colorful Charleston architecture. For better or worse, these are local art staples that are generally more decorative than thought-provoking. Yet, even among this staid genre, there were several that stood out due to the artist’s unique view and skill of execution. Judith Chamberlain’s Scenic Serenity portrays an solitary sandspit with a few clumps of foliage keeping each other company against a sky that fades into the water with just a hint of horizon, affirming that there are no true solid lines in nature, especially in our humid environment. Folly, a pen and ink drawing by Blaine Tailor-Kimball Dixon, is an exquisite pointillist rendering of ocean, rocks, beach foliage, and the tiny lighthouse that pins them all together, the only evidence of human presence in this natural setting. In The Joseph Diane, a sepia photograph of a fishing boat by David Howard, the artist captures seagulls flying over the vessel in a near-perfect arc that is as graceful as it is predatory.

One work that stood out as an unfortunate contribution to the show was Karen Vecchioni’s Cotton Fields, an oil painting of a slave woman carrying a basket of picked cotton in her hands and a child on her back, depicted in saccharine pastel colors. While the artist likely did not intend this effect, the image seems to romanticize the South’s slave era and find beauty in the figures’ submission. While most of the art in this juried exhibition shows South Carolina artists to be capable of contemporary and progressive work, it’s work like Cotton Fields that keeps the creative communities in this state lagging behind.

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