The American dream is a loaded subject. Many of us grew up believing that if we did what we were told (work hard, eat right, exercise, etc.) we would have access to everything we wanted. But the recession and good old-fashioned reality have altered those dreams, and now many Americans have downsized to just the basics: a decent job, benefits, and enough money to buy a home. Often the first in line to challenge the reality of cultural idealism with the tools of their trade, visual artists open our eyes to new ways of thinking with color and canvas.

Three local artists have stepped up to the challenge of interpreting the American dream in an exhibit at Three Little Birds Café in the South Windermere Shopping Center of West Ashley. Artists Paul Cristina, Sarah Frierson, and Kristy Bishop offer individual reflections on what it means to be an American in 2011. Collectively, the show offers an easily digested assembly of visually pleasing art. There is color, texture, and a variety of shapes and styles in a great setting. The cheerful, well-lit café (an established venue for tasty breakfasts) is a refreshing space for art. Too often, under-the-radar art shows are shown in darkened bars or crowded coffee houses.

Cristina’s work is the most developed of the three. His mixed-media pieces are dense with thick layers of paint, text, and photographs. The press release states that Cristina investigates how our society is affected by exposure to media outlets, which deteriorates our attention spans. The problem with such a heavy-handed concept is that is raises viewers’ expectations, as well as maintaining the idea of abstract art as a challenging style. Instead of enjoying Cristina’s art for the emotional depth and rich colors, the message distances the viewer. In “Effete ontology,” small black-and-white faces of American presidents are featured in a line across the canvas mixed with thick brushtrokes of color and text. The eyes of many presidents are blacked out with a few exceptions, including Mr. Obama, suggesting perhaps that some leaders have vision while many others have been blind. “Senescence,” a watercolor portrait, is a particularly strong image. Piercing eyes and sweeping strokes creates a softer and less aggressive image than Cristina’s “Memories That Escape Us,” with its explosive black and reds.

Bishop’s mixed-media pieces are made of elements including embroidery, linen, silk, cotton, and organza. In “a bit of advice,” she offers the words, “Less is More,” and challenges the viewer to read the advice through a webbing of thread. Her interpretation of American dreams is focused on “the illusion of classlessness in the States, and the gap in the distribution of wealth.” Again, this ambitious message is not conveyed through her fabric based work. “Untitled Large” and “Untitled Small” is done on embroidery hoops, and evokes spider webs with pieces of debris caught in the middle. Bishop’s pieces are joyful and engaging but also less developed, feeling like first drafts.

Frierson’s oil paintings of rooftops and houses are meant to reflect “what home means today with the current foreclosure climate.” The least engaging of the three, her one-dimensional architectural images are emotionally flat. “Standing Alone” and “Left Behind” depict close-up exteriors of houses with black windows and textured surfaces, but leave us feeling that home is a flat space.

Thoughtfully curated, the show is hung in a cohesive manner with plenty of breathing room. The expansive theme of American Dreams calls for a greater reach, and these artists could have dug deeper into the intellectual concepts that inspired them to create a more thought-provoking exhibit.