Now Showing feels like visiting a princess palace followed by a man cave. Downstairs, the viewer is surrounded by pinks and reds, butterflies and fish, flowers, accessories, and naked young women. Upstairs, manly black and white photographs of motorcycles, skyscrapers, and neon signs are cool, powerful, and stark. Co-curator Chris Davis, a Charleston native, brought Los Angeles artists Samantha Magowan and Charlie Bidwell to the City Gallery to “bring the two cities together.” Davis says these artists are united in their focus on product and celebrity, and yet the differences between them are what make the exhibit exciting.
Magowan’s large-scale, dizzying paintings and photographs are displayed throughout the first floor against brightly colored walls of red, yellow, and pink. Butterflies and small sparkling gems dot the walls, leading the viewer from one image to the next. Patterns, stripes, and swirls of color cover every inch of space in the paintings. “I want the viewer’s eye to keep moving, uninterrupted,” Magowan says. She returns to a painting repeatedly, working until the eye is free from a center point.
A recent MFA graduate from The Art Center College of Design in L.A., this young artist is “obsessed with Amanda Lear,” adding, “she’s so bad she’s good.” “For Your Pleasure,” was inspired by the Roxy Music album cover of the same name. A panther is camouflaged inside a deep, blue-black corner, his white flowered eyes popping out, leading the viewer to a red and white leash which moves the eye across the bottom of the painting through a maze of yellow, orange, and white flowers to a pair of red high heels that grow into branches, leading to a woman’s blue face and pink flowered eyes, and on and on around the painting. You could look for hours and never get bored. In “Untitled (Blue),” a naked woman covered in blue paint stares at a snake rubbing against her bare arm. The woman is surrounded by a collection of children’s toys, shoes, scarves, and flowers, all shades of blue. It’s almost like the “I Spy” children’s book series where you search for items within the painting — the longer you look, the more you see. The works are sexually provocative and playful.
Upstairs, the World Trade Center, the Statue of Liberty, and the Hollywood sign are transformed in Bidwell’s photographs. Mt. Rushmore becomes haunting; the imposing heads are small, swallowed into the corner by an oppressive darkness. There is a sense of loss in these icons of Americana. Bidwell says he unknowingly took the photographs of the Santa Monica ferris wheel the day before it was destroyed.
In contrast to Magowan’s centerless paintings, the viewer’s eye is drawn to the edges of Bidwell’s photographs as a destination point. Lady Liberty disappears in a fog, and the World Trade Center stretches into the distance. Color is used sparingly, adding drama to everyday neon gas station and motel signs. The world of destruction and loss cools our temperature from the warm and buzzing world on the floor below.
Wanting to create an “anti-gallery opening,” the City Gallery put on a great show. Davis and co-curator Erin Glaze organized places to sit (handcrafted wooden benches built by local artist Michael James Moran), filled bowls with M&Ms, and served Pabst Blue Ribbon and fried chicken from Rita’s. Upstairs, Easy Rider played on a TV in the corner. “At gallery openings in L.A., people come in for 10 minutes and leave,” Davis said. “We want people to stay and have a good time.” A handful of kids (Bidwell’s nieces and nephews) ran around downstairs while guests mingled.
The differences between the artists’ work made the experience of walking between them even stronger. Moving from the red-hot, Eden-like jungle of Magowan’s work to the dark, simple images of Bidwell’s photographs engaged all of our senses.