Charleston’s contemporary artists have one major gripe — okay, they have hundreds, but one gets more air time than all the others: There aren’t enough commercial spaces in town where they can show their work.
Understandably, most downtown galleries target tourists who prefer a pretty painting of a Lowcountry scene to take home as a souvenir of their visit. Despite a scattering of shows featuring nationally known artists in galleries like Ella Walton Richardson Fine Art and the Eva Carter Gallery, the bottom line keeps local artists far from the high-rent window space on the peninsula.
Maybe that’s why more restaurants and other alternative spaces are becoming increasingly important for the artists and their appreciators. Vickery’s on Beaufain will be running monthly group shows this year; February’s exhibition has a Valentine’s theme. 52.5 Records is planning a group show next week as part of its 10th anniversary celebrations.
In West Ashley’s Avondale district, New Orleans-themed restaurant Marie Laveau’s has built up its own collection with pieces hung on its mustard yellow painted walls that show a diversity of styles and media. There’s “Marie’s Fortune,” a mural on one window by Mandi Thompson; graffiti sprayed onto a wall by Douglas Panzone; and mixed media work in Shannon L. Hopkins’ “Spring St. Cocktail,” which even manages to incorporate some chicken wire. Oil painter Nathan Durfee has provided the humorous “Rooster is introduced to the King.” Kevin Taylor’s contribution depicts a cat riding a giant chicken.
Thankfully, there are no turkeys in this henhouse. The colors are bold and the variations on the farmbird motif are imaginative. “It’s all roosters,” says co-owner Mike Kulick, who enjoyed the success of Build, a recent photography show and fundraising shindig at Laveau’s benefiting a New Orleans parish, which featured the work of Elise Poche. The photographs still hang there, hiding some of the paintings. According to Kulick, most of the party’s attendees were local artists. “Thanks to them, we’re going to be able to send about $4,500 to the St. Bernard Parish project,” he says of the initiative to help hurricane-hit families in Chalmette, La. “There’s a distinct possibility we’ll do something similar in the future.”
A few doors down from the restaurant, there’s still more proof of a strong, supportive local community of progressive artists. Modernisme was set up five months ago by Kristy Cifuentes as a gallery where she could show modestly priced contemporary art that appealed to her and would sell to young, new collectors. She says that her clients are “anything from young artists to art management students to prestigious art collectors from around Charleston” — not so much from out of town.
She chalks up the success of her business to her past experience as a director at the Mary Martin Gallery, the increasingly popular Avondale location (“I don’t have to jack up prices to cover the rent”), and supply-and-demand economics. “There are a ton of fantastic galleries downtown,” she says, “but Charleston’s starving for contemporary art.” Her Chicago and New York-style contemporary shows are also aimed at newcomers who’ve moved from larger cities and have a wide range of tastes in art.
Rather than playing it safe and sticking to sure-sell artists or pushing her own rich and appealing work, Cifuentes has gone with her gut and promoted the regional art that she believes in. She’s shown work by photographer Katie Leonard, sculptor Don Johnson, woodworker Chad Ekre, and Nathan Durfee, whose rooster-and-record-player piece brightens up the back of Laveau’s.
Cifuentes’ mission (apart from continuing to break even) is to help local artists like Durfee reach a national level. But if the artists do want to gain that kind of recognition, they’ll probably have to pack their bags. Modernisme is currently featuring Toby Penney, who returned to her native Chattanooga to hone her abstract work. And New York is always going to be the place to go for a young artist to make it big.
It worked for Jasper Johns, who left his home town of Allendale, S.C. for the Big Apple in 1953. The proto-pop artist who mixed abstract, expressionist, and representational elements in his “Target” and “Flag” work, currently has some of his sharpest, early art on show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He made headlines late last year when one of his pieces was sold, alongside a painting by Willem de Kooning, by David Geffen for $143.5 million.
That makes Modernisme’s affordable prices seem like a snip. Durfee’s imaginative figures and Toby Penney’s current exhibition also help to make the gallery worth a quick detour west of the Ashley.