Charleston’s City Gallery opened “Visual Vigil” by artist Susan Perkins last March, an exhibit that aimed to “represent the lives lost and communities affected by mass violence from 1903 through present day.” The show, scheduled to run through May 3, 2020, had been open for less than a week when the COVID-19 pandemic forced City Gallery to shut its doors at 34 Prioleau St. Like everyone else during those early days of the shutdown, the staff was unsure how long the closures would last, and so “Visual Vigil” sat untouched in City Gallery’s two-tiered space, suspended in time and devoid of visitors (save the curious passers-by peeking through the windows after a stroll past the pineapple fountain).
During the pandemic, our outsides became our insides in more ways than one: True safety was found in our private spaces, yet the only reprieve from the deadening isolation was the world beyond the walls of our homes and apartments, those newly quiet city streets where distance became a civic duty and testing the limits of proximity a matter of mental survival. The way we approached our art suffered a similar inversion; no matter the medium, art was only viewed through a sort of looking glass–– be that a computer screen, an iPhone or the glass doors of a dormant museum.
If there is an organizing principle behind this year’s Piccolo Spoleto Juried Art Exhibition at City Gallery, it would seem to be to dismantle that looking glass, to break it into mere slivers of itself and toss those shards into the harbor that sits just beyond the gallery’s doors. The 80 pieces scattered throughout the space have been selected and curated by Dontré Major, in an effort to “challenge your thought, force you to look deeper than the surface and feel things that are bigger than ourselves.” Simply existing in the space together already grants the work a certain sense of novelty –– City Gallery normally runs six exhibits throughout the year. When the exhibit closed Sunday, it wrapped only the third show in the space in 16 months.
Beyond that, Major’s selections manage to challenge perception not only with the diversity of mediums on display –– acrylics, textiles, canvas, glass, linen, even cement –– but in the individual artists’ subject and commentary (or lack thereof) on our current moment. While curating, Major asked himself, “Do I keep a little bit of the Charleston aesthetic, or do I leave it behind and show something completely different?”
It’s a balancing act that the exhibit performs nimbly, sometimes on a piece-by-piece basis. One of the largest works in the space is, “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” by Louanne LaRoche, which, with its blues, greens, and warm browns, holds court over the gallery’s lofted second level. It evokes its Otis Redding namesake both in narrative –– the painting depicts three men seated with their backs to us, staring out over the late-evening water –– and in its calm, casual execution. The yellowed, hazy sunset meets the sea at a gentle green line; the water and sky don’t so much outline the men as surround them with a melodic hue. The painting seems plucked directly from the before-times: Its characters are as worried about a pandemic as Seurat’s islanders were about World War I. (Most pieces are available for purchase throughout the show: “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” the most expensive piece for sale, is listed at $8,600).
By contrast, JD Clark’s, “Phantom of the Bat Caves,” tackles current history head-on. The massive oil on canvas depicts Chinese Prime Minister Xi Jinping in two separate panels. The first shows Xi wearing a N-95 mask, his eyes looking directly at the viewer, with a stark, black and white sunrise flanking his right shoulder, a Chinese flag looming to his left; in the second panel, Xi appears maskless, two vampire teeth poking out from the corners of his mouth, his skin a sickly greenish-white. Here bats fly around his head, and the NBA and Disney logos surround him like a corporate coat of arms. Underneath are Mad magazine-esque sketches: a man with duct tape across his mouth, or so-called “CCPS PPE;” a baseball-capped figure on a computer, “China’s Best Zoom” printed atop, with the O’s fashioned as prying, surveillance eyes; and, in South Park-style satire, “Patient Zero” is depicted as a sharp-toothed man holding a bat by its feet, mouth agape and ready to feed.
The most evocative pieces, however, seem to capture both past and present at once, with subtle nuance. Annie Rhodes Lee’s “History is Now and Us” -– awarded best sculpture by Major –– is a vertical reinvention of Mount Rushmore; instead of dead presidents, Rhodes Lee carves ordinary portraits, a cross-section of American faces that defy the very white and very male original. It’s a dizzying piece that requires the viewer to circle around and constantly reevaluate perspective and scale. Shelby Corso’s “Life Between” similarly distorts and changes the more it is viewed. What begins as a simple study of deep blue and blood red swirls eventually reveals a floating skull high above the midpoint. It’s not entirely threatening: The skull’s eye sockets are lopsided, pulling away from the center, and display a sad helplessness, perhaps mourning the teeth that seem to fade into hazy, inky purple down the canvas. Below that, a bubble of defiant translucence floats, like a good witch who has come to wake the viewer from some dream. And James Johnson’s sculpture “Deject,” which was awarded best in show, manages to, with its bronze figure (nude, back curled, head slumped, legs splayed out in defeat), evoke the cumulative feeling of passing through tragedy.
“Visual Vigil” is planned to reopen at City Gallery, a full year (and then some) since its premature closure in 2020. The exhibit will be presented as close to the original version as possible –– on the Friday afternoon I visited, a gallery employee sat at the reception desk, pouring over archive video from “Visual Vigil” and sketching a curatorial map. He was excited, he said, to return to that exhibit, and the important conversations it will hopefully spark; he shared with me a graph that will accompany the exhibit, a bar chart that seemed to show as many mass shootings in the United States in 2014 as there were in the entire previous century. Looking around at the work from the Piccolo Juried Art Exhibition as I left the gallery, I had the feeling of morbid nostalgia: for the unrelenting, maddening, human weariness that was put into sharp relief because of the pandemic, yes, but also for all the traumas that had existed before, and will certainly persist after. It’s comforting to know, then, that art is also a constant.
Matt Nerber is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications program at Syracuse University.