On view Oct. 13, 2006-Jan. 14, 2007
The Gibbes Museum of Art
135 Meeting St.

Kathryn Refi is a 30-year-old painter who used a miniature video camera mounted on a baseball cap to secretly capture the subjects for her latest series of paintings. Her subjects, in this instance, are not people but colors — the millions of shades of color she encounters in the course of her day-to-day existence in Athens, Ga., where she works at an art gallery, walks her dog, and spends time in her studio. Refi wore the camera during every waking hour each day for a consecutive week. Afterward, a computer-savvy friend helped her sort every pixel of every frame of the resulting footage by color according to its RGB value. She then printed out swatches that matched the hundreds of colors represented in the footage, and mixed paint to match each one.

The result is a series of seven paintings, representing, with vertical colored stripes of paint, the relative dominance of each color in each day. Each painting is 100 inches wide, which means that one inch is equivalent to a total proportion of 10 percent of Refi’s day. The smallest stripe she was able to paint was an eighth of an inch, figuring out to .125 percent of her day. That meant she had about 800 colors to mix and work with.

Refi’s seven paintings, collectively entitled The Color Recordings, will be on view at the Gibbes Museum of Art beginning this weekend, when it opens the very contemporary exhibit Now!, curated by fresh new Executive Director Todd Smith — the first major exhibit he’s curated. Refi’s one of five young progressive artists in the show, all of them either living in or doing work about the South.

It’s a big step out for the Gibbes, which last year celebrated its 100th birthday and has become known more for its extensive collection of old, very traditional paintings than its place on the bleeding edge of modern art. But that’s an image that’s not altogether correct, according to Gibbes officials, and it’s one that Smith, a former curator and specialist in contemporary art, is determined to torpedo, starting with Now!

“I’m all for pushing programs that are about giving young artists museum exhibitions and showcasing emerging artists, because it’s important for museums to be about the art of today as much as art of the past,” says Smith, who was hired in the spring to replace former firecracker director Betsy Fleming after she accepted a position as president of Converse College. When he discovered, last May, that the Gibbes had an exhibition window open in the fall, he thought immediately of an exhibit that would help redefine the museum in the eyes not just of Charlestonians but people throughout the Southeastern art world.

“It’s a good opportunity, I think, for the Gibbes to take an important stand early in my time here about supporting contemporary art,” he says. “Because there’s a perception of the museum where we’re often thought of as being more traditional than contemporary. But we’ve always done that. We want this show to launch a very serious discussion about what the Gibbes Museum’s role is in regard to contemporary art not just here in Charleston but in the art world at large.”

From Oct. 13 until Jan. 14, Refi’s works will join those of four other young artists in the museum’s spacious main gallery. Twenty-six-year-old Sarah Bednarek’s politically charged mixed-media creations — life-sized macramé sculptures, some of which incorporate real hair — investigate her ambivalence towards leftist politics and the residual effect of the hippie culture on Generation X and Y, what Smith calls “the ghost of hippiedom.”

Video artist Christopher Miner creates intimate video work that explores his struggle to find meaning and purpose in his life when he revisits his grandmother’s Memphis home after her death.

“It’s his own story about what happened to him when he went back, what memories are there for him in the stuff his family took for granted for 40 years in that house, the many memories that are there for him,” Smith observes. “It’s almost a coming-of-age video. I was insistent that we have at least one video artist in the show. Christopher uses video to tell a story, and part of the tradition at the Gibbes has been about paintings that tell stories.”

A pair of photographers will juxtapose two very different directions in modern photography. Jeff Whetstone’s black-and-white photographs explore the relationship between man and nature, and often himself and nature, in the South. Demetrius Oliver, on the other hand, creates large-scale color photographs, through the exploitation of his own body, that explore issues related to his identity as an African-American man in the South today.

“Demetrius uses his body as a way of discussing themes and ideas he see in American literature,” Smith explains. “He reads a great deal, and he uses his body to translate what he reads into a visual image. He and Jeff represent, in a sense, the two camps within the photographic arts right now. Oliver is all about digital photography and Photoshop and manipulation of images. And Jeff’s all about traditional, 19th-century methods of photography, using film and developing in a darkroom, all that. Is one more real than the other? Together, they explore the question of representation.”

Some of the five artists, Smith says, were known to him prior to the exhibit. Others he discovered in the course of putting the show together. “I have a strong group of colleagues working around the South, and I just started talking to them, asking them who they knew of in this age range who was doing really interesting stuff.

“I also wanted to find a way to represent a broad array of media and interests that are about today’s work and other more traditional styles. This exhibit gets to the questions of art and subjects. I didn’t want everything to be brand new. I was looking for work I thought was strong enough to move the museum forward with what we’re doing here and also show the Charleston community what’s going on here and in the contemporary art community. That’s a lot to ask of one show.”

It’s not all that’s being asked of the show, though. Several other local arts organizations are taking advantage of the progressive exhibit to raise high the flag for contemporary art with peripheral programming. This fall, the North Charleston Cultural Arts Department and Redux Contemporary Art Center have taken ideas that were developed by members of a fledgling group, the Emerging Arts Leaders of Charleston, and created a schedule of programming surrounding the exhibition.

Redux director Seth Curcio sees Now! as a potential catalyst for wider appreciation of contemporary art in Charleston. A lecture series he’s developed in partnership with the Gibbes includes speakers Marion Mazzone, director Smith, and others. The lecture series concludes with a panel discussion at Redux that will encourage participation in the creative dialogue surrounding the exhibit. The North Charleston Cultural Arts Department, with Redux, is also one of several local institutions hosting several screenings of a PBS documentary television series, called Art:21, about contemporary art and artists.

“How is this museum positioned within the art world?” Smith asks. “One of the questions we’re coming to terms with is what’s our role not just in Charleston but in the bigger art world. We want to really figure out what our core strengths are — understanding that there are some things we’ll never be able to do, and that’s okay — and embrace those things we can do well.”