Carolina Umbra
On view through Sat. Jan. 21
Guided tour lead by the artist on Sat. Jan. 13 at 3 p.m.
City Gallery at Waterfront Park
34 Prioleau St., 958-6484

The best kind of retrospective art shows aren’t perfect at all. They’re fascinating because of their flaws, not despite them. They indicate periods in an artist’s life where new styles are tried, challenges are met and overcome, progress is made, in a carefully curated reflection of our own lives.

Recently, the City Gallery at Waterfront Park’s been hot on looking back. During Piccolo Spoleto 2006, William McCullough’s show (curated by his daughter, Currie) included early work — even a couple of childhood attempts — in his successful Southern Painter exhibition. The layout had a geographical element, showing how McCullough’s life in urban, rural, or mountainous regions affected his work. A few months later, artist Yaw Owusu Shangofemi’s blacksmithed sculptures dotted the gallery in Forging Spirits. The selection focused on the range of his work rather than a clear-cut chronology.

At present the gallery’s given over its entire space to the art of Mary Walker, who’s used literature to inspire some of her most accomplished work. Core inspiration for this show comes from S.C. Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth’s new poem “Carolina Umbra.” Its simply structured, roiling lines capture the destructive power of Hugo, which leaves the poet marveling at its aftermath. In her poem, the hurricane leaves a hellish landscape of fire, smoke, sundered steel, and shattered windows left agape like a crowd of hungry mouths. It’s not a pretty image.

Walker manages to find the beauty within the chaos in her identically titled drawing and collage series. Behind stark shapes of black-crusted blood red, a hopeful glimmer of clear white can be seen. There will be calm after the storm.

Walker manages to pack these collages with a great sense of scale without losing a personal perspective. Her sense of place is carefully balanced with emotional expression. In contrast, the simpler drawing, print, and collage pieces in the show look like much earlier experiments, with rough-edged, clumsier shapes that suggest a folk art sensibility. But no, her “Sugarlift Birds” and “The Marjorys” series were created in 2006, just like “Carolina Umbra.” The latter series is strong enough to make an impression in its own right without its smaller, less accomplished companions.

While the sense of linear progression isn’t always obvious, Walker isn’t afraid to display her imperfections. She tries different media, develops series over months or years, fueled all the while by her love of literature. She directly refers to Wentworth, as well as more esteemed sources: the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare; there’s a paperback copy of Dante’s Inferno right next to her ink and woodcut interpretations of the cantica. It’s easy to imagine her getting excited about the text and rushing over to transfer her passion onto canvas.

Although Walker doesn’t see her show as a retrospective — she describes it merely as “work I haven’t shown before” — there are examples of art from earlier decades: naïve oils from the ’80s, chunky linocuts from the ’90s, plus three decades-spanning “Carolina Gold” pieces, pencil-and-watercolor works in progress that suggest a community built on the blood and bones of less fortunate predecessors. In “Carolina Gold Blue,” for example, scenes of rural life mingle with large pencil corpses.

Walker’s dark visions explain why she was drawn to Wentworth’s poem, and her choice of subject helped make her a likely candidate for last year’s $5,000 Donna and Mike Griffith Lowcountry Artist’s Fund Award, administered by the Coastal Community Foundation of South Carolina. The Griffiths annually sponsor a local artist to create new work that reflects life in the Lowcountry. Last winter, Walker submitted a written proposal and six slides of her art, but wasn’t sure whether she’d follow through on the project. “I’m not a landscaper,” she says. “I almost didn’t do it.” Before she even knew if she’d won the award, she started on her project to prove to herself that she was really committed to seeing it through.

The completed show, curated by past gallery coordinator Catherine Heitz New, is intermittently dark, optimistic, intriguing, and a little rough around the edges — much like the Lowcountry it does its best to evoke.