Charleston is Emerging as an Epicenter for Serious Artistic Endeavor: A look at City Gallery at Waterfront Park in downtown Charleston

John Stoehr

CHARLESTON - It's a sign of how art pervades this city every spring when you bump into something by accident and find yourself entranced by what you find. That's how I felt when I came across the new City Gallery at Waterfront Park in the French Quarter.

It's right behind the condominium where I'm staying, with a view of the river. The building was completed last year, as part of several developments (condos, hotels and inns) going up along the old harbor on the east end of the peninsula. Organizers arranged for "Contemporary Charleston 2004," an annual exhibit that this year showcases 29 local artists, to be the centerpiece for the Gallery's first anniversary. The Gallery took me by surprise as I walked back to the condo one I'd been to the French Quarter before, but it was a long time ago. Things change quickly around here. I was delighted to happen on it, but when I learned the show was for local artists, I had misgivings.

That's because I approach "local art" with some skepticism.

Local art exhibits often serve a social function more than an artistic one. As often as not, they are exhibitions of community spirit in which docents are cheerleaders and local critics are leaders of the booster club. They can be occasions for self-celebration, for patting each other on the back, for glorying in our own regional uniqueness.

While I see no problem with art used for this purpose, it shouldn't be confused with an exhibition of art; that is, an opportunity to express admiration and show appreciation for an artist's individual skill or vision.

But at the Gallery, all doubt dissolved. It was the most pleasant reversal of expectation. There were pieces fine and abundant enough to give credence to claims that Charleston is emerging as an epicenter for serious artistic endeavor.

And it's part of Piccolo Spoleto, called the main festival's sister organization by some and the populist red-headed step-child by others. This showing of dynamic, imaginative and affecting art suggests a greater depth than many give Piccolo credit for.

The first piece to catch my attention was by Kim Alsbrook. It was a clutch of soda cups, beer cans and pop bottles crushed flat. On the surface of each was painted a bust dressed in 18th-century collars and frocks, and posed as if standing for Gainsborough himself. The aristocratic air of the subject clashes with the disposability of the medium to create an exquisite tension suggesting volumes about the nature of family portraits and the value of art itself.

Jill Hooper's nude figures were striking and evocative. "Arrival," a portrait of a nude woman sitting on an oriental rug, her arms folded lazily on her thigh, as if waiting for a boring moment to pass more quickly than it does. It's a work of classical beauty, evoking the Dutch masters - vivid flesh tones set against a dark brown backdrop, the C-shape of her spine and thigh leaps out at the viewer.

Beyond technique is Hooper's keen eye for the small and the mundane, creating immense intimacy.

Colin Quashie was hard to miss. His series smashes cultural stereotypes by putting them in ridiculous contexts. In one, two girls, apparently black, though we can't tell, named Cialis and Levitra, celebrate their casting in a hip-hop video as the "Dumb Bitch" and "Stupid Ho." The joke multi-fold - their names, the girls as figure drawings, like the kind you'd fine in a child's coloring book, with streaky lines in green and red, as if by a kid having trouble staying in the lines. It's whimsical and wonderfully absurd, expressing an irony one would expect from an artist who moonlights as an Emmy-winning writer.

I've known about Nancy Santos for some time, as a photographer for Charleston City Paper, the city's free weekly. But I had no idea she was so artistic. Her showing focused on portraiture, on the subject, in crisp black and white, and it demonstrated her strength as a documentarian.

Her photo's subjects, most of whom are from the Charleston area, were simply framed and allowed to be themselves, because as themselves they are compelling - one picture is of a pair of Ku Klux Klansmen standing before a cross, one of whom is clutching a gas can; another is a old-time Baptist preacher dressed to the nines in matching seersucker hat and jacket. A favorite of mine is of a woman with flowing hair and white shirt set against a blue sky punctuated by brilliant white clouds. The effect is angelic and profound, but also rings with suggestive irony when you read that the woman is an atheist. Like the other 28 artists, Santos reflects something good happening in Charleston, a creativity that remains even after Spoleto ends.