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April Issue 2005

Charleston Art Gallery and Portrait Studio in Charleston, SC, Features Works by Rob McDonald

Virginia photographer Rob McDonald will show the first full exhibit of his current series, Southern Places, at Charleston Art Gallery and Portrait Studio, in Charleston, SC. The show opens on Apr. 15 and continues through May 15, 2005.

McDonald began Southern Places as a creative extension of his lifelong interest in Southern literature. The photographs suggest the same interest in meditating on the fabric of life in the South that is seen in writers as diverse as Eudora Welty, Allen Tate, Flannery O'Connor, and Tennessee Williams. A native of Marion, SC, McDonald first studied these writers as an undergraduate at Winthrop University and was so captivated that he went on to earn a doctorate in American literature with a focus on the Southern Renaissance.

"This is a show about the South, a region that fascinates and perplexes most of us who were born here and a great many who weren't," McDonald said. "Given Southerners' obsession with place, it won't surprise anyone that most of the photographs are landscapes, though not in a conventional sense. They depict scenes and sights you may have seen before, but not seen quite this way. Many of them depend on metaphor for their meaning. A fellow artist once described them as psychological landscapes, and I think he's probably right. I will show you cotton and train tracks, and I will show you ruins. But I am not interested in clinical representation - I want viewers to approach the photographs because of their subjects' familiarity but find that they see and even feel more than they expected."

"At all cost," he stated, "I have tried to avoid reproducing the clichéd, sentimental, melodramatic images that most people think of as 'Southern.' Instead, I have tried to render certain features of this part of the world as deeply mysterious and complex."

The exhibit includes several intriguing groupings of images. In one, impressionistic images of Hilton Head, SC's Stoney-Baynard tabby ruins are presented alongside photographs made from inside the shell of the once-grand mansion Atalaya, near Georgetown, SC, and others from the architecturally significant but recently razed Letcher House in Lexington, VA. Viewing these images together leads the mind to contemplate the line between the primal and the civilized, inviting questions about the paradox that time refines what it erodes.

Other photographs depict extraordinary landscapes, with a particular focus on the region's flora and fauna. Among the most striking of these is High Cotton, a moody portrait of the plant that so dominated the region's history, and with difficult consequences. That picture's mood is more pronounced when it is viewed beside Forsythia, which depicts a beautiful specimen of this famously profuse and forgiving plant prospering outside the window of a modest house in Georgia. Another striking set of images depict interestingly situated birdhouses, including one, titled, Options - for William Christenberry, created as a tribute to the friend and mentor who influenced McDonald's approach to the art of photography.

The photographs demonstrate McDonald's primary interest in textures and the themes or narratives that might emerge from the interplay between subject and light. While images are limited to an edition of 25, each print is actually a unique interpretation of the negative because it is printed and toned by hand. The size of the photographs in this show is also worth noting. Most are just 7" x 7", diminutive in comparison with the huge images that dominate the photography scene today. Just as he has declined to "go digital," preferring the integrity of the hand-made print, McDonald has resisted suggestions that he print larger. The smaller size is part of the artistic experience he wants to encourage. "I want people to engage the photographs," McDonald said. "Maybe that sounds trite - but I mean really to look at them, to take full measure of them and all they may suggest. You lose some of that possibility when the image is half the size of a wall in your house. You're just overwhelmed."

McDonald's photographs, including many images in this show, have been shown widely, including major exhibitions at the Art Museum of Western Virginia, the Edward Hopper House Art Center, and the Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art's 2003 show, A Sense of Place: Continuity and Change in the New South. Among private collectors of his work are artists Cy Twombly and William Christenberry and arts patron Jean Brown. Last summer, McDonald won the blue ribbon in the Bath County [Virginia] Annual Open for his work Ballroom Chairs.

A portfolio of images from Southern Places will appear in summer 2005 in CrossRoads: A Southern Culture Annual, published by the Center for Appalachian Studies and Mercer University Press. Currently a professor of English and Fine Arts and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the Virginia Military Institute, McDonald is the author of several academic books and numerous essays on Southern literature and culture, including a recent essay on photographer Jack Spencer in the Southern Quarterly.

For further information check our SC Commercial Gallery listings, call the gallery at 843/724-3424 or at (www.charlestonartgallery.com).

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