Feature Articles

June Issue 2002

Spoleto Festival USA 2002 Visual Arts - A Review
by Paul C. Figueroa

Upon discovering Charleston in 1919 Alfred Hutty - who became one of the leading artists of the Charleston Renaissance - wrote his wife "Come quickly, have found heaven." At the end of the century, the visual arts component of the Festival has sent out a similar message from its curators and general manager to contemporary artists who work in the medium of installation or site specific art. "Come quickly, have found the motherload of memory." Charleston, an icon for the culture of the South, is finding its history unwrapped, examined and reassembled by various international and national artists in the second year of "Evoking History" an ambitious three-year program. Mary Jane Jacob curates this investigation called The Memory of Water. It is the third exhibition organized by the Festival upon the premise that the city should be a wellspring for creating art. It follows the 1997 exhibition Human/Nature curated by John Beardsley and Jacob's initial success of Places with a Past (1991) an exhibition that not only rocked Charleston and its visitors but nearly sunk the goodship Spoleto. However the third time is not a charm.

On a hot humid May day the Festival opened the musty memories found in the dwellings and spaces of Charleston to a group of press writers. Listening to the curator one heard all the buzz words and phrases from competitive grant applications to foundations or persuasive arguments - unique partnerships, universality of place, diversity, and stakeholders - to mention but a few. One site, at 35 Calhoun, has been transformed into a meeting place for former residents of the Borough, the former African American neighborhood more commonly called Ansonborough. Visitors are welcome to listen to discussions and recollections. These will be documented in various media and will become part of the holdings at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, according to Curator Mary Jane Jacob. However, what this has to do with visual arts is a stretch. There are no memorabilia or photographs or any interpretations at this site, although it is a wonderful opportunity to trace the families and stories of this part of Charleston's past and place that too few of us heard. The top floor will be used as a base camp for the group of 14 high school students identified and trained as interpreters for the exhibition.

Next door, at 35 Calhoun, J. Morgan Puett has created a Cottage Industry. It requires a bit of investigation to discover the layers of this installation by this fashion designer and conceptual artist. Just like Charleston history, a Cottage Industry is richly layered with a store, workshop and design studio. At the front on the first floor are a cut room and a sewing room with workers busy producing the pieces that will be assembled into the finished garment. Before moving upstairs to the employee lounge or computer parlor for production patterns, you pass through the dyeing room. It is a fascinating glimpse into fashion, history and installation art.

Further down the street, towards Liberty Square, one encounters Fortress by Nari Ward at the corner of Calhoun and Washington Streets. Here the exchanging histories public program shares the research on the palmetto and South Carolina State flag with Wylma Wates. Although her talk revealed the meanings and histories of the flag, there was little if any direct response to the artist's fortress containing a palmetto tree of concrete and iron in various stages of its life cycle. When entering the fortress one encounters words and places related to the Borough such as DeeDex Snack Bar. There is a sense of collective memory from these white opaque words read inside a glass fortress. Although small in scale compared to old Citadel at Marion Square this structure evokes the memories of forts in Charleston and their important roles in our culture.

Next, one finds Carvella by Marc Latamie at Calhoun and Concord Streets. It's a small wooden structure recalling the artist's impressions of a neighborhood grocery in his birthplace of Martinique. Row upon row of products produce a memory of pop art. Are these Andy Warhol paintings come alive or Claes Oldenburg sculptures with hard outlines? The most effective message from this work is its juxtaposition to the port of Charleston; the cranes and countless containers stacked one upon another. If this piece is the past and its memory, it is overwhelmed by the present.

The highlight of this introduction to the exhibit was the evening cruise to Morris Island for the unveiling of A Lighthouse Woman by Kim Sooja. When it works, this is a marvelous combination of art and engineering. Lately the piece has received more publicity for its failures. Over six to seven days, at low tides, the equipment, generators, lights and stereo were assembled and installed at the lighthouse. Enough watts are produced and sequenced with a computer to quietly bathe the exterior in changing colors evoking the breaths of history whether personal or cultural. The various colors evoke hushed reactions and echo the Buddhist culture of the artist. It is well worth a boat ride if you can find someone or someway out there or head out to Folly Beach and catch the show from the shore.

The past site specific art exhibitions have produced a defacto public art for Charleston. For example, from 1991 the Charleston single house by David Hammonds remains on the eastside on America Street. Rice, Rattlesnakes and Rainwater by Martha Jackson-Jarvis in 1997 is at St. Luke's Reformed Episcopal Church on Nassau Street. Also from that year the Philip Simmons Garden by Pearl Fryar is at 91 Anson Street behind St. John's Reformed Church. Is there a pattern developing? From this year I guess that "Fortress" will remain behind for us to ponder until the City develops the Anson fields. Who knows, maybe the piece will be incorporated into the African American museum.

Paul C. Figueroa has been a museum professional for 26 years. He has been intimately involved with Spoleto Festival USA's visual arts program since 1977 through the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston. Figueroa has also served as past President of the South Carolina Federation of Museums and served on Charleston's Convention & Visitors Bureau Board of Governors.

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