Of the many heartening signs of Charleston's reopening, the flurry of local visual arts happenings may be the most inspirational sight for sore, screen-weary eyes.
In some ways, the timing is uncanny. A typical cultural year in Charleston often boasts new summer shows in local galleries and arts venues that are strategically timed to ride the arts-centric groundswell of Spoleto Festival USA and Piccolo Spoleto.
Like the festivals, the visual arts hubs are coming back, too — and in a significant creative splash set to shore spirits through a good chunk of a Charleston summer.
Informed and at times even enriched by their pandemic isolation, artists and arts practitioners are demonstrating that they are more than ready to reengage with the Charleston community.
At Redux Center for Contemporary Art this week, Executive Director Cara Leepson was in full pre-show mode, working with a team to line up dozens of divergent works along the wall of the center's main gallery space, getting back on track for "Creative Corridors," their annual exhibition that displays new pieces by Redux's studio artists.
"We plan the studio artist exhibition every year to be on view during Piccolo Spoleto to have that local element to it. I think it's a great time to have our resident artists showcased in the front gallery," she said, noting that the soft reopening last year in June also featured studio artists.
"It's sort of a full-circle moment for us, coming out of the pandemic really strong," she said.
For the studio artist show, the featured work relates to a specific prompt given to the artists by Leepson. This year, that prompt asked artists to consider the "why" behind their individual artistic practices, offering them an opportunity for reflection on a work's intention.
Artist Celeste Caldwell, for instance, created a series inspired by the desire to connect, with each piece depicting an everyday, intimate moment.
"I hope my artwork relates to the quirks of a viewer's exterior life and emotional environment," she said.
Connor Lock created a piece that is an extension of his "LOVE MORE" art series exploring and questioning what we want to love more of in this world.
"The found object that I painted upon is a steel music disc from an 1800s Polyphon music box. Drawing inspiration from how this disc plays music with a series of patterned tabs, I explored a lettering pattern with my brush to send a visual message to the viewer," he said, adding that the process places him into a deeply focused, reflective state.
The exhibition represents the creative output, "whys" and all, of Redux's approximately 40 current resident artists in works that are then curated as a group show in the art center's main exhibition space.
According to Leepson, the work out of the Redux studios has been flowing.
"We had a really tough year, like everyone last year," she said, explaining that in terms of Redux's three-fold mission of a gallery, education programming and resident artist program, the former two slowed intensely, but the resident artists who had access to the 38 on-site studios never swayed.
"They really kept the place alive," she said. "And you saw that energy of the artists here working as testament to that connection that people were having with art and the ability to survive as a living artist."
'Tiger Strikes Greenway'
A new public art project, "Tiger Strikes Greenway," was created in partnership with Piccolo Spoleto. An installation of three works by Southern artists are mounted in white wooden gallery boxes on the West Ashley Greenway between Coburg and Timmerman roads.
The inaugural trio of artists includes two locals, Camela Guevera and Jonathan Rypkema, as well as Atlanta-based artist Rebecca Rodriguez.
The project is part of TSAGVL, a regional arts collective with members in Charleston, Asheville and Greenville that is part of the national collective Tiger Strikes Asteroid.
It evolved from last summer's outdoor show Yardwork, which shared socially-distance works of art in yards concentrated in Charleston's North Central neighborhood. The boxes were inspired by similar structures in Greenville's Yardwork.
"What I love about these boxes is that they are beautiful creative spaces, but out in the open for anybody to stumble across," said Hirona Matsuda, an artist and member of the group who worked with artist Susan Klein on the project. "I also think it is a great way to engage kids in the arts. We purposely made them short enough that most of them can peek in easily."
"When the conversation started about doing another public outdoor art exhibition, we decided to ask the city if they would let us install on the Greenway," said Matsuda, then reasoned it would make sense to install them during the approaching Piccolo Spoleto festival.
"The support from the city was wonderful and the Avondale neighbors we've met were extremely supportive of more public art in their area," she said.
Two Halsey shows
The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art has regularly launched summer shows by kicking them off with the two festivals. On May 14, it opened two concurrent exhibitions.
"Both have radically altered their respective galleries, which is an exciting way for us to welcome and encourage visitors back to the Halsey Institute," said Katie Hirsch, director of the Halsey, who devised the plan with curator Bryan Granger, the Halsey's director of exhibitions and public programs.
"Dan Estabrook: Wunderkammer," which was originally intended to be exhibited in spring 2020, was delayed due to the pandemic, which the Halsey said enabled the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based artist to work through lingering questions and create a few new works that have been included in the exhibition.
Using antiquated forms of photography, such as salt prints and tintypes, Estabrook explores the objecthood of photography and its ability to represent the truth.
In "Jibade-Khalil Huffman: You Are Here," the artist uses the moving image to offer an immersive and multi-sensory experience for viewers.
"Huffman’s work has been on our radar for a couple years and we were thrilled that he accepted our invitation to create all new work for 'You Are Here,' " said Kirsch.
The two shows inform one another. "We felt that Huffman’s exploration of truth through video and new media was a fruitful contrast to Estabrook’s own subversion of the idea of truth in photography," said Hirsch.
Into the summer
When the festival staff strikes their sets, walls throughout Charleston will remain rich in new art.
Many exhibitions will remain up for weeks into the summer, offering locals and tourists an aesthetic pick-me-up — not to mention a temperature-controlled respite as the heat settles in.
The Redux "Creative Corridors" exhibition and both Halsey shows will be up through July 17.
Tiger Strikes Greenway will also go the distance, and it may even be the beginning of a more expansive effort moving forward.
"If this is well-received, we are hoping it is something we can carry on doing with different artists and guest curators down the road," said Matsuda. "We would love the opportunity to create more boxes on other stretches of the Greenway or maybe the Lowline."
At the Halsey, the team is eager to once again to be included in the daily lives of those here in Charleston.
"I would love for a visit to the Halsey Institute to be added in as a regular 'habit' for Charlestonians," Hirsch said. "We look forward to the day when we can all gather again in person to celebrate the work of the artists featured in our space."
Of course, no one is more energized by the public shows than the artists themselves.
"While thoughtful alone time is important to the creative process, community engagement is paramount," Caldwell said, noting that Redux provides a platform for artists to interact with each other and the greater Charleston area, which in turn allows their artwork to be much more meaningful, diverse and well-informed.
"I see the opening of 'Creative Corridors' as an opportunity to transition back towards this state of community, as we begin to feel more comfortable spending dedicated time with each other," she said.
Lock said that for him, community is key.
"There has been a dump truck full of different emotions swirling in and around the hearts and minds of people since COVID-19 ran us over in 2020."
One positive was the time he had to slow down and recalculate, resulting in the new work at Redux focusing on the "LOVE MORE" concept.
"Going into this new year, ask yourself, 'What will you love more?' ” he said.
For his part, the artist hopes that we all get to love more art exhibitions heading out of the pandemic.