Art exhibitions always are organized according to a theme. They feature the works of a particular artist, or they explore a historical episode or period, or they showcase a certain artistic movement.
Some are meant to explain a particular technique; others are designed to describe the influence of a painter by shedding light on the “school” that developed around him or the legacy that turns up in subsequent works.
What the Gibbes Museum has done, therefore, is unusual. Odd, really. Perhaps a little risky, if considered from a critical point of view, but also quite marvelous — because, for once, an art exhibition is about something other than the art itself.
It’s about us.
The People’s Choice show is curated by the community and runs through Sept. 15. It’s a selection of favorite works from the Gibbes’ permanent collection.
The idea was simple. The Gibbes is a repository of Lowcountry culture, a reflection of the people who have lived here since Colonial days. It is meant to provide living artists with a place to practice and study and residents with a place to contemplate who they are, where they live and what it all means.
A few years ago, the Gibbes announced it would renovate its building in order to reclaim its original mission as an educational institution. The first floor would become working studios and the second and third floors would offer expanded gallery space.
That renovation is set to begin early next year, according to museum director Angela Mack. The staff wanted to reinforce the link between the institution and the community early by inviting the public to make the big decisions for the last exhibition before the building closes.
As you might imagine, People’s Choice is an eclectic sampling that includes mostly oil paintings but a number of other works from sculpture to pastel on paper, video art and assemblage — 40 objects in all selected from 140 initially offered to the public for consideration.
The earliest piece dates from 1708. It’s a portrait of Marie Du Bose, pastel on paper, by Henrietta De Beaulieu Dering Johnston.
Johnston is considered the first professional female artist in America. The income she generated from her work helped support her second husband, the Rev. Gideon Johnston, rector of St. Philip’s Church. For some years, church politics prevented him from getting paid.
“Were it not for the assistance my wife gives me by drawing pictures, ... I shou’d not have been able to live,” he wrote.
The newest piece in the exhibit is a mixed-media work on paper made in 2010 by Stacy Lynn Waddell. It’s called “Manifest,” and it’s made with 60 individual sheets of paper. It explores “the intersection between real and imagined realities of American history and culture,” according to a description provided by the Gibbes.
“ ‘Manifest’ references the cargo carried by a vessel” — both physical objects and passengers’ ideas and cultural heritage. Each paper pane is branded. “The singed faces, objects and letters that emerge through this process are an investigation of the inner conflict experienced in negotiating African-American cultural history and heritage with personal identity.”
Not all the artwork is that conceptual.
Consider Alice Ravenel Huger Smith’s “King of the Summer” from 1854, a gorgeous watercolor of a white egret atop lily pads, clearly influenced by Japanese prints.
Or “Steel Man,” a mesmerizing, expressive India ink wash portrait by Larry Francis Lebby made in 1992.
Or Robert Henri’s “The Green Fan” from 1912, painted in a 19th-century Spanish style and featuring the girl of Toledo, which has become an icon of the Gibbes.
Sara Arnold, curator of collections, spearheaded the People’s Choice experiment. She had nothing to do with the selections, but she did assume responsibility for arranging the art on the walls.
“People tended to pick big works,” she said.
This was a little surprising because size wasn’t immediately evident when looking at images on the special website the Gibbes developed for the project, Arnold said.
Arnold kept the arrangements relatively loose, mixing large and small pieces and works from different periods.
“You start to see things,” she said, referring not to the hallucinatory effect some of the pictures exert on the eyes (consider “Landscape and Variable: Hide and Seek/Hunt and Hoard” by William Dunlap or “Wildlife” by Joseph Raffael), but the patterns that emerge when considering the entire exhibit.
Many pieces selected by the public were works that are regularly displayed at the museum anyway. This was reassuring, Mack said. It seemed to indicate that museum staff already was capable of making good decisions. Not more than 15 works were dragged out of long-term storage for the show.
“It’s as if people pick what they know,” Mack said.
Of course, the museum exercised a degree of authority and influence through the way the artwork was arranged in the gallery and through the labels that describe each work. It’s all meant to be part of a symbiotic bond between the guardians of Charleston’s treasure and those who claim that treasure for their own.
“We want to build connections, a sense of community,” Arnold said. “We are showing the community what it has.”
Online at www.gibbespeopleschoice.org, you can view all the works in the show, learn about the artists who made them and leave a comment. The Gibbes Museum is collecting feedback, some of which is displayed on the walls of the gallery.
But the best way to look at art is to stand facing it. Meander through the exhibit, consider the heritage it represents, go see what you’ve got.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.