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A year-end review of the visual arts in Columbia

Jackson Pollock’s Mural

Jackson Pollock’s Mural, when it was on view at the Columbia Museum of Art.

Step aside, Charleston. Move over, Greenville. The year 2019 further solidified Columbia’s place as the epicenter of the visual arts in our state. It can now be argued that the city is not only South Carolina’s capital, but also its principal seat of creativity. Let’s take the pulse of Columbia’s vibrant art venues during the past year.

The South Carolina State Museum, a major repository of artifacts related to our state’s cultural history, continues to build a very fine collection of art produced by South Carolina residents or inspired by life in our state. Twice this past year, significant parts of that collection were shared with the public. Last spring, the museum opened Reflections on the River, which is still on view, showcasing art objects reflective of how the state’s bountiful water resources have fed the imagination of its inhabitants from prehistory to the present day. Also on view is Grand Designs, a major exhibition of prime furniture pieces exemplifying major 19th century design movements.

Relatively new to the Columbia scene — it opened its doors in 2008 — the 701 Center for Contemporary Art is now the state’s largest nonprofit art center focused exclusively on the work of the present. In the spring, the CCA had the distinction of serving as the lone host institution for the annual exhibition of the South Arts Southern Prize. This year’s show highlighted the work of nine State Fellows representing the “highest quality of art being created in the American South.” This same high standard the CCA applies every two years to the South Carolina-based work gathered for its highly anticipated biennials. From September to November, 24 artists shared the spotlight in the 2019 701 CCA Biennial.

In addition to these very important group shows, the 701 CCA devoted time and space to the creativity of individual artists, mounting, of particular note, successful exhibitions of Janet Orselli’s playful 3-D works that conjure the wonders of childhood, and Mana Hewitt’s oversized commemorative medals, veritable badges of honor, fashioned to celebrate the diverse achievements of some of history’s most impressive women.

No lookback on 2019 would be complete without including the Columbia Museum of Art. After its move to Main Street more than 20 years ago, the CMA assumed a preeminent place in our state and region by mounting shows of national — and sometimes international — significance. One can point to the museum’s temporary display last spring of Jackson Pollock’s Mural, a modern masterpiece of abstract expressionism, and the current one-of-a-kind exhibition of works by Vincent Van Gogh’s gifted precursors and contemporaries. Both are examples of shows that offer visitors rare glimpses into the evolution in subject matter, compositional design and technical skill of two pivotal artists in the history of art.

One of my favorite shows at the CMA this past year — and one popular with young and old — was the two-person exhibition by Jimmy Kuehnle and Mimi Kato. Kuehnle’s large-scale inflatable works provided museum visitors with an immersive exploration of shape, color and light, while Kato’s montage landscapes offered everyone a chance to reexamine a young woman’s place in the world, both natural and human-made. 

The Columbia arts scene was also enriched by a growing number of smaller venues. Housing workspace for 10 artists and showcasing their work in periodic shows since 2018, Stormwater Studios provided this summer an opportunity to see stellar pieces that some of those artists had contributed to the annual Artfields festival in Lake City, sparing local patrons the drive into the country by providing a forum for area artists who made the cut in the largest art competition in the Southeast. 

Wim Roef’s if ART Gallery, a commercial enterprise that continues to represent some of the most heralded artists in our state and beyond, provided a heartfelt sendoff to clay master Peter Lenzo by showcasing his magnificent sculptures based on traditional Southern face jugs on the eve of his departure for Chicago.

Grounded by its well-supplied art store, City Art’s impressive first-floor gallery space continued to serve as a backdrop for a number of successful shows. My favorite featured Claire Farrell’s mixed-media monotypes inspired by the letters of the alphabet. 

Finally, Tapps Art Center prepared to close the doors of its Main Street facility — ahead of its relocation (and transformation) in Five Points — with a show of “magical beasts” by sculptor Andy White, who specializes in giving new life to scrap metal and found objects. The center’s temporary move to Saluda Avenue signals that its mission to offer studio, exhibition and performance space for emerging artists in Columbia is still very much alive and well.

Here’s to a great year for the visual arts in our fair city and (hopefully) an even more spectacular 2020.


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