Christian Thee is a showman. His elaborately designed visual art contains elements so precisely placed that their composition lacks any spontaneity. Art is the result, at least partly, of a subconscious distillation of influences that contributes to moments of inspiration. Without that spontaneity, the object is a schematic.
Thee, a Columbia native who designed the inaugural Spoleto Festival USA poster in 1977, has a professional background in magic and set design. Those skills may account for his impressive technical abilities, but they also impede his art's potential to be more than a passing visual spectacle.
“Artwork by Christian Thee,” which runs at the Charleston Library Society through June 8 as part of Piccolo Spoleto, exhibits highlights from Thee's oeuvre. His varied portfolio includes prints, painted screens and pieces resembling modern hieroglyphic tablets laced with holographic Mylar, inspired by the mid-20th century European Arte Informale movement.
A handful of painted accordion-shaped screens dominate the modestly sized exhibit in the corner of the Library Society's main floor. “Monkeys in Bamboo” depicts the primates, shrouded in multi-tonal green leaves, through a windowless bamboo frame. The monkeys' facial expressions evoke a sense of wanting, leaving only the anticipation of their silent screams.
Thee's control of color and dimension recalls the Italian artist Jacopo de' Barbari's 16th-century “A Sparrowhawk.” De' Barbari's bird alludes to the artist's experimentation with trompe l'oeil painting, a style intended to confuse or trick the observer, and one befitting Thee's background as a magician. Yet the sparrowhawk's ambiguous glance evokes a sense of doubt absent from “Monkeys in Bamboo,” despite the creatures' anthropomorphic expressions.
The universe of Thee's art, much like a magician's “reveal,” is too controlled to permit the vulnerability that permeates “A Sparrowhawk.” His animals have a discrete range of emotion, whereas de' Barbari encourages a curiosity limited only by the observer's imagination.
“Still Life With Visitor #2,” a print of four pears grouped as a pyramid to suggest sexual intercourse, is replete with a gradational red background that only reinforces the insinuation of penetration. A fly perched upon a lemon resting against the pyramid serves as the cultural signifier of evil, ensuring that the composition connotes the compromise of purity.
Perhaps this is why Thee's monkeys are silent — nothing can be voiced apart from what is already seen.
The only exception to this aura in the exhibit is a series of three abstract paintings titled “Bright Eyes.” The fragmented swaths and lines of varying colors resemble a richly decorated desert floor encompassed of fractured bedrock. Movement exists in the bordering between bright and muted shadings.
The “Bright Eyes” series contains a much-needed sense of vastness. Tellingly, the three paintings are positioned on the corners of the exhibit space and more easily overlooked than the other works.
The chance to imagine is a side thought in “Artwork by Christian Thee.” The predetermined path is the main attraction.
Zach Marschall is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.