What's a gallery to do at the end of the summer, at a time when fine art fans aren't necessarily pouring tons of money into their collections? As with all commercial transactions, sex sells, so it's not a complete shock that the Corrigan Gallery is presenting an "X" Rated? show this week.
To give gallery owner Lese Corrigan her due, she's doing it for fun as well as profit. If the timing isn't right for a sell-out show, she reasons, she might as well cultivate an "art experience" and get people talking about the difference between the tasteful and the outright offensive.
For five days only, Corrigan will display risqué work in her back room, concealed with a curtain. Drinks with a "sexy presentation" will be served, and visitors will be carded at the front door.
The show was initiated when artist Duke Hagerty did a small painting that was too graphic to display on regular business days. "So many families come in," says Corrigan. "I don't want to censor art, but I don't want to offend anyone either."
Question is, what's going to offend people these days? One person's nude is another's no-no. "A minimalist line drawing might be too much for one person but not the next," Corrigan agrees. "It's a matter of interpretation."
Rude art rarely rears its head in Charleston, a city that markets itself as a respectable place, favoring gentility over genitalia. When fine art photographers like Olli Wendelin and Brianna Stello display nudes, the figures are tastefully presented — dark-lit, half-glimpsed, or shown with their backs to the camera. Performance art for the opening reception of the Halsey's Mend: Love, Life, and Loss show was deemed naked enough to carry an R-rating, but the piece had more to do with a bared soul than bare buttocks.
For years, the biggest local proponent of nude shows had been E.C. Bell. The Erotic Art Invitational was an annual hit at his Belle Muse and EC Bell Fine Art Galleries until he moved to Mexico in 2007. Although Bell delights in showing all aspects of the female form, the exhibitions included abstract shapes and coy portraits as well as more traditional figurative work. Bell was outspoken about the narrow-minded reception that his work sometimes received; although the nude had been around since the dawn of art, some disregarded his paintings as mere "erotic art."
Since Bell's quiet departure, we've seen surprisingly little flesh on local canvases. Corrigan hopes to revive some gentle debate about the nature of art au naturel, inviting her audience to record their own judgments in a guestbook. "What makes the work x-rated?" she asks. "Does it deserve a big X, a little x? Is it naughty or mild?"
There's more to the exhibition than showing skin. Words can offend, and so can shapes if they're shown in a certain context. Kevin Parent contributes a beautiful landscape photograph to the show, marred by a phallic sewer pipe scrawled with a dirty word or two. The environmental blight is offensive enough, let alone the graffiti. But Parent is not out to shock; he's documenting what he saw, and perhaps making a comment or two: don't spew crap on the countryside, clean up your language, don't spray-paint, and appreciate the world around you.
Message or not, Charleston artists are naughtier than you might think. But they're sly about it. "Mary Walker did a piece once where male appendages were not inactive," says Corrigan. "If they noticed it, some people would blush, others would say 'so what?' Duke Hagerty has always had body parts flying in and out of his work. If you'd looked real close you might have seen something. This is more graphic, though."
It's hard to imagine what some of the artists will contribute. Will Lynne Riding give her string shapes some pervy curves, or will she use wire to depict a stick-thin model? Kristi Ryba and Mary Walker have collaborated to make a video with dolls and cutouts. Corrigan Gallery artists Manning Williams, Candice Flewharty, Paul Mardikian, John Moore, and Richard Hartnett will also tuck something behind the curtain, with G-rated art out front.
With only a five-day run, this exhibition is a deliberate quickie, a cheeky way to mark the gallery's fourth anniversary. If guests make enough constructive comments and are honest about their tastes, we might see more open-minded shows in other commercial venues in the future.