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For Scott Debus, there's nowhere to go but UP

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Scott Debus is a familiar force in the local arts scene. He's best known for his blue-hued figurative work and his large scale portraits — giant, weathered heads with bald pates and anguished eyes. There's a lot more to Debus, though. He curates and co-organizes Kulture Klash, the vaguely biannual multimedia arts show that's become a must-attend event on Charleston's social calendar. He's exhibited at Guerrilla Cuisine events, the North Charleston Performing Arts Center Gallery, and his own gallery on Bogard Street.

The Bogard gallery is gone, so Debus now shows at Eye Level Art and other spaces around town. Despite his ubiquity and high rate of output, he has never had a solo show in Charleston. Although he's not a part of Scoop Studios' core group of artists — he's not the kind of guy who'd contract himself to one gallery — he's getting his one-man moment there this month.

Up is like a mini-retrospective of Debus' work, with pieces that characterize most of his different styles and subjects. The big heads are present in paintings like "UP Close" (acrylic on canvas), an extreme close up of an old, brown, walnut-chinned man, and "UPton Sinclair," an intensely detailed mass of brown and yellow wrinkles.

Debus' underground-New York roots show in the graffiti-like "Screwed UP" and "You Know, For UP Above the Couch," a biomorphic black-and-white skeleton lazing on a soothing blue background. His abstract oeuvre is well-represented by dozens of small square canvases that stack together to create two larger artworks — one group of 25 pieces make up a 25 inch by 25 inch image. Each square is titled and priced individually, full of vivid color and shapes that suggest worms, caterpillars, faces, and animals. Collectors are invited to buy one or two of the small pieces, since Debus likes the idea of the art being spread across town in different people's homes. "I'd rather someone buy three of them that go together," he says, "than hang it all on their wall as if it was a jigsaw puzzle."

There's no sign of the lithe, merrymaking dancing figures that netted Debus a Lowcountry Arts Grant last year. The figures that do appear soar above a McMansion in "I Don't Believe in UP," their flights of fancy contrasting with a garbage dump below them. The grinning superheroes are joined by gods of various religions. Some of the figures are intertwined with the clouds, others plunked on top like the gaudily four-colored comic book characters they are. They seem oblivious to the slums and dirt beneath them. It's an impressive 58-inch-by-52-inch comment on society's insistence on looking up to its idols while the surface world crumbles around it.

Not one to keep his head in the clouds, Debus has been hard at work trying out different paints and techniques. "Burning UP" is a fascinating example. It's a portrait made up of glossy red and yellow lines, their colors heightened on a black background. To make the lines, the artist has used Japanese dripping enamel. The colors flow on top of each other instead of blending, giving the rough skull outline a 3D effect. It's best seen with the light directly on it, bouncing off the enamel but absorbed into the black.

One of the most experimental works is at the front of the gallery. The 8-foot-by-4-foot "UPtake" contains abstract shapes similar to the "jigsaw puzzles," but this time it's unsegmented and painted on cardboard. Debus has coated the image with liquid glass, which has dripped and bubbled to give the painting a relief map texture. It's the kind of piece that looks messy from a distance, but on closer inspection reveals all kinds of intricate faces and creatures.

It's great to see an artist like Debus exploring new techniques and ideas instead of sticking with his most popular and commercial subjects. The notion of splitting some paintings into small, affordable tiles is also commendable, although it will be hard for viewers to analyze one small piece when it's surrounded by other busy images. While this overview is a great introduction to collectors who are new to the painter's work, another, more cohesively-themed show would be welcome in the future — hopefully reflecting Debus' passionate stand on politics and society, only tackled here in "I Don't Believe in UP."

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