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New gallery has the scoop on the whimsical work of Brian Bustos

Brian's Song

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There's a reason why traditional art sells in tradition-steeped downtown Charleston. Those masterly paintings of old buildings and classical portraits suit their surroundings. Visitors who've come for a whiff of history can leave with a Southern landscape souvenir.

That leaves less room for contemporary fare. A few establishments try to cover both markets, including the Martin Gallery and Wolf Contemporary Art Gallery. But why devote wall space to edgy images when the trad stuff is a better sell?

Angel Powell and Colleen Deihl are no strangers to the local art scene, having previously worked at the Ella Walton Richardson and John Carroll Doyle galleries respectively. Now they have their own business opposite Richardson's on Broad Street.

"We got an opportunity to move in," says Diehl, who has a BA in arts management from the College of Charleston. "We knew we might not have the chance again. We thought it over for maybe a week, or a long weekend, then we decided to jump in."

The owners are aware that this isn't the best time to open a gallery. "It's too hot for people to be walking around outside," says Powell, who has also worked in New York and L.A. But she adds that a sizeable amount of sales have gone to out-of-towners. "We've sent pieces to New York and Virginia, through tourist visits and our website."

While summer sales aren't as consistent as the fall market, Deihl and Powell are determined to push through the season and build a following with multiple shows, introducing colorful new artists to a niche market of contemporary art buyers in their welcoming white space.

With several locally known artists on their roster (including Bill Mead, Karen Ann Myers, and Ben Timpson), Deihl and Powell try to revolve their exhibitions as often as possible. Currently, Brian Bustos is their showcased artist, filling the gallery with his small mixed-media pieces. His subjects are drawn with the simple, colorful sensibility of outsider art but with a closer attention to form and perspective. Despite the lack of detail in some of his work, Bustos touches on deep themes like yearning for freedom, coping with death, and finding patterns in a seemingly chaotic universe.

Many of his recurring motifs crop up in "Tree Forts." There are bicycles parachuting from the sky, long-legged birds, and green arrows that transmute into fir trees. Shapes, maps, and a woman's face are apparent in the light brown background. The tree houses look like they're about to break into dance and song. The piece is a busy throwback to the anthropomorphic cartoons of the '20s and '30s, but it has a style and clarity of its own.

In "I Felt it Move," a quaint-faced man looks at a dead potted plant, wondering if it's savable. The character recurs in other paintings, surrounded by objects from cold seasons (a ghost face to represent Halloween, leafless trees for winter), looking hopeful in the face of death.

Other pieces are more whimsical. Birds use scraps of musical notation to sing or spread gossip with their elephant neighbors. ("She took the bicycle," one bird tells his friend). Since Bustos works in a sign shop, he's able to use vinyl scraps in his art to create Rubik's Twist-like designs representing birdsong, speech, or imaginative thought.

Most ambitious of all is "To Swing on the Spiral of Our Divinity and Still be a Human." This two-panel depiction of mathematical patterns in space includes a number of small paintings and drawings in boxes, each for sale individually. The large scope of the diptych allows the artist to work with text, found pictures on snippets of paper, portraits, and sketches.

Bustos' small, framed pieces are reasonably priced, ranging from about $60 and up; Scoop had already sold four of them before the show had opened. If they stick to this strategy of holding memorable exhibitions and selling low-priced, lively artwork by Charleston-oriented artists, Deihl and Powell should be in their gallery for a long time to come.

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