The Mill is a North Charleston bar that's decorated with retro chic, from the old phone booth at the back to the '60s-era atomic symbols to the chrome-edge tables in the diner-style eating area. In theory, it's the perfect place to host an art show inspired by the iconic mid-20th century. But it's still a bar, and some of the art struggles to stand out from the many dark corners and Halloween trimmings.
Although this isn't the perfect space, many of the exhibits are striking and memorable. Visitors are greeted by a life-sized, life-like plywood cutout of game show hostess Vanna White, her skin the color of an Orion slave girl on Star Trek. Vanna's cropped up in past Hyman shows, but she looks at home here with her rigid pose and her ghoulish grin (we said it was lifelike).
The cutout is by Phillip Hyman, who also curated the show, Retro. He has used other classic TV shows as inspiration before — he once based a whole series on The Outer Limits. There are a few homages here too, including a slinky portrait of Diana Rigg from The Avengers ("Girl with Gun"). Movies are acknowledged with a larger painting of the creature from the Black Lagoon. Like much of the Retro art, this one is painted with aerosols with the top layer thinned to make it look like light is coming through. Hyman has also made his spray spit in places to suggest suspended algae in the background.
Two pieces stand out from Hyman's crop. One is "Let's Go for a Ride," a portrait of a woman with remarkable purple hair, sunglasses, and matching lipstick. The other is "58 Bel Air," a close-up of a car's bumper, perhaps the one that the purple girl took off in. Both artworks show an experienced eye for details, color, and composition.
Hyman has something of a noir partner in Connie O'Donald, an artist who likes to use simple monochrome shapes that are almost like blown-up negative photos. The face of Lee Van Cleef — most famous as Angel Eyes in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly — is broken down into the simplest of lines and shadows, testing the old theory that we can recognize familiar images even when we catch fractured glimpses of them. Like Hyman, O'Donald coordinates colors to add balance to a female portrait in "Exotic Lava." This time a starkly depicted, nearly nude girl leans over, breasts dangling, dressed only in pink striped stockings the same shade as her lips. She looks at us with an aloof expression.
We could only find one contribution from Christina Rodino, but it's a good one. It shows the head and shoulders of an elfin girl with a squirrel draped on her shoulders like a mink wrap. There's mild surprise in her blue eyes, and she's pouting, probably because her squirrel is alive and looking for something to nibble. Rodino's work is reminiscent of Stella Im Hultberg or Lori Earley, but with a rougher, hastier edge.
Chuck Keppler brings us more tormented actresses, including a woman lying on a Rigoletto script, her eyes tight shut. His enlarged Associated Press photos (gel transfer and acrylic paint on wood panel) highlight the raw printing process of newspapers. Their dots and flaws give their subjects a mysterious, dark-shrouded look. Keppler takes a punk approach to art, combining matter-of-fact text with symbolic images. It's not for everyone, but it adds a dramatically lo-fi element to this show.
Mike Lane draws the short straw as far as his exhibiting space goes. He's stuck in a poorly lit alcove between The Mill's two main doors, and a few of his paintings are obscured behind a fake cobweb. But judging by the brutally brooding look of some of his work, maybe he likes it that way.
"Nelsons Colors" is a hanging sculpture/painting with a morbid fascination for anatomy. There are eyes, a small pair of legs, and diagrams of arms with their muscles and bones showing. Behind the canvas are pieces of interlinking bone-like wood. Deep down, Lane seems to be saying, we're all part of nature and as liable to dissection as a hapless plant.
"Ohio State" has abstract bands of writing across it. These signatures or graffiti tags are snared together so they look like lines of barbed wire. An untitled 2009 piece is filled with checks on a brick wall, wrought in angry red and black colors. Organic-looking material is stuck onto the canvas and one eye peers out from the volatile scene.
"Chaos" is a strong example of Lane's energetic art. It shows a bridge or black sails with red threads continually crossing each other. A bright red border contains the structure, which is reminiscent of '70s string art. That puts Lane 10 years out of synch with the other artists, but as we mentioned, he probably wants to be left alone to do his own bad boy thing.
His best, most traditional work is "Family," which uses a multiple photo frame. Instead of just putting photographs in it, Lane has included sketches, scribbles, one completely black shape, old black and white photographs that look photocopied, and one naked doodle girl. By taking a traditional method of displaying our loved ones and twisting it to his own ends, Lane reminds us that almost anything can be adapted into a canvas by an artist with imagination.
The occasional dark area is a common hazard for Hyman, who shows art in bars, stores, and alternate spaces throughout Charleston. It's still a great way to expose new audiences to art and make it more accessible to everyone. While Retro could do with a few more lights thrown on the art, it serves its intended purpose, drawing attention to spaces that aren't traditionally known as art venues even though new art goes up in them each month.