The 2011 Spoleto Festival poster was unveiled this weekend, and the selection of artist Guillermo Kuitca takes a notable detour from the more familiar New York establishment artists we typically see as the festival's main visual art component. "Acoustic Mass I (Covent Garden)" is a red, white, and black abstraction of the interior, architectural schematic of London's famed opera house — but you wouldn't know that without an explanation. Kuitca's digital and physical manipulation of the architectural plans for various public spaces, including theaters and opera houses, renders a shattered, abstract composition in which the artist wrestles with concepts like time, memory, travel, and migration. The 50-year-old Argentinean has created many series of paintings based on cartography and architecture since gaining worldwide attention with his 1992 showings at MOMA in New York and Documenta IX in Germany.
The list of past poster artists is impressive. Most have been well-established and familiar to anyone who has been to a museum in the last 10 years: Chuck Close, Jim Dine, Red Grooms, Alex Katz, Frank Stella, Elizabeth Murray, Joel Shapiro. The artists represent a mix of nationalities and styles, from pop art to op art, graphic design to sculpture and architecture — as varied as they are successful. Looking at the former poster images together as a gallery, there are abstracts, colorful "festival" scenes, and figurative works. The best-selling poster is the 2004 image by Lowcountry artist Jonathan Green.
As opposed to the Piccolo Spoleto posters, which seem more palatable to local artistic tastes, Spoleto posters do not always please the natives, with lots of "my kid could paint that" kinds of critiques. And after so many years of listening to people complain about the poster, it's easy to get a little snarky. But Nigel Redden is not snarky. He's spirited perhaps, as evidenced by last year's poster choice, Maya Lin's "From Rhode Island to South Carolina." The piece showed topographical map images of Rhode Island and South Carolina linked together simply because of their alphabetical relationship in the Rand McNally Atlas.
Created by an artist trained in architecture and known for the Vietnam Memorial in D.C., the image inspired a lot of confusion and even outrage, if City Paper web comments count as scientific polling data. As opposed to using an image that was typical of the artist, last year's choice was not standard Maya Lin — she's better known for her sculpture and landscape architecture. Perhaps this year Redden wanted to give topography and architecture another chance, but in contrast to Lin, Guillermo Kuitca is a painter inspired by architecture. Lin referred to a very literal place, while Kuitca's space is fragmented and unattainable in an Inception kind of way.
Although very successful, Kuitca is not particularly well known outside of the art world. Rather than the festival utilizing images by established artists to align itself in a similarly established way, the last two choices have proven quirkier than the rest, which is, in this writer's opinion, all the better. Spoleto can afford to have a poster image as challenging as the programming in its festival. Having a good or even ignorant public debate about visual art is pretty rare and ultimately very good sport. The first two eager online CP comments regarding this year's image say "it sucks" and "ridiculous," so let the games begin!
Kristen Rhodes worked as an arts critic at Charleston City Paper from 1999-2001 and as the arts editor at Charleston magazine from 2003-2005. She has written about Spoleto Festival events for more than nine seasons. She currently resides in Cleveland, Ohio, with her husband and three children.