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The Corrigan Gallery's latest is pleasantly eclectic and risky

Relative Ease


With its "art with a future" motto, the Corrigan Galler has always avoided the easy way to art sales. "I don't think my artists are commercial," says owner Lese Corrigan. "They all get hungry every once in a while. They're not looking for the next trick to cash in on a buck. They're exploring and pushing."

This risk-taking is evident in Corrigan's pleasantly eclectic new group show, Next Is Always Relative. The subjects range from local landscapes to portraits, abstract expressionist shapes to twisted pieces of wire. Although there's nothing wild enough to freak out collectors, it's good to see that all of the painters and photographers involved are stretching their abilities — they don't push the envelope as much as they slowly steam it open.

As the title of the show suggests, whatever comes next is relative to what has come before. In order to progress, artists need to be aware of their context and influences. Corrigan's roster, all represented in this exhibition, revel in these influences and use them as a foundation to try new things.

Kevin Bruce Parent is well aware of his New Hampshire roots, present surroundings, and strengths as a photographer. Over the past 10 years he's paid increasing attention to blots on the landscape — abandoned property, battered gravestones, and weathered signs. In this show he trains his painterly eye on street art. "Time for Change" shows a pro-Obama message sprayed on a small, rundown brick building. "I love you Passing Stranger" is scrawled on another. Parent documents these and other slogans without endorsing graffiti; according to Corrigan, he hesitated before bringing in particular pieces lest he be suspected of "keying into the big graffiti thing or promoting graffiti artists in any shape or form." These pieces work best in the context of his body of work as a commentator on Southern life.

Paul Mardikian's dark, striking paintings on board connote African shields. Corrigan imagines that they "guard" the gallery, so she's hung them near the front door. From a distance there's a vertical solidity to pieces like "Arabesque." On closer inspection, delicate brushstrokes are evident. Mardikian has an effective grasp of early art forms, making them accessible for 21st century viewers. But not too accessible — his deep black and brown palette isn't designed to cheer up anyone's décor.

Corrigan is also a painter with her own inimitable style that acknowledges Charleston's traditional landscape art scene without slavishly following it. Instead she adds swirling, curving strokes to her oils, suggesting the feel of wind and water as much as describing it. "Mid-River III Ashley River I SE" is the clunky title for a demure, carefully poised work of art, with dark blue sky at the top of the canvas balanced with a stretch of blue sea at the bottom. This is part of a series of cloud-swept riverscapes that capture the extraordinary skies and sunsets of the Lowcountry in an expressive fashion.

The real surprise of this show is Mary Walker, who has produced work that is amongst her cleanest and most accessible. Walker sometimes uses a naive style that suits the tales and poems that inspire her. "The Window" is more assured, with soft colors and lines depicting cats looking out from a window sill. But she's composed this tame scene in a clever fashion. Rather than using standard depth and perception, we see through the car on the street outside, and everything is set out as if we're seeing it through a broken prism. We can tell exactly what primarily holds the cats' attention — a small black bird. Walker's "Guess Who I Saw Today" and "Foolishness" use similarly staggered composition to dramatic effect.

The exhibition also features work by Lynne Riding, Manning Williams, Gordon Nicholson, John Moore, Kristi Ryba, Sue Simons Wallace, Daryl Knox, Richard Hartnett, Tim Fensch, Richard (Duke) Hagerty, and John Hull. That's a lot of artists to squeeze into a Queen Street structure, and our only criticism of the show is that there isn't enough space in the gallery to give all the pieces breathing room, particularly in the back of the building — a hazard of having a downtown space. Well aware of her tight quarters, Corrigan has picked a few pieces by each artist to represent their latest work. Maybe Corrigan's next big step will be to find a larger space to show the artworks in all their glory.

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