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VISUAL ARTS ‌ Toner Philosophy

A veteran Chucktown artist lets his imagination fly

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Jim Innes' polyester lithographs take over the City Gallery this week
  • Jim Innes' polyester lithographs take over the City Gallery this week
Jim Innes: Through a Glass Darkly
Opening reception Fri. July 21, 4:30 p.m.
On view through Aug. 21
Free
City Gallery at Dock Street Theatre
133 Church St., 724-7305

Surprising as it may seem, not all artists know how their work's going to turn out when they tackle a fresh canvas. Local multimedia artist Mark Blackmon describes his abstract work as "a complete action-reaction process." He grabs whatever he can get his hands on — crayons, acrylic, spray paint, paper — and tries to let his subconscious take care of the first few strokes. His attempts to avoid trite, unoriginal work reflect a desire by many of his peers to create something new and reach a loose, inspired state — the kind they had no trouble reaching when they were kids.

"We're overstimulated, especially in the modern world," says Greg Shelnutt, a sculptor based in Winston-Salem. Found objects are often a starting point for him, "sitting in the studio and in their own alignment" until they suggest an idea. Then he's able to add his own artistic trimmings to a seemingly random, identifiable core.

Even the distinguished John Michel, a retired College of Charleston Studio Arts professor, has a penchant for art spawned with the minimum of conscious tinkering on his part. Last year his solo show at the Halsey Institute was titled Monkey Paintings because of its display of abstract, joyfully messy freeform monotypes worthy of a primate Picasso.

In some ways, Charlestonian Jim Innes' Through a Glass Darkly exhibition is similar to Monkey Paintings. Innes also lets the process take over when he begins a piece, letting liquid toner dry on clear Mylar. The big difference is that Innes makes deliberate sense of the resulting blemish on a polyester plate, heating and drawing on the plate to produce a recognizable, if surreal, final lithographic image.

Through this process, Innes blends automaticism with artistic and cultural references and his own long term experience. "I was a painter for years and years," says Innes, now in his 70s. "I have a house full of pictures that didn't sell." Before he ran out of room completely, Innes embarked on smaller projects, adapting small press polyester lithograph techniques for fine art purposes. "Now my place is crazy with flat files full of prints," he says ruefully. "The way I see it, I collect my own work."

Besides his humble streak, Innes possesses a fantastic imagination. Through a Glass Darkly fills the Dock Street Theatre space with skeletal figures, basilisks, and Baba Yaga women. It's understandable that some of his more experimental pieces go unsold — these aren't the kid of artworks that your Aunt Ethel would hang in her drawing room. According to Innes, viewers' reactions range from enthusiasm to bewilderment. "My work's a little macabre. It's not Charleston piazzas, swamps, or flowers. It's closer to fantasy, really."

The artist is in good company. His varied pieces connote equally wide-ranging influences, from medieval woodcuts and early 1900s film to the illustrations of Alice in Wonderland's Sir John Tenniel and Yellow Submarine's Heinz Edelmann. The skeleton studies are the most memorable in the show, with lively expressions on their skulls and oversized, grasping hands. Innes' use of color is also successful, with murky purples adding a wealth of shadow and depth. But the toner's dark shades don't just build atmosphere; they remind viewers of how the art was created in the first place.

"The process is 50 percent of the thing," says Innes, and he's not just referring to his enjoyment of the creative process. Viewers will get a kick out of fathoming how a piece was formed — how much of it was created in a mingling of toner, gravity, and providence, and how hard the artist had to work to wrest a recognizable image from a blotch.

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