A tiny table is set for tea in the middle of the floor at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. The table, chairs, and dishes are all covered in brass tacks. On a nearby wall is a painting of a slaughtered opossum on a pizza box, and in the next room there's a lunch bag and a moldy sandwich cast in bronze. These are all pieces in the College of Charleston's Young Contemporaries exhibition, consistently one of the most random and surprising art events of the year.
The annual exhibit highlights the best of the college's art department as judged by an established outside artist; this year's juror was New York-based painter and professor Julie Heffernan. The juror is always different, as is the student talent pool, resulting in a wildly diverse showing every time.
Heffernan was tasked with going through nearly 600 student works over the course of two days. She worked alone in the Halsey gallery, separating the entries into piles — yeses, nos, and maybes. She eventually settled on 60 pieces, which wasn't as difficult as she feared it would be. "Every day I paint and I basically use incredibly critical judgment every minute of eight to 10 hours every day making my own work, so I'm a pretty quick study at this point," she says. "I know how to zero in right away on strengths and weaknesses, which has just come from many, many years and hours a day doing that. Not to mention all the art that I look at in museums and galleries every week ... The good stuff kind of rises to the surface, as the old cliché goes."
Although juried exhibitions inevitably reflect the opinion of the juror, Heffernan says she tried to be objective throughout the process. "Even though things are very subjective now in the art world, and criteria has changed so much, there's still quality that's undeniable and it goes beyond taste. I try not to just deal with my own taste, but to look at whether the art is saying something and using materials to persuade me about that thing that they're trying to say and whether they are coaxing something out of their imaginations and their ability to experiment."
Heffernan lists among her favorites a painting of a nude by Katie Nocella that uses embroidery floss to depict his shadow. She also mentions Kyle Branch's portrait of a young man in a plaid shirt in front of a bright chevron background. Many of the pieces are figurative this year, something she attributes to student assignments. Although Heffernan is a figurative artist, she says that's not why she chose so much figurative work. "At a young age, figuration is something you're immediately engaged with, because we all have bodies, and that's perhaps why it was the better work," she says.
Heffernan was selected by members of CofC's Visual Arts Club after being nominated by VAC President Alizey Kahn, who cites the artist as a major influence. "Since her work is of such a high quality, I felt she would hold the work of our students up to a high standard when curating the show as well," Kahn says. "Luckily, other members of the club agreed with me."
While the exhibition is interesting for viewers eager to see the newest generation of artists in Charleston, it's also a significant milestone for many students. "We are given the chance to enter our work in a professionally juried and installed exhibition and really experience the subjective criticism of the art world for ourselves in the process, through both the learning process of rejection and the thrill of acceptance," Kahn says. "Any College of Charleston student can enter the show regardless of their major, so those with raw talent may discover a desire to pursue and hone these talents if they're recognized and accepted to the show."
According to tradition, the Salon des Refusés exhibit runs alongside Young Contemporaries. It includes pieces chosen by art department faculty heads that were overlooked by Heffernan. The Halsey's Karen Ann Myers says, "The Salon in many ways is of equal significance to Young Contemporaries, because what the faculty brings to the picture is that they know the artist personally because they work with them, so they have a better sense of the whole process from start to finish."
And for those who didn't even make it into the Salon? The Visual Arts Club runs a student gallery in the Simons Center, and their gallery coordinator James Wine has put together an exhibit called the Salon des Refusés des Refusés.