by Kevin Ott

The sulfur smell of the marsh, the waves of the Atlantic rolling up onto the surrounding beach communities, afternoon rain showers, the funky smell of the historic downtown streets on a hot, humid day…oh, and the restaurants, and of course, Spoleto. There is much to recommend in a visit to the Low Country in late May and early June.

Caption: Shepard Fairey at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art


It’s difficult to leave the idyllic beach community of Kiawah behind and make the 35 or 40 minute drive into Charleston, but it is a decision I rarely regret. On this trip, we were lured by a show of work by Shepard Fairey and Jasper Johns at the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art.

“The Insistent Image: Recurrent motifs in the art of Shepard Fairey and Jasper Johns” features new work by Fairey and a survey of Johns prints produced by Universal Limited Art Editions, mostly from the 1980s. The common thread running through both artists’ work is the use of recycled graphic elements and repeated iconography. Think of Johns’ use of mundane images such as flags, numbers and the often present vase/face image. Fairey’s use of graphic elements such as  “OBEY”, Andre the Giant, the skull and cross bones, the flag, the eagle, the oil derricks and gas pumps and other recycled elements make his work, to me, more the work of a graphic designer with a fine artist’s mind. Johns’ work is that of a fine artist who incorporates elements of design.  If Johns’ work is the first in contemporary art to use images from popular culture, then Fairey’s shows us how far along that road we have come.

Caption: Shepard Fairey at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

Surely, the lines blur and it is probably not fair to compare the work of a titan such as Johns with that of the much younger street artist/promoter Fairey. And, it was not the purpose of the show to critically compare the two, as much as show them together and how they both borrow and repeat within their work. I like Fairey’s work because of its message. His new work here focused on the power of oil and energy, its cost to the environment, climate and humans in general. Our pervasive gun culture and its great enabler, the NRA, are also a theme of several works. And, the abundance of money in our political system (and its great enabler, the Roberts Supreme Court) finds a skewer in a couple of works.

Fairey’s works are graphically interesting and topical. Produced ala Warhol, they are  silkscreened and stenciled with poster-ized images and little actual brushwork. They are composed like European war-time posters with foreboding images, the visual equivalent of air raid sirens, warning us of danger ahead. They are effective and affective. Some would argue that they are not great art, that Fairey is formulaic, a one-trick pony. I like them in spite of this or, maybe, because of this.

Caption: Shepard Fairey at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

The prints of Jasper Johns in the exhibit show him to be a more nuanced artist, a man who pushed boundaries successfully. They are beautifully produced prints that require a bit of time to mine their depths. “The Seasons” is a particularly great set of four prints in the show.

But, we are in Charleston, so, food is the thing. We trek several blocks down King Street and over to Pinckney Street to a great little restaurant, Cru Café. It is in an old Charleston house with a nice porch. This is a classic lunch spot and one of my favorites. The ambience is pure Charleston. Seer-sucker suited guys and nicely dressed ladies sit side by side with patrons in shorts and sport shirts. The shrimp BLT is a favorite.

For those not familiar with Spoleto, it is a 2 week long arts festival. Opera, theater, a great variety of music and the visual arts are in abundance, scattered throughout the city in small theaters, public spaces and larger venues. We attended a nice chamber music concert at the intimate Dock Street Theater.  Lunch at Husk followed. A popular, well-designed space with updated low-country cuisine, it didn’t have quite the Charleston-bred vibe of Cru Café, but it was very good.

The near limitless restaurant offerings, Spoleto’s broad variety and the proximity of several great beach communities make a trip to Charleston in late May to early June a perfect blend of exciting possibilities.

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