The historic city of Charleston isn’t known for placing contemporary art or artists at the forefront of its commercial art scene. More often than not, Charleston’s art institutions aim to spotlight the charm, rich history and well-preserved architecture for which the friendly, coastal city is celebrated. However, with the opening of The Southern, there’s a new gallery in town that will shift Charleston’s consciousness from past to present.
The Southern is focused exclusively on promoting contemporary artists connected to the South through their heritage, geography, or subject matter. Located on the city’s east side, the gallery occupies a repurposed industrial space in one of Charleston’s formerly neglected neighborhoods that is swiftly evolving into a creative center for young Southerners and transplants alike. The Southern is the first collaborative commercial project for husband-and-wife duo Erin and Justin Nathanson, whose mutual love for contemporary work inspired the venture.
“We decided to present works by artists connected to the South because of the deep roots,” says Erin. “It’s steamy, it’s sweet as sugar, but can sting at times.”
The Southern’s inaugural exhibition, “(it was) A Wet, Hot, Southern Summer,” opened on January 14 and features recent work by nine artists, including Kristy Bishop, Michaela Pilar Brown, Sarah Emerson, Matt Haffner, Isabella Klauder, Michael Pajon, Jeanne Vockroth, Antoine Williams, and Gately Williams.
One work of specific relevance is Antoine Williams’s Untitled (Roof). In this mixed-media piece, Williams, a North Carolina native, references shooter Dylan Roof, who opened fire during a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston in June 2015.
Other poignant pieces in the show come from a South Carolina local, Michaela Pilar Brown, whose collages deal with issues of mythology and the African-American body. As a whole, “(it was) A Wet, Hot, Southern Summer” covers a variety of Southern aspects, but the other works in the show don’t deal so directly with the racial tension that has defined the region.
“We wanted to debut the space with a diverse group of artists and media,” says Erin, “The main connection is the work being created during or influenced by the summer of 2015.” The gallery’s next exhibition is set to open on March 25and will be a solo show of ceramics, prints, and paintings by Miami-based artist Benjamin Hollingsworth.
Before opening The Southern, Erin served as curator for the City of Charleston’s gallery and also created the foundation for ArtFields and Charleston Supported Art. Justin currently owns and operates a film production company, The Cut Company, in addition to editing docu-series and web content.
The Nathansons have noted a steady regrowth in Charleston over the last decade. The city’s growing population has led to the diversification of formerly underdeveloped neighborhoods, allowing a plethora of new businesses, institutions, and people to flourish. While galleries all over the southeast have been closing their doors, the Nathanson’s believe now is the opportune time to open a contemporary gallery devoted to artists connected to the South.
The gallery will provide local artists, who formerly had few exhibition opportunities, a space to show their work and create new dialogue in an old city. The Southern is a much needed safe space for artists to discuss the specific issues that affect the South, Southerners, and Southern artists today.
Megan Murdie is a writer living in Charleston, South Carolina.