The Quotidian Morphs into the Sublime…
WRITTEN BY Kitty Garner
When Catalonian chef Ferran Adrià, the proprietor of the Costa Brava restaurant elBulli, was selected for inclusion in Documenta (the prestigious art exhibition which pops up in Kassel, Germany every five years), the Michelin star-laden chef was essentially lauded as a contemporary artist using precious locavore veggies, all manner of meats, sundry offal, mysterious edible foams and ribbons, liquid nitrogen and immersion baths as his medium. Although some would argue that Adria, the acclaimed master of molecular gastronomy, is more of a deconstructivist mad scientist than an artist, and that his restaurant was more of a gastronomic laboratory than a cult foodie museum, the Chef-cum-Artist concept has nonetheless blossomed since Adria was lionized in Kassel. Since then no metropolitan venue has seen more cream of culinary genius rise to the top than seemingly sleepy and certainly charming Charleston, South Carolina. It turns out that this genial Southern town is a charmer with gravitas, and certainly anything but somnolent.
Truly, Charleston’s cobbled streets are abuzz, and not just due to the lavender lattes being served up hand-over-fist at Black Tap coffee over on Beaufain Street. Even The Guardian in London and Le Monde in Paris have taken note of Charleston boîtes, and Mike Latta (FIG and The Ordinary), Josh Keeler (Two Boroughs Larder), Jeremiah Bacon (The Macintosh and Oak Steakhouse), and Sean Brock (McCrady’s and Husk) are the darlings of the James Beard Foundation and other “fawning foodie intelligentsia”. The Duck Fat Fries at the Tattooed Moose, the Irish Car Bomb Doughnut at the Glazed Gourmet (one might consider opting for this pastry when “hair of the dog” is in order, as the primary ingredient in the glaze is Guinness Stout), and the small plates at The Elliotborough Mini-Bar’s Tuesday night Pop-Up would make Pete Wells’ head spin. Kitschy and twee Xiao Bao Biscuit, housed in a former gas station, offers not Southern comfort food, but rather a riff on “Asian Soul Food”, a panoply of fusion dishes inspired by “kick-ass, pan-Asian grandmothers everywhere”, as well as a fab stab at fusion mixology. Try the Sun Wukong, which blends sweet Tequila, chili honey, ginger beer, and fresh pressed apple juice.
Although a Glazed Gourmet doughnut is arguably not a piece of art, this unique pastry, along with the other gastronomic offerings cited above, are perhaps apt symbols of what is happening in Charleston, where the quotidian is morphing into the sublime. And it is not just the food that is being crafted with an artistic sensibility…it seems every endeavor is infused with artistic swagger. Even more delightful is the fact that much of this high falutin’ artistry is enveloped in a smack sense of humor, revealing that the city is not, thank heavens, taking itself too seriously.
The aesthetically-inclined are rewarded wherever they turn in this tiny urban oasis dotted with palm trees, parterre gardens, hipster dives and niche boutiques. Step into Magar Hatworks and you will find milliner, Leigh Magar, creating a range of custom-only toppers from feather-festooned felt fedoras to headpieces that border on performance art.
Gaze into a glowing backlit, velvet-lined case at Gabrielle Jewelry, and you’ll see the delicate and exquisite cast-lace creations of millennial metalsmith Gabrielle Bratton who “soaks bits of lace in hot wax to make a mold, or cast, before pouring molten metal into the cavity to set the design.”
In Charleston’s northern neck, a former strip club has been resurrected as an artisanal woodworking factory which, on occasion, seems to be going up in smoke. Charring—a technique the Japanese developed to ward off rot and insect infestation—has been mastered by Moran Woodworked Furniture and is used to “achieve the deep grooves and patterns that resemble alligator hide” on their sleek yet textural Charred Commode.
Kaminer Haislip’s metalcraft harkens back to 18th century Charleston when the burgeoning port city’s silversmiths were legendary. Her coffeepot, with its sleek avian silhouette, is “a utilitarian work of fine art”. Her pieces “meld traditional European silversmith techniques with references to art deco and Scandinavian modern design.”
At the Gin Joint, proprietors Joe and MariElena Raya have created a line of small batch concoctions which spare the home mixologist the taxing and tedious task of muddling — a chore which is often required to create top notch cocktails. The Raya’s new endeavor, Bittermilk, now offers three mixers, including an Old Fashioned, which is “aged in bourbon barrels and blends citrus, wintry spices, and burnt sugar with hints of gentian root and cinchona bark.”
Christophe Artisan Chocolatier–Pâtissier on Society Street truly takes chocolate to a rarefied realm. Christophe Paume, a third generation chocolatier, grew up in Toulouse, France where he plied his trade in his father’s pâtisserie. He then attended the CFA de Muret and subsequently worked in Paris and Montreal, perfecting his craft. His chocolate sculptures and hand painted truffles are edible, empyreal delights.
A visit to a day spa such as Seeking Indigo leads not just to a ho-hum massage but rather to the Migun Thermal Massage with jade stone rollers. And you might like to add a session in the Hyperbaric Oxygen Chamber which promises to increase oxygen absorption at the molecular level, promoting increased “self-healing”—perhaps much needed after a bacchanalian night exploring the sommelier’s suggestions at Husk.
Even casually perusing the wares in an interiors shop reaches a higher plane at The Hidden Countship where Umbrian natives Donatella and Giulio della Porta have taken a petal pink storefront on Burns Street and turned it into a microcosm of Italian artisanal genius, offering a series of spaces steeped in style and history: from chandeliers laced with delicate rose-colored filigree to pressed, embroidered linens…from bold ceramics to hand-milled soaps scented with herbs from the Tuscan hills.
Thus the “new normal’ in Charleston appears to be beyond the ordinary…extraordinary is indeed the standard…and the plethora of galleries, theater, artistic cooperatives, happenings and museums fall in line with this description as well. Kulture Klash is a mish-mash, all-inclusive event which annually transforms the Navy Yard into a multi-media extravaganza, the most recent rendition of which involved hula hoops, a “yacht rock dance room”, copious amounts of performance art and music by DJ Eleven.
Artistic director Keely Enright has taken the Village Playhouse and Repertory Company at the Woolfe Street Playhouse to theatrical heights not formerly witnessed in the low country. The Los Angeles native and graduate of UCLA moved to Charleston 15 years ago to start her own theatre. In collaboration with her husband, Dave Reinwald (who acts in the company and builds most of the sets that Keely designs), the Village Rep has produced a corpus of work which offers serious yet intimate theatre to avid patrons. Productions have included a spectrum of plays and musicals, including Glengarry Glen Ross, Night of the Iguana, Gypsy, Speed the Plow and Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson. The Village Rep recently moved into a lovingly restored, century-old meat-packing warehouse in a sketchy neighborhood that was once the industrial core of peninsula Charleston. The move planted a cultural seed in the once blighted area which has since blossomed into the Upper King arts corridor.
Admittedly playing favorites, REDUX Contemporary Art Center may be my favorite spot in Charleston. The center is truly committed to “fostering creativity and the cultivation of contemporary art through diverse exhibitions, subsidized studio space for visual artists, meaningful education programs, and a multidisciplinary approach to the dialogue between artists and their audiences.” REDUX is a community-based art center which is showing work that rivals anything being exhibited in New York’s Chelsea galleries.
The collaboration between artists Katey Crews and Kate Nartker is a prime example of the intriguing work being displayed at REDUX. Anything remotely nostalgic is their fodder. “Nostalgia is a profound filter on our memories and images of the past. Through rigorous material translations, we build, dismantle, and distort nostalgic imagery, often finding ways to abstract a familiar image through its own structure. As the material itself becomes the armature for abstraction, we aim to twist wistfulness and melancholy into something that can be turned on its head”.
Katey Crews’ “tactile assemblages” examine the manner in which nostalgia can be leveraged as propaganda. Her manipulation of fabric echoes the “manipulative nature of historic imagery”. Kate Nartker confronts nostalgia by investigating our attachment to remnants from the past. In a laborious process, she deconstructs video footage shot by her father, “renders out frozen stills, and weaves the images on a Jacquard loom.”
Other standout shows at REDUX have included Andrea Stanislav: Nothing is New, Everything is Permitted, Sinisa Kukec: From Void to Void, Lauren Kalman: Spectacular, and Keith Lemley: Ecstasy of Knowing.
The Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art is another enthralling arts venue in Charleston, and one recent exhibition, The Paternal Suit: Heirlooms from the F. Scott Hess Family Foundation, was particularly compelling. The show ostensibly explores the lineage of Los Angeles artist F. Scott Hess through a collection of seemingly disjointed artifacts. Tracing his American heritage back four hundred years to puritanical New England and the antebellum South, the exhibit “tells Hess’ story through more than 100 paintings, prints, and objects created by Hess, but presented as legitimate historical artifacts, and supported by photographs, documents, and historical ephemera. Each object and artwork bears an artist’s name and detailed provenance and has been executed in the style of the century from which it supposedly originates. Sculpture, ceramics, furniture, toys, newspaper clippings, historic photographs, guns, and costumes advance the story. Hess does not claim authorship for the works on display. Instead, he ascribes to them fictional artists, referring to himself as the Director of the F. Scott Hess Family Foundation.”
The subtext here is clearly the ruse of history…query if there is ever a way to objectively present the past. There is also a psychological tension driving the work, as Hess suffered an absent and disconnected father. The fact that the artist’s research into his lineage also revealed that his ancestors were slave owners deepens the fraught psychology of the work. The exhibition as a whole is sweeping in scope yet intensely intimate. “Through the prism of his ancestry, Hess examines the impact of false history and deception within each generation and throughout society as a whole, and questions these perceived truths.”
There are a few galleries in town that are worth a visit as well. Rebekah Jacobs is “setting the gold standard for Southern photography in the region”, and her eponymous gallery is the best in town. She shows remarkable photography and more limited offerings of painting and sculpture. Jacobs recently acquired a dye transfer print of photographer William Eggleston’s “Red Ceiling”, another print of which hangs in Gallery 851 at the Met in New York.
For two brimming weeks each spring the arts scene in Charleston is enhanced exponentially by the Spoleto Festival (as if the town needed some sort of arts steroid injection). As the American doppelgänger to the Italian Festival dei due Mondi, Spoleto immerses Charleston in a sea of opera, dance, theater, classical music, and jazz by both emerging and established artists.
2014 Spoleto highlights include composer Michael Nyman’s opera “Facing Goya” which explores elitism, the pseudo-science of physiognomy and the angst-ridden world of art criticism. Two beguiling works, “Megalopolis” and “Runaway”, are by the ingenious New York-based Keigwin + Company, a contemporary dance troupe which interlaces technical dance technique with references to fashion, pop culture and the pace of urban life. Also of interest is Exit/Exist, the work of Gregory Maqoma, a South African dancer who channels Chief Maqoma, a Xhosa warrior and tribal ancestor of the dancer who resisted imperialism. Maqoma’s work incorporates eclectic dance styles and African ritual, and he is accompanied by sublime guitarist Giuliano Modarelli and a quartet of vocalists.
So head to this beguiling metropolis of the Lowcountry soon, but give yourself some room on your agenda, and prepare to be surprised. As Ferran Adria once said of elBulli, “the ideal customer doesn’t come to eat but to have an experience”…and it is the experience that should be paramount in Charleston as well.