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Mark Sloan, director and senior curator of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art


When you’ve got names like Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns and Shepard Fairey coming to your birthday celebration, you’re kind of a big deal.

You’re so big, in fact, that you’ll need an entire year just to fit everything in: the concerts and parties thrown in your honor, the exhibitions and performances brought to you from around the world, the media coverage offered in your support.

Expect no less for the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, which turns the Big 3-0 this year.

“Yes, it’s kind of a big deal,” confirms director Mark Sloan with a smile. “That’s why we’re bringing in all the heavy-hitting exhibits and the familiar names this year. I want to infuse every platform. We’re going for world domination!”

It certainly seems to be headed that way. Originally just a space in the Simons Center for the Arts featuring predominantly faculty-collection shows, the Halsey became a professional gallery in 1992. Since Sloan arrived as the director and curator in 1994, it has been reconceived as a Kunsthalle (a non-collecting contemporary art facility) – thus the name change to Institute in 2005 – and has gained a reputation around the world for its unique structure, interdisciplinary focus and experimental philosophy.

“We swim against the current: That’s what we do,” says Sloan, noting, too, that the institute originates all of its own programs, which is unusual for a university-based contemporary art program. “We are entrepreneurial, and we do take risks. I believe in the power of experimentation and taking chances – otherwise there’s no growth.”

And there has certainly been growth. With six full-time staff members and 10 professional (but volunteer) tour guides, the Halsey now hosts five to seven exhibits a year, provides extensive educational programming and has a strong international component.

“The programming at the Halsey is like a living organism – we bring in adventurous artists from all over the world and provide them with unique opportunities for engaging with diverse audiences. We’re always bringing in artists, writers, curators, critics and performers that have different connections, building on the idea of Charleston as a historic port city – a cultural nexus,” says Sloan, noting that the Halsey enjoys a larger reputation in the international community than it does locally, probably because of its experimental focus. “We specialize in presenting the work of the oddly overlooked: these emerging artists who have not had much recognition. But this year I wanted to draw in some more people from Charleston, so I decided to seduce them with great work by big-name artists.”

Two of those artists are coming together in one exhibit, The Insistent Image: Recurrent Motifs in the Art of Shepard Fairey and Jasper Johns, May 22–July 5. While of two different generations and two different artistic styles, both Fairey and Johns are internationally known native sons of South Carolina – and both use recurrent themes in their work.

In Johns’ series of 16 iconic prints spanning from 1982 to 2012, for example, there are recurrent motifs of the cosmos, face/vase optical illusions, cross-hatches, flags, gestures from American sign language and fragments of other artists’ works. The 84-year-old Johns, who grew up in Allendale, Columbia and Sumter, is best known for his painting “Flag” (which sold for $29 million in 2010) and is one of the most successful artists alive.

Fairey, a native of Charleston, is the street artist behind Andre the Giant Has a Posse and soared to international notoriety with his Obama “Hope” poster. Fairey is creating all new work for his first major exhibit in his hometown, to include paintings, screen prints and large-scale public murals in downtown Charleston. With recurring themes of sunbursts and propaganda imagery, his collection is called “Power and Glory,” and he says it’s a “celebration and critique of Americana with an emphasis on gas stations, gas and oil logos and iconography.”

“The theme is oil and power and the dual meaning of power,” says Sloan. “It shows how oil drives us and in turn drives the global economy. We live in a world that is literally run by oil.”

Another big name coming to the Halsey is, of course, Picasso – whose 1962 collaboration with photographer André Villers will be on display in the fall. In this series of photograms, called “Diurnes,” Picasso superimposed and applied paper cut-outs of figures to create mythical images over the black-and-white landscapes that Villers captured.

The other component of this exhibit is the work of Indonesian shadow-puppet artist Jamaadi, who makes puppets with a grass analogous to sweetgrass. Jamaadi and local shadow puppeteer Geoffrey Cormier – whom Sloan sent to Indonesia last year to meet Jamaadi – will also be performing around town, including at the Halsey’s “Moonshadow” event this fall.

“I think Picasso would have loved being included in the same exhibition as shadow puppets,” says Sloan. “What I like is making connections between seemingly disparate realms. I think that can allow an audience to experience something in a novel way.”

The Halsey’s birthday celebrations kicked off on January 31 with that same concept in mind: Two dissimilar artists, Jody Zellen with Above the Fold and Bob Trotman with Business as Usual, came together in one exhibit, connected by the idea of the insidious nature of corporate greed and media saturation.

Other celebrations have included parties and the Groundhog Day Benefit Concert at the Charleston Music Hall, where some of Charleston’s most prominent musicians came together to benefit the Halsey Institute.

“The Halsey often collaborates with musicians, actors, filmmakers, architects, designers and others to create its unique multidisciplinary offerings,” says the event’s musical director, Bill Carson ’99. “The participating musicians all want to shine the spotlight on the Halsey Institute in gratitude for their dynamic and inspirational role in this community.”

“I think there is a general renaissance in Charleston that has happened before my eyes in the 20 years I’ve been here. Charleston itself has become a cultural destination, not merely a historic one,” says Sloan, who received special recognition for the Halsey’s contributions to art in South Carolina when, in 2012, the institute received the Elizabeth O’Neil Verner Award (also known as the Governor’s Award). “The Halsey may have been something of a catalyst, but I think the movement has just grown alongside us as we’ve grown.”

Regardless of Sloan’s modesty in the matter, there’s no question of this: These days, the Halsey is kind of a big deal.