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Oasis of the Beaux 

Visual art offerings not to miss

The kids are back at school, the beach is a memory and soon it will again be fall in the "Sahara of the Bozart." Acid-tongued culture czar H.L. Mencken wasn't referring specifically to Charlotte when he equated our region's cultural contributions with a desert, but as part of the South, we were included. But Mencken is dead and North Carolina lives. This fall and early winter, anyone with two eyes in his head can see that our town, and her satellites, offers us work-weary denizens excellent opportunities to peek beyond our blinders of money, stature and lower interest rates.

There are now dozens of galleries in town, at least six museums, and one of the best visual think-and-do tanks in the country -- the McColl Center for Visual Arts. We'll all miss most of what Charlotte has to offer this year -- there's just too much to see and so little time away from the TV, computer and cell phone. Here are the ones that warrant pulling all the plugs, so grab your calendar and take notes. A visit to a few of these places will be good for you, but go anyway.

Get in the car and drive to Charlotte's largest suburb, Raleigh. At the North Carolina Museum of Art, see Defying Gravity: Contemporary Art and Flight, the one show you cannot miss this year and still retain your status as a decent citizen. This exceptional visual experience celebrates the centennial of manned flight over the sand of Kitty Hawk, NC, a little town just east of Charlotte. The 90 works in Defying Gravity are from 13 countries and have all been produced in the last 25 years. The real beauty of this show lies in each artist's ability to re-ignite the wonder of human flight in an age that views flight as a two-hour layover at Charlotte Douglas. These works, in particular the three monumental commissioned pieces, can transport the viewers' consciousness back to the time when human flight could only be imagined. There is easy magic here.

Along with international art stars like Wayne Thiebaud and Frank Stella, the museum includes artists with North Carolina connections -- Brent Cole, Kara Hammond and Marvin Jensen.

Environmental artist Chris Drury constructed an eight-sided Camera Obscura that invites you into the darkness. Once inside, he transfers the sky from a pinhole above your head to the ground under your feet.

The outdoor installation "Flight Wind Reeds," by New York artists Bill and Mary Buchen, replicates the flight of Russian pilots traveling 700 miles an hour, then flipping their planes by cutting the power.

Overhead, inside the museum are 1,000 Mylar butterflies forming the image of the X-35 joint strike fighter jet. This show will succeed in doing for us what two bicycle geeks did for the planet 100 years ago -- for a short but significant time we can be elevated and transported.

No longer drawing shallow breaths beneath the shadow of Ericsson Stadium, The Light Factory continues to draw new life from its new digs at Spirit Square with Women in Photo Journalism, a juried exhibition opening August 29.

The exhibit is the result of an open call to all women photographers to submit their work for review by a paneled jury chaired by Laura Mueller of the Charlotte Observer. No restrictions in content were required, other than the loose theme, "Visionaries." With this show, the Light Factory continues its often pushy, prickly and sometimes risky penchant for offering shows that threaten to vex Charlotte from her stony sleep. I look forward to this show. It could be either lame or very good, but it's guaranteed to be revealing.

On October 18, the Mint Museum opens Raphael to Monet: European Masterpieces from the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. The Walters Museum has one of the best European collections in the country. This show, put together by curator Charles Mo, will show works by Raphael, Brueghel the Younger, Ingres, Manet, Pissaro, and Monet. Big names in Art History, but more impressively, from this collection you'll see excellent individual pieces by these particularly great artists.

This is the show you take your great aunt or your kids to see, and not because the outing promises to be a buncha fun. You take your aunt because she'll be impressed you have any interest at all, and you take your kids because by some mysterious grace they may become entranced. And by some even greater mystery you may have your own re-awakening in the face of these quiet giants.

Local Abstract Expressionist brute and Davidson professor Herb Jackson shows 10 new paintings from his Veronica's Veils series at Christa Faut Gallery in Cornelius on September 26. Jackson's Veils series has been a continuing project since 1979 and now numbers 155 paintings. This show is an excellent opportunity to see Jackson's much ballyhooed expressionist paintings and venture out into hinterland Charlotte to see how far out the local culture virus has spread. The Christa Faut Gallery is a happy side of cultural sprawl.

Herb Jackson says, "My inner journey through art confirms... that it is not necessary to rob life of its mystery in order to understand it." Even though I'm fond of robbing life of its mysteries, I appreciate what he's saying -- he attempts to give form to the unknowable, and for many viewers he apparently succeeds. It's worth seeing his work to see if it works for you.

Like knowing who throws the football for the Panthers or what BofA is, you're not ready for primetime Charlotte without knowing your marquee homeboy abstract painter Herb Jackson. He's a must see, love him or hate him. And you'll do one or the other; no so-so reactions are possible.

On September 11, the McColl Center for Visual Art at 721 North Tryon will run a six-minute video titled Great Balls of Fire by NY artist Leon Grodski. The looped video won the 2002 Nodance Film Festival Best Short video award. It will run all day from 8:45am until 6pm. I'll drop in and devote that much time in remembrance of the events two years ago.

The McColl Center will also be hosting a new group of visiting resident artists this fall. Each invitee receives a small stipend and a bigger studio for a three-month work jag. On October 3, the gallery opens with a new show of current residents and affiliates. Each show I have seen here leaves me with something to think about or remember. That's more than I get from most.

This old church is an inviting place, a kind of Mister Rogers' neighborhood for the visually curious and intellectually hungry. The McColl Center has been holding fast to their mission "to catapult artists to the vanguard of contemporary art" -- providing the facilities, the system, and the atmosphere amenable to these ever-changing, short-term waves of artists. They leap and run and stumble in that effort fearlessly. Success can be gauged by your interest.

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