The rationale for hosting a biennial, an exhibition of contemporary art mounted every two years, is that such shows allow visitors to luxuriate in a cross section of the most recent visual creativity. The 2019 Biennial at the 701 CCA, for example, showcases works completed since 2017 by 24 South Carolina artists; the first 12 are on view until Nov. 3 and the other 12 from Nov. 13 to Dec. 22.

In essence, a biennial such as this serves as both a visual conversation among currently active artists and a chance for visitors to examine and admire the subject matter and creative processes most in vogue at any given moment. From my own perusal of Part One of the 2019 biennial, let me make a few generalizations in this regard.

Visitors to the CCA in Columbia are sure to be impressed by how some of the artists have used paper as a manipulated medium. The centerpiece of the exhibition – it is literally in the center of the gallery space – is composed entirely of handmade paper carved, creased and crinkled into exotic plant forms. Jocelyn Chateauvert, a Charleston resident and 2018 South Arts Fellow, calls her multipart installation “Dulcinea”; and one can certainly see how this label, roughly translated as “sweetheart,” captures the essence of this piece, which reads like a garden plot of exotic plants, seducing the eyes with their eccentric shapes. The tubular shaped flowers and spiky tendrils almost whisper “look but don’t touch.”

Equally compelling paper magic is on display in Charles Clary’s 100-piece “Memento Morididdle.” In these images, enclosed in found frames of various shapes and sizes, Clary, a Coastal Carolina faculty member, peels back the surface to reveal hidden layers – biomorphic structures inside a wallpapered wall or the circulatory system pulsing beneath the human epidermis. Clary’s secret substrata are composed of hand-cut archival scrapbooking paper, each sheet arranged upon another to create 3D formations that compel closer inspection. In essence, the artist is “diddling” with the concept of the memento mori or the reminder that life, whether that of humans or the things they make, is transient.

Clary’s focus on the inner workings of the human body brings me to yet another thread running through this otherwise diverse exhibition: an abiding interest in the human form as a subject for art. In this regard, we have Michaela Pilar Brown’s exploitation of her own body as symbol and narrative agent. In “Allpoints,” the Columbia-based artist’s naked form as viewed from above provides a contemporary counterpoint to Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man. In Brown’s eyes, the black female becomes a new proportional model of universal application.

Another compelling use of the human form can be found in the large-scale, darkly resonant woodcuts of College of Charleston printmaker Barbara Duval. There is, for example, no appreciable difference between the 12 silhouetted figures in “Jury” and the 12 that invade the somber, monochromatic setting of “Posse.” In each image, the ominous collective energy is the same. Is this always the end result of abandoning one’s individual identity to the herd?

The body – or at least fragments thereof – also forms part of the visual vocabulary of Charleston sculptor Herb Parker, whose mixed media piece entitled “Drone #1” amalgamates steel, glass and copper to create a humanoid creature whose body is part dinner cloche and part bedpan. Here we have a soulless worker reduced to the scale of a Roomba robot.

Metonymy is also the name of the game in five works by Columbia artist Jennifer Kelly Hoskins. In meticulous drawings combining pencil, acrylic and ink, the artist focuses on the hands of her five subjects, each one bedecked with jewelry or holding objects – a dog collar, a wine glass, Lego building blocks – that stand as visual referents to or adjuncts of individual identity.

Craftsmanship and the clever attention to detail is to be found throughout Part One of this year’s biennial. Consider Flavia Lovatelli’s enigmatic constructions of recycled materials, Diane Kilgore Condon’s elaborate diptychs of forest scenes and the successful translation of the familiar to the abstract as evidenced in the works of Michael Webster, Amber Eckersley, Kate Hooray Osmond and Eugene Ellenberg. I can’t wait to see what experiments in subject matter and idiom Part Two of the 2019 Biennial has in store.

A recipient of the Governor’s Award in the Humanities, Dr. Tom Mack holds the rank of USC Distinguished Professor Emeritus. Of his six books to date, three are devoted to colorful local history: “Circling the Savannah,” “Hidden History of Aiken County,” and “Hidden History of Augusta.”