After 23 years in the art dealing business, Joe Sylvan has just two criteria when it comes to selecting his artists. “One, I have to like the work, because I can’t sell things I don’t like,” he says. “And two, I have to know and like the artist, because I’m too old to work with grumpy artists.”
Thankfully, there are plenty of artists who are both talented and pleasant. Sylvan represents 24 of them, both painters and sculptors, in his King Street gallery, The Sylvan Gallery. Although there are many different styles to be found on the gallery’s walls, in general Sylvan focuses on traditional, 20th- and 21st-century works. As he puts it, “Our cows look like cows.”
Sylvan and his wife, Janie, moved to Charleston from Santa Fe in 2002. He’d been associated with a gallery in that renowned Southwestern art town for 11 years, but was ready for a change. He was born in Columbia, South Carolina, so moving back to the South was an easy, but also strategic, transition. “We think Charleston’s going to be the next big art market,” Sylvan says. “It’s got all the right ingredients.”
The gallery has planned a solid series of fall shows. On October 24, Sylvan will present a show by figurative painters Scott Burdick and Susan Lyon, a married couple who live in North Carolina. “They have no children and they travel the world, and they just want to be the best artists they can possibly be,” says Sylvan. “We knew their work out West, and were delighted when they agreed to come with us.”
Both artists hail from Chicago, where they studied at the famed Palette & Chisel, an art academy founded in 1895. In fact, that’s where they met.
Burdick’s works vary on the style spectrum, vacillating between impressionistic and realist. Many of his portraits, for example, come closer to realism, deftly depicting individuals from cultures and countries around the world. His landscapes, on the other hand, are softer both in color and technique.
Lyon does still lifes as well as portraits and landscapes, and, like her husband, can work in both the realist and impressionist styles. Her drawn portraits, in particular, are exceptionally fine and detailed. The couple have done country-specific shows before—after trips to Tibet and India, for example—but this coming show will be different. “The October show will be a potpourri of places,” Sylvan says.
Then on November 14, the gallery will show new works by Rhett Thurman, a painter who is also the gallery’s sole Charleston artist. She grew up in upstate South Carolina in the tiny town of Gramling, moving to Charleston in 1970. Back then, Charleston’s arts community was scarcely alive, and she and her contemporaries helped grow it into what it is today: a thriving, well-respected circle of working artists.
Thurman has been painting in both oil and watercolor for more than 40 years, and she works in bold colors and brushstrokes. Her paintings depict scenes from as close as Society Street and as far away as India. “She paints like her personality—bright, cheerful, happy,” Sylvan says. “She’s such a pleasure to deal with.”
Thurman, Burdick and Lyon are representative of the kind of artists The Sylvan Gallery tends to stick with: established, fine artists who know and continue to refine their craft. He gets about 15 proposals a week from artists looking for a gallery. “I never refuse to look,” he says. “But it would take a lot for me to take a brand new artist. You can’t be all things to all people. You got to kind of pick your niche.”
Elizabeth Pandolfi is a writer and editor living in Charleston.