This isn't the list of the "best" art shows of the year.
Art is nothing if not personal and subjective, so the trick to reading this list is not to take it as an objective truth, but simply to understand what causes certain pieces of art to find a home in one person's heart and mind.
What these shows have in common is that I am still thinking about them and talking about them many months later. Each one stirred something in me, showed me something I'd never seen before, and became a yardstick against which I compared other artists' work. These eight artists made a lasting impression on me because their work reminded me why I love seeing art and helped me better understand my place in the world.
David Bray at Stephanie Chefas Projects
(Amateur Occult Club, March)
David Bray's paintings on panel looked like they'd been roughed up by vandals—scratched, tagged with graffiti, written over. Next to one of his simple graceful figures, rendered without dimensionality in black outline, it was not uncommon to see a doodle of, say, Bart Simpson's head. What I loved most was the lack of preciousness and the punk rock immediacy of the paintings. This carried over from his process, which involved making art with whatever he had on hand, whether it was an old piece of wood, a leftover can of paint, or a marker stolen from a local shop. His imperative to create without any excuses came through in every piece, and I remain inspired by it still.
Sarah Fagan at Blackfish
The subjects of all of Sarah Fagan's still life paintings are objects that hold other objects: glass vessels, bowls, envelopes, boxes, paper bags. What moved me about the exhibition was that you could track Fagan's progress as she worked her way through the series, which she created during an artist residency. She began by painting bottles filled with small curiosities. As the time of her residency passed, as she became more still and meditative, the trompe l'oeil compositions become more stripped down and spare, resulting in white-on-white paintings of boxes. Not only were the boxes empty, they were flattened and deconstructed, their utility no longer in evidence, their potential to hold anything only an idea.
Joe Rudko at PDX Contemporary
Now that we all carry cameras around in our back pockets, fancying ourselves amateur photographers, fine art photographers are looking for new ways to push the medium. Photographer Joe Rudko put together a remarkable show for which he didn't take a single picture. Cutting up vintage snapshots that he says he found in an abandoned shed, he created a series of collage-like compositions that serve as a kind of American scrapbook. While going through all of the photographs, taken by many different people over many decades, he began to see themes emerge—pictures of trees, the ocean during a vacation, the sky—and he built his compositions around them. It seemed to me one of the most beautiful representations of what we all long for, because you can always identify our desires as a culture by what we point our cameras at.
Beautifully curated by first-time guest curator and collector John Goodwin, this group show brought tears to my eyes, twice. It tracked the representation of African-Americans in art over the past century, from overtly racist caricature, to journalistic photography that supported racial stereotypes, to the nuanced self-representation of black artists, to work by artists of color that has nothing at all to do with race. There were deeply moving juxtapositions, like the photo of an elderly black man from the Jim Crow South climbing a set of stairs to get to the "Colored" entrance to the movie theater, hanging next to a photo of Barack Obama climbing the stairs to Air Force One. Though the exhibition was at turns challenging, saddening and disturbing, it felt ultimately hopeful because it demonstrated how much progress we are capable of making in a relatively short period of time. Post-election, I often find myself referring back to the show, reminding myself of where we've been as a country.
Holly Andres at Charles A. Hartman
Fine Art (The Fallen Fawn, April)
For this series, photographer Holly Andres created a narrative about two young sisters who find a suitcase washed up at the edge of a lake. We see the girls sneaking the suitcase into their parents' house, trying on the trove of women's clothes contained inside. The photographs were elaborately staged productions that included actors, costumes, props and lighting, so they looked like stills from an art house film. What kept me transfixed by the series was how elliptical it was. Many of the photographs followed the girls throughout their discovery, but others were eerie, atmospheric snapshots that hinted at a much larger story: a single shoe floating in the lake, a car abandoned in a clearing with lipstick-stained cigarette butts in the ashtray. After 20 minutes with the photographs, I still couldn't bring myself to leave the gallery. So I stayed and got lost again.
Sharyll Burroughs at Bronco Gallery
(The N-Word Sessions: Subverting Banalities, September)
Art is one of the most powerful forces for change because some artists have the ability to hold up a mirror to our actions and our mistakes, helping us to construct new paths into the future. Sharyll Burroughs is that kind of artist. For her one-on-one performance, Burroughs sat with each participant, deconstructing the language of racism, challenging us to stare difficult things in the eye. Burroughs' gift is that she is able to do this while remaining completely present, open, compassionate, and non-judgmental of whatever her work brings up in people. When I look back on that performance, which I do often, I see it as a way forward for all of us.
Ellen Wishnetsky-Mueller at Jeffrey Thomas Fine Art
(Material Witness, September)
It is always life-affirming when an artist can distill certain fundamental truths about the natural world. Pairing undulating gossamer textiles and intractable rusted metal, sculptor Ellen Wishnetsky-Mueller created a series of sculptures that referenced everything from celestial bodies to geologic formations. The contrast of the materials embodied the push and pull of the masculine and the feminine, the soft and the hard, the lasting and the ephemeral—offering a view of the universe through its extremes. But the beauty came from bringing these forces together to show us what balance looks like.
Peter Brown Leighton at Blue Sky
(Man Lives Through Plutonium Blast, April)
I had to walk through this exhibition twice, and then I had to ask someone who worked at the gallery to explain to me what was going on before I could get my head around it. Photographer Peter Brown Leighton digitally combined images from vintage photographs to create each of his deeply disturbing and hilarious compositions. Some manipulations were quite subtle, requiring multiple viewings to ascertain where Leighton had left his fingerprints, like the image of a 50s-era husband with identical twin sisters perched on the arms of his chair. Were they really two people? Was it the same woman repeated? Others left no doubt about what had been changed or about Leighton's knack for creating disquieting, post-apocalyptic tableaus that could leave a permanent crack in your perception, like a smiling man gleefully being struck by lightning; a young boy, in his Sunday best, levitating off the church's altar; or a mushroom cloud in the middle of a city.