“God, limit these punishments, there’s still Judgment Day –
I’m a mere sinner, I’m no infidel tonight.
Executioners near the woman at the window.
Damn you, Elijah, I’ll bless Jezebel tonight.
The hunt is over, and I hear the Call to Prayer
fade into that of the wounded gazelle tonight.
And I, Shahid, only am escaped to tell thee.
God sobs in my arms. Call me Ishmael tonight.”
-Agha Shahid Ali, “Tonight”
This year was so soaked enough in death you almost had to wring it out. There was a lot to be sick over. Personally: the other Grandfather, a dear friend Valerie, friends’ parents and lovers and best friends. And that’s all before the camera pulls back to look at the larger world – the larger world where terror hit closer to home than usual, people gunned down going to a show or the recent vandalism and suicide at the Wexner Center causing the After Picasso show to close early. That, of course, speaks to privilege because for much of the world death is never as far away as it, luckily, is for me, and my grey year doesn’t even move the needle on a larger scale.
For me, visual art has always been linked with the act of memory and the act of bearing witness. Its permanence (and in some cases, its deliberate eschewing of that permanence) gives it some of its meditative quality. My heart breaks for anyone there when the event happened in December and anyone who might have been there and, of course, the person who chose that place to end it. Even before the most recent event, the art that drew me to it, that made me want to tell somebody, that made me want to argue with it and wrestle with it, played right into the preoccupation with death I didn’t consciously realize I had this year. But more than that, it was a balm. It was fuck it, this matters. It was this is still standing. It was fight to remember. It’s a reminder to keep trying.
As with all of my Year End summations, everything is in Columbus unless stated otherwise.
- Doris Salcedo, s/t (Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago) – On a grey, unseasonably cold day in Chicago in the middle of a great trip, this Colombian artist made me feel like someone was standing on my chest in a room full of knives. From the opening piece, Plegaria Muda, with its wooden tables the audience has to squeeze between and growths of vegetation coming out of the tables like a field of gravestones but still shot through with fragile life, on, this took my breath away. Sculptures using silk and human hair, abandoned doors concrete. It was a death mask for the world and a shrine, apocalyptic and very, very beautiful.
- Alberto Burri, The Trauma of Painting (Guggenheim, NYC) – This was the kind of show that left me kicking myself I didn’t know Burri’s artwork better beforehand. It gave me the same feeling as Giuseppe Ungaretti’s poetry, though his poet countryman is an earlier war, with its use of the surreal to crack open your chest and its fantasies about shipwrecks instead of the way you see you friends die. Molten plastic, welded metal leaving the seams obvious enough they look like blisters, burlap sacks as an indictment of capitalism. Everywhere I turned my mouth got dry and tears came to my eyes.
- Jack Whitten, Five Decades of Painting (Wexner Center for the Arts) – There’s been a lot of talk about the Wexner not having a permanent curator in a while (they still have curator-at-large Bill Horrigan) but I have to say they’ve done a great job working around those limitations this year. This Jack Whitten retrospective showed a singular voice working through, challenging, and recombining every interesting art trend of the 20th century and stripping away what didn’t apply to what he wanted to say. My favorite pieces were the portraits/tributes that combined painting and mosaic and found objects in a way that made blood hot in my veins, especially the tribute to Amiri Baraka (a flawed, complicated guiding light for me, always). Memory writ appropriately large.
- Elaine de Kooning, Portraits (National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC) – Knowing Elaine de Kooning’s work more by reputation (and a couple examples at MoMA), this series of portraits was revelatory. Obviously, especially for being at the National Portrait Gallery, this retrospective moved in tighter and tighter circles toward the famous JFK portrait but that gleams with sunlight and the way a beautiful sunny day throws the greens and yellows of the garden you’re in all around, fracturing what you see and what you can’t quite make out. These, all of them, are full of mystery and secrets and magic that gets closer, you think, to who the people being depicted were than maybe they’d ever shown.
- Shirin Neshat, Facing History (Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC) – I’ve been a fan of Neshat’s work for a long time so this retrospective was like gorging myself on something almost too rich to consume. The way she grasps the macro elements of history, history’s pain and the way it disfigures people with the twinned fires of love and hate but also it’s beauty, and the way she understands people is a marvel. Gorgeous works you can get lost in, a lot to say about the way the world gets created with our creation of language (this theme also resonated with me in several things on my theatre list coming soon). This was a series of varying punches that left me staggered.
- Walid Raad, s/t (Museum of Modern Art, NYC) – Walid Raad’s collections of photographs, videos, sculpture and fictional histories, gobsmacked me and left me babbling. It made me think a lot about the horrific situations in Lebanon over the years and how someone around my age would have processed that, and, weirdly, it made me think of the recent controversy in science fiction. This is a brilliant example of how fictionalizing and fabulism (for the latter, Raad’s “merged” sculptures from the middle east transported to the Louvre) can been tools (scalpels or daggers or stilettos or garrotes) to slice into your heart. And an example of how many stories those tools can be good for telling with emotional maturity and an eye to how big and fantastic (and sometimes fantastically horrible) the world really is.
- Various Artists, Sitter: Portraiture in Contemporary Photography (CCAD Contemporary Arts Space) – The CCAD space has been killing it the last few years and this year, with this (before the renovation) and the work after the renovation to create a better flow for the galleries has made it a force to be reckoned with for modern art in Columbus. This group show of 27 photographers really dug deep into what portraiture means now and was full of alive, striking, political, rich, sexy, intense work.
- Pablo Picasso, Picasso Sculpture (Museum of Modern Art, NYC) – I’m on the record as not being the biggest Picasso fan. All credit to his craft and his influence but most of his work I just don’t love. This was an exception. Seeing this many of his sculptures together had a delirious, vertiginous effect that actually made me want to go deeper and stay longer and talk about it more. This was also, by far, the best arranged and curated exhibit I saw, Ann Temkin and Anne Umland made this arrangement of sculpture both feel excavated and timeless and flow in a way that felt intensely personal and real.
- Catherine Opie, Portraits and Landscapes (Wexner Center for the Arts) – Opie, long a favorite of mine (who also had work in Sitter), took a step into something almost resembling Renaissance painting with her photographs here. These rich, dark portraits of her social circle, often naked or half naked but with expressions and clean lines that summoned a deep distance encouraged me to look again and again. Just as intriguing are the blurred-almost-to-abstraction landscapes that break up the intensity of the gazes like a note of sensual dissonance. She’s not here to comment on the souls of these people and she’s not here to pass any judgment. There are no easy answers, no pat summations, in this body of her work and we’re richer having it.
- Charles Atlas, The Waning of Justice (CCAD Contemporary Arts Space) – Atlas is another perennial for me but this doomsday clock over gorgeous landscapes and abstract concepts leading into a room where the larger-than-life figure of Lady Bunny gave a moving, hilarious monologue across a whole wall that periodically dropped out to silence was astonishing. Concern with a disappearing world turned into an aching dance.
- Various, Open This End: Contemporary Art from the Collection of Brian Byrne (OSU Urban Arts Space) – In general I agree with the concerns about single-collector exhibitions. That said, my understanding was this was already donated to its final destination and I was blown away by this collection of art that wasn’t just blue-chip but was also violent, intense, irreverent and wise. The curation was really stunning with pictures about race facing off against each other, corners about death. This wasn’t easily digestible and with all the big names it didn’t make concessions to being palatable and we were all the better for it.
- Archibald Motley, Jazz-Age Modernist (Whitney Museum, NYC) – Motley’s fascinating mix seems to obviously point toward Thomas Hart Benton, Hopper, and Toulouse-Lautrec. What I saw most was Chagall, with an assured willingness to discard any piece of a tradition he didn’t need and use exactly what of it he wanted. But his work’s in no way derivative, it shimmers and vibrates with an electricity that’s all his own and these portraits and large scenes got better and better seeing in a large group. Any fine artist working with the black experience, especially in those days, is to be considered seriously but beyond those serious concerns this was sensual, intense work, looking at an era as it started to tip over.
- Anonymous, Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) – As with most good things I see, this was a suggestion of A., and it was astonishing. If you grew up a record nerd and a comic book nerd like me, this was an extra delight. Using the medium of painted record covers and show fliers, this fictional universe the artist known only as Mingering Mike created where the same songwriting credits popped up again and again and various musicians played with other groups fit together and was just off enough to have an interesting tension. Similarly to the Walid Raad, this secret history pointed toward an unknown pain with notes vaguely intimating draft dodging and the work drying up after the pardon when the artist could find a job, the characters going away when they aren’t needed anymore.
- Louise Fishman, s/t (Cheim and Read Gallery, NYC) – This selection of paintings was the best thing I saw in a long day wandering around Chelsea. Vibrant and full of sensuous dissonance, like a landscape run through a distortion pedal on these big canvases.
- Various, Fiber: Sculpture 1960-Present (Wexner Center for the Arts) – This exhibit that came to the Wex after a run at Boston’s ICA opened my eyes to a whole new medium in a way that doesn’t happen much anymore. I marveled at seeing the way textile work embraces and pulls against easy connotations of domesticity and explodes into something political and angry, totemic and erotic; seeing the way it enfolds history and points toward the future. I visited this maybe a dozen times and I could have done a dozen more.