gather wet wood,
cut dry shavings, and for her,
whose face I held in my hands
a few hours, whom I gave back
only to keep holding the space where she was,
a small fire in the rain."
-Galway Kinnell, "Under the Maud Moon"
I fell down a little bit on the job here. I didn't hit nearly the galleries or museums I hit in previous years, and I didn't make it to any out of town spots except New York and Cleveland, but the high points were high. Of the 55 or so shows I saw this year, these 10 stunned me to tears or made me want to try, desperately, hungrily, to articulate what it did to me. This is a series of snapshots of me still trying and still coming up short.
As with the other three posts, everything is in Columbus except otherwise stated.
- Chris Ofili, Night and Day (New Museum, NYC) – I knew the controversy, of course, growing up when I did. And I knew a few of the pieces. But I was wholly unprepared to walk into the New Museum on a frigid November afternoon and be confronted by who – in my unbeliever's eyes – might be the greatest Christian artist working today. Starting with the beautifully human and distorted sculpture of St. Sebastian in grey and browning metal, limbs trying to pull out two gleaming silver arrows and tapering out to almost tentacles while the entire body is bedecked with hastily hammered and bent nails, Ofili said things to me about the horrifying nature of transcendence and the dangers of belief that I can't quite put into words. Time stopped. From there, every few feet held another explosion, something else driving me deeper into myself but also showing me this perspective I had some historical context for but still at an angle to myself. Small character studies in the Afro Muses series, the famous large, sensual paintings like "The Holy Virgin Mary" using glittering, vibrating artificial colors in paint along with things connecting the sensation back to the Earth like elephant dung, but the material doesn't desecrate the subject; the reality elevates it back up and makes it greater. The Ofili Chapel paintings of images slow to reveal their horrors - lynchings, soldiers - in black in a dimly lit room that look like they're glowing like Rothko. Grotesqueries that rise above jokes like "Shithead" with the artist's own hair, human teeth and a lump of elephant dung like a holy artifact you could get out of an underground comic book. Ofili's a stunning religious artist because he cares so deeply – deeply enough to be outraged by, but you never feel like he hates – about the world. There's no story without a human voice. There's no image without the human brain and art to make sense out of it. There's no God without someone to believe, without someone who needs to believe. There's no sainthood without a horrible death.
- Carrie Mae Weems, Three Decades of Photography and Video (Guggenheim, NYC) – There was an overwhelming temptation to just write "My God" three times talking about this. As you can see, I try to overcome that in the ensuing words, maybe to everybody's detriment. Weems' work has always made my blood run cold whenever I've encountered her, most recently (before this) in the Wexner Center's terrific Blues for Smoke, but seeing this retrospective of her career up to now is one of the great chronicles of the important work of playing witness I can possibly imagine. Her work goes deep into her family history (deceptively simple candid-seeming photographs with paragraphs of oral history). She looks at the arc of black history as it's told to outsiders and sometimes internalized, through portraits tinted with shocking monochromatic colors of models posed as stereotypes or once-accepted horrifyingly racist bric-a-brac. And then the full flowering of this, "From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried," tinting and overlaying text on photographs originally used to illustrate a racist essay in a red you can't gloss over. I started crying myself somewhere in the middle, but was lifted up that someone did this, that this work expended to fight back the dragon of forgetting won't be forgotten itself. All of the formal beauty and the conceptual rigor were deployed in the holy service of this much-needed needle in your eyes. My God. My God. My God.
- Robert Gober, The Heart is Not a Metaphor (Museum of Modern Art, NYC) – It sure seems like I cried a lot in galleries this year. Maybe that's good. Maybe I needed it.This huge retrospective of Gober's work, much of which dealt with the AIDS crisis, was bracing and vibrated with deep, meditative space. The early work, children's cribs and sinks subtly then more and more pointedly distorted, did the hard work of changing my perception of the world in a way not much art ever has. But that electricity was just acclimating me to Gober's vocabulary and scraping a layer of skin off for his more immersive work. Legs appearing to come out of the wall, whole bodies subsumed by walls, by the institution, by all institutions, sometimes anointed by candles. Sinks buried in the ground like tombstones, a reminder that we can never get as clean as we want. And for me, maybe the most moving piece, his room-sized snapshot of 9/11, pews with empty clothes, a headless torso crucified with water flowing out of holes where its nipples would go and Times pages like windows – almost the after-image from a nuclear blast, but that blast was concentrated pain. There's so much to unpack in this I barely scratched the surface, but there were lessons about understanding yourself and how to engage with the world even as you know it will let you down that I grasped immediately, or they grasped me. And they wouldn't let me go. That's why, with all the great work I saw at MoMA this year – Jasper Johns' Regrets, Sigmar Polke's Alibis, Gauguin's Metamorphoses, Matisse's Cut Outs – this towers over them in my head and helped me face the day even as it preoccupied my thoughts for hours..
- Various Artists, Cruzamentos: Contemporary Art in Brazil (Wexner Center for the Arts) – Most of the narrative about the Wexner Center this year will be about Transfigurations, and rightly so, with so many undisputed masterpieces in one place. But for me, Cruzamentos was the eye-opener. This survey of the Brazillian art scene was packed so full of surprises and delights that I should have seen this 10 times instead of 5 (blame the brutally cold winter). Lucia Koch’s installations were my favorites, glimpses into another world that reminded me a little of Anish Kapoor, and an astonishing installation/film loop by Jonathas de Andrade using a horse race as a metaphor, a calling back to prankster art and a cracking of nostalgia. Adrianas Varejao’s Polvo reminded me how different – but sadly, similar – conversations about race are in other countries, with newly crafted paints built around a ‘70s survey of how citizens identified their skin color used to paint classical portraits. There was so much that took my breath away with horror and delight – this was a great example of how grant money can really benefit an institution and an audience (and, I hope, the artists).
- Diana Al-Hadid, s/t (Canzani Center at Columbus College of Art and Design) – Massive sculptures that don’t look unfinished so much as decaying, their essence melting off the frameworks, headless bodies climbing what looks like an old hillside development. Gaps shot through these stunning monuments to façade and falsehood, like the centerpiece Nolli’s Orders or the ropy dream logic of Head in the Clouds. This had a redemptive, purging quality like Richard Serra’s giant metal sculptures; there’s a gravity you can get lost in but you can also unburden yourself to. I must have seen this half a dozen times and wish I’d gone even more often.
- Maria Lassnig, s/t (MoMA PS1, NYC) – Similar to Ofili, Lassnig was a name I’d heard but I’d never seen more than a couple of pieces. This Austrian artist presented some of the most beautiful depictions of the struggle for freedom and the effort to live up to – or free yourself from – your fantasy life. The weight of the world and the static and disjunction of memory and perception are hard to ignore here, things always fading and snapping into focus. Much like Chagall, she used the tools she wanted from the movements she touched over a long and varied career – surrealism, minimalism, abstract expressionism – but she used what she wanted and no more. She absorbed what she wanted from what she touched but she never, from the evidence of this amazing retrospective, lost sight of her own voice.
- Carla Klein, s/t (Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, NYC) – This was probably the most successful blending of photography and painting I’ve ever seen. Expansive landscapes implying motion, often views of careening around a turn or on a road looking over a flat expanse, with paint blurring the edges or creating the equivalent of photographic imperfections, sometimes dissolving into just an acid blur of color over the side or scratches on the “film.” There was something very arresting and meditative about these canvases; when I walked back out onto the Chelsea street, the air had a tint I didn’t expect and it felt like time was moving in a subtly different current.
- Will Eisner, 75 Years of Graphic Storytelling (Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum) – The renovated Billy Ireland has been a massive force for good in Columbus, both in having room to display more of the amazing collection and mount bigger exhibits, and also in the attention it’s brought to the art form. The Calvin and Hobbes retrospective got the most attention, but everything they mounted this year was worth seeing and worth recommending. I want to call specific attention to the Will Eisner show of this fall, an incredible influence on comic book storytelling over the decades of his career. This captured some of everything – his use of cinematic techniques no one had yet translated to a comics page, his work on educational and industrial comics, his plainspoken storytelling and that beautiful line work. A great introduction for new fans, but for people like me who’d been in awe of Eisner’s work for most of our lives, this was heaven.
- Korakit Arunanondchai, s/t (MoMA PS1, NYC) – This first US museum exhibition by this Thai artist dismantled any cynicism I had at least for a little while. Paintings and inkjet splashes on denim and video installations; a finger in the eye of your notions of authenticity but also a slashing attack at the way globalization has steamrolled work and created a sameness of culture. This deals with identity and the need to control your representation, but also how hard it is to separate this from your intake of media. The importance of being more than just a series of signifiers, but also an understanding of how signifiers can bring comfort to you. There was an edgy, earnest magic in this I don’t get enough of.
- Lee Krasner and
Norman Lewis, From the Margins (
Jewish Museum, NYC) – This was a delight, the parallel tracks of Lee
Krasner, whose painting I’ve loved for many years, and Norm Lewis, whose work I didn't really know at all, in the wake of Abstract Expressionism and much later. Thick daubs of color and lines that snake and spiral that feel as much influenced by the night air in the city as by any tradition, but still informed and infused by a deep understanding of tradition. These were roadmaps back to places in my heart I hadn't seen in a while.