Top ten art experiences of 2009

Happy 2010!

If you haven’t gotten a chance to read my picks for best shows in (mostly) alternative galleries in Cincinnati from 2009, check it out

I hesitated to compose my list of favorite shows in 2009 until I had seen everything, and that was down to the wire, as we traveled to Washington D.C. at the very end of the year, and I had a feeling that one or more of those experiences would make it onto my list. The first five or so were easy, the latter half, more competitive (I might mention the Surrealism and Beyond exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum or PS1’s Between Spaces group exhibition as close runner-ups). But here are the shows settled on for the top 10 best art experiences I had in 2009:

1. Roni Horn a.k.a. Roni Horn, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
The Whitney’s two-floor retrospective survey of Roni Horn’s work was a spacious, poetic arrangement of the artist’s multi-disciplinary (and very pluralist) practice that susses out the semiotics and subtexts of identity. Lest her luminous, post-minimalist sculptures be construed as purely formal and mechanical, they are coupled throughout the exhibition with suites of photographs that are at different turns highly personal (such as the room of self portrait couplets surrounding the twin-sheets of hammered gold on the floor) or else emotively charged. No matter what her medium or execution, Horn excels at delving into and revealing unexpected depth in cast glass, brooding portraits, or black-on-black text embossed into rubber floors.

2. Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection, Hirshhorn Museum + Sculpture Garden. Washington, DC
After preparing myself to engage with this exhibition for over a year, I finally got over to see it at the very end of the year (and the very end of the exhibition). Truitt’s nearly life-size (and in some instances, soaring clear above everyone’s heads) wooden forms are vehicles for the psychology and poetry of her deftly-controlled and chosen colors. The objects are nearly monochrome, with discreet bands of second or third colors interjected into their compositions. Based in Washington, this painterly aspect of her work has traditionally situated her between the Minimalist and Color Field camps of the day. But in her preoccupation of surface treatment, Truitt stepped outside of the desubjectivizing impulse in Minimalism, and also began the work of psychologically felling the columns that she built. A key set of works in exploring Truitt’s significance to this discourse is the four Dryad sculptures from around 1975. Renato Danese, her longtime gallerist, said of Truitt’s sculptures, “They became almost translucent,” which is precisely the point. When Truitt’s early champion Greenburg observed “It was hard to tell, in Truitt’s art, where the pictorial and where the sculptural began and ended,” he was starting to recognize that the sensitivity to introspective rumination that propelled Truitt’s decision making also tweaked the objects so that finally the physical thing acted as a container and a portal to the landscape of memory from whence it came.

3. Ree Morton: At the Still Point of the Turning World, Drawing Center, New York, NY
This much-deserved look into Ree Morton’s revealed her as broadly applicable to myriad contemporary approaches to abstraction, humor and a penchant for detaching her languages of symbols and marks from their reference points. The openness and the practicality of her drawings and installations surpass her Post-minimalist contemporaries (such as Eva Hesse) in panache, sly wit and specificity. Throughout the exhibition, it becomes clear that Morton often began a body of work by using a recently studied text—philosophy, botany—as a departure point for works that free float into highly personal abstractions that return to the zest, confidence and joy of the Rococo.

4. Trace, Carmel Buckley at the Weston Art Gallery, Cincinnati, OH
Carmel Buckley evoked the spirit of place with an installation constructed from sculptural objects, drawings, monotypes and video. In creating this exhibition, Buckley set forth a project for herself as an artist-cum-archeologist by using objects and specific qualities she has discovered in the house and surrounding woods that she moved into with her family when they relocated to Ohio. She honed in on the specific idiosyncrasies of the place, and, rather than trying to recreate the environment inside the Weston’s lower level gallery, she offers a series of fragments that allow a blending between the place to which she refers and the place in which the viewer encounters her work. The psychological tone of these layered, partial spaces was palpable.

5. Gedi Sibony: My Arms Are Tied Behind My Other Arms, Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, MO
Gedi Sibony’s exhibition invited an interlude of profound intimacy between viewer and museum by way of a series of provisional installations, using humble gestures as an access point to familiarizing oneself with the specific qualities of the space. Most profound were the moments in which the artist’s nearly imperceptible sleight and subtlety brought me deeper into the rooms themselves.

6. 18th Century French Drawing everywhere. The Frick Collection, New York, NY; the Morgan Library, New York, NY; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
I have felt repeatedly reassured for my ongoing commitment to the Rococo through a series of exhibitions around the country that have started with Antoine Watteau and built exhibitions of his and other drawings from French masters and students from the 18th Century and some before or since. These are frothy and decadent, sometimes startlingly scratchy and inelegant. Liaisons, parties, sex, cooking, gardens, seashells, goddesses: their reservoir of subject matter precede so much of my own art research. I grew this year because of these exhibitions.

7. Luc Tuymans, Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH
Tuyman’s photo-based works offer that the romance of painting is not within the materials of the medium itself, but lies in the fact that a painting is not a photograph. While photography has entered and exited the realm of fact and believability, paintings have remained defiantly fictitious, a quandary of objective (detached) and subjective (invented) sensation. The translation of images from world events, popular culture or the artist’s personal life into manipulated paint displaces the topics at hand, inviting a rare opportunity for the associative and the imaginative to work themselves out in a viewer’s search for meaning.

8. Purchase Not By Moonlight, Anri Sala at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH
Anri Sala’s multimedia exhibition is conceived as a spectacle fully integrated into the sweeping, angular galleries of this particular museum. Projected films, photographs, and sculptures perpetuate a dusky state of partial comprehension as delicately reconfigured fragments, eroded narratives, communication breakdowns, and an all too lifelike blending of opposites consume exhibition spaces that have been painted in gradually darker shades of gray as one proceeds through two floors of work. Throughout the exhibition, means of communication are contrasted, often portraying a poignant disruption between parties. For Sala, the beauty is in the collision, in the rare potential for something new to emerge from an unsuspecting discourse.

9. Cy Twombly: The Natural World, Selected Works, 2000-2007, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
One of the first gods in my artistic pantheon graced us with a multi-disciplinary display of sculptures, paintings and photographs that were all connected through nature as a thematic element. Over and over, though, the works’ takes on ‘nature’ felt purely imaginative, prismatic, at least reduced from the huge expanse of the natural world. Flowers became huge, six-foot tall affairs in paint; oceans and bays were flattened by the scribbles with which Twombly responded to them; and the menagerie of his sculptures recalled funeral barges, ornamental trees, and a sense of sparkling rarity, like someone catching a Unicorn.

10. Take Your Time: Olafur Eliasson, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, IL
Having heard a great deal about this exhibition the year before, as it caused a storm of reviews and enthusiastic reactions from friends in New York, I was afraid I would be disappointed with this body of work. The opposite was true. These works don’t translate into descriptions and printed images in magazines well. They are a Wonderland of confused perceptions, a Willy Wonka science-experiment that uses light, color, mist, organic materials and interactivity to push and pull at how we think we see and experience space around us. Beauty (1993), the oldest work at the MCA version of the survey, will be remembered as one of the most spectacular visual experiences I have ever had. The exhibition would be higher on my list if I wasn’t bothered by the theatrical constructions that the museum had to be transformed into so that the effects of Eliasson’s works could be experienced. I found it distracting and distrusted the displacement it forced from real, natural light, day-to-day looking.

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