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Best of 2014: Our Top 10 Brooklyn Art Shows

At Kara Walker's "Subtlety" (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)
At Kara Walker’s “Subtlety” (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

There was so much great art in our home borough this year that many weeks passed when we didn’t cross a river or creek. Between the proliferation of galleries in Bushwick and, to a lesser extent, Greenpoint, the small cadre of Dumbo galleries sticking it out, longtime heavyweights including the Brooklyn Museum and BRIC mounting ambitious shows, and Creative Time parachuting Kara Walker’s sugar sphinx into the Domino Sugar Factory, it’s been an exceptionally strong year for art in Brooklyn. These were our favorite shows, pieces, and moments.

#1 – Andrew Ohanesian’s “Scaffold” (2014) at Pierogi’s Pierogi XX: Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition

Andrew Ohanesian, "Scaffold" (2014) (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)
Andrew Ohanesian, “Scaffold” (2014) (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

September 5–October 11
Always interested in hierarchies and systems of power, Andrew Ohanesian erected one of the borough’s ubiquitous construction scaffolds over the façade of Pierogi in Williamsburg for the duration of the gallery’s 20th anniversary exhibition. Ohanesian often creates art that transforms our sense of space by making us aware of its overlooked details and nebulous boundaries.

For “Scaffold,” one of his best, he employed the Duchampian trick of renaming a known object and using it to shift the meaning of this harbinger of gentrification into a stage set for something that may never arrive. —Hrag Vartanian

#2 – Roberta Allen: Works from the 1970s at Minus Space

Detail from Roberta Allen's 'Pointless Acts' series (1976) (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)
Detail from Roberta Allen’s ‘Pointless Arrow’ series (c,1972–75) (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

April 4–May 10
The reemergence of an artist is a wonderful thing, but when that artist is as talented as Roberta Allen then it is truly a joyous occasion. Allen’s conceptual work from the 1970s — the focus of this show — is playful and rejects any form of artistic orthodoxy.

There are shades of feminism in the prominent placement of herself in the work, but the real focus is on language and how it is constructed, manipulated, and used to convey meaning. Allen took a sojourn from the art world in the 1980s and turned her attention to writing books; let’s hope this exhibition helps spur a new period of art making for her. —HV

#3 – Saya Woolfalk: ChimaTEK Beta Launch at Smack Mellon

Another view of 'ChimaTEK Beta Launch' (photo courtesy Smack Mellon)
Another view of ‘ChimaTEK Beta Launch’ (photo courtesy Smack Mellon) (click to enlarge)

September 27–November 9
Saya Woolfalk’s ethereal installation took her exploration of identity and technology to another level by introducing a fully immersive experience to her ruminations on a post-human future. Unlike her other projects, this work had a more ominous tone, suggesting a level of alienation from normally soothing notions of ritual and the expected march of progress. On the edges of her candy-colored universe the shadows felt overpowering. —HV

#4 – Brent Owens: For Thinkin’ Long and Dark at English Kills

Installation view of 'Brent Owens: For Thinkin’ Long and Dark' at English Kills (photo by Benjamin Sutton for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘Brent Owens: For Thinkin’ Long and Dark’ at English Kills (photo by Benjamin Sutton for Hyperallergic)

February 22–March 30
This exhibition confirmed for me that Brent Owens is an alchemist with the ability to transmute materials. How else to explain the intricate, enormous, and seemingly floppy rugs he routes from plywood, or the faux neon lights he carves out of branches? Here he also showcased his ability to work with wood’s innate properties, transforming a humble tree trunk into a tricked out, hot pink Lowrider. — Benjamin Sutton

#5 – HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?’s “Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera” (2014) at their Dumbo studio

Still from HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, "Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera" (2014) (courtesy the artists)
Still from HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, “Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera” (2014) (collection of the artists, © HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, via whitney.org) (click to enlarge)

June 5
I’d wager that one of the biggest artistic losses of the year was the Yams Collective’s withdrawal of themselves and their work “Good Stock on the Dimension Floor: An Opera” from the Whitney Biennial. In an exhibition that faced mostly inward, the Yams’ film about the experience of moving through the world in a black body would have provided a sorely needed dose of fresh air. But that description perhaps pigeonholes, and certainly doesn’t do justice to, the piece, which I had the privilege of seeing at the Yams’ Dumbo studio. “Good Stock” is a poetic, musical, deeply visceral, gorgeously kaleidoscopic, affecting work of art. It’s a journey I hope to go on again. —Jillian Steinhauer

#6 – David S. East and Robert Raphael: Post and Lintel at Calico

Installation view of 'David S. East and Robert Raphael: Post and Lintel' at Calico (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘David S. East and Robert Raphael: Post and Lintel’ at Calico (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

September 12–October 17
This sleeper show in a small gallery in Greenpoint’s West Street studio building was a smartly curated two-person exhibition that featured Raphael’s porcelain columns along with East’s more minimalist objects. Sometimes you walk into a gallery and it just works, the space comes alive with the perfect arrangement of art — this was a good instance of that. East and Raphael are treading familiar territory, but there is no cynicism at work. They are forging ahead informed by architecture, design, modernism, and the pleasure of contemplation. More, please. —HV

#7 – Abel Azcona’s “Someone Else” at Grace Exhibition Space

Abel Azcona performing "Someone Else" at Grace Exhibition Space (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)
Abel Azcona performing “Someone Else” at Grace Exhibition Space (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

September 20
Every year there’s one performance that stays with me because it breaks all the rules and throws convention out the window. I’m still unpacking Abel Azcona’s performance at Grace Exhibition Space, which was part of the Queer New York International Arts Festival. Azcona invited the audience to come forward and have sex with him in front of everyone there. If at first the idea was uncomfortable — and simplistic — the frame he created for the work (three mattresses, wash basins, etc.) and his eye contact and body language made me curious enough to start asking questions about the artist and his motivations. I soon realized how the performance was connected to his personal story of sexual abuse, his mother’s history of prostitution, and how he seeks to re-perform his abuse as a way of coping. The most curious thing about his work, which is better known in Europe and South America, is that it continues to attract people eager to enact their fantasies of abuse with an abuse survivor. Part of me wants to despise this performance, but it touches upon an ugly aspect of our culture that has too long found safety in the shadows. —HV

#8 – Michelangelo Pistoletto: The Minus Objects, 1965–1966 at Luhring Augustine Bushwick

Installation view, 'Michelangelo Pistoletto: The Minus Objects 1965-1966' at Luhring Augustine Bushwick (photo courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York)
Installation view, ‘Michelangelo Pistoletto: The Minus Objects 1965–1966’ at Luhring Augustine Bushwick (photo courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York) (click to enlarge)

December 18, 2013–May 11, 2014
I know it might seem lame to pick a show at the one blue-chip gallery in Bushwick, but mounting a historical exhibition of a group of significant early works by an octogenarian artist is exactly the sort of show these kinds of galleries are for. And Pistoletto’s quirky, funny Minus Objects were thrilling to see, particularly as a group — like listening to Blonde on Blonde for the first time when you thought you were over Dylan. —JS

#9 – Slide Slide Slide at Microscope Gallery

“Slide Slide Slide” exhibition (installation view with works by Michael Snow, Bradley Eros, Bruno Munari) (via Microscope)
“Slide Slide Slide” exhibition (installation view with works by Michael Snow, Bradley Eros, Bruno Munari) (via Microscope)

September 5–October 6
The debut show at Microscope’s new Willioughby Avenue space featured eight contemporary artists working with transparent slides, and it featured a solid cross-generational look at what the gallery does best: contemporary art that incorporates projection. While the technology may seem somewhat anachronistic, the focus on the projected image — accompanied by the hum and buzz of its machines — offered a welcome look at the precarious and delicate quality of slide images and how it seems so radically different from our own screen culture. —HV

#10 – Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” at the Domino Sugar Factory

Kara Walker, "A Subtlety" (2014) (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)
Kara Walker, “A Subtlety” (2014) (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

May 10–July 6
Kara Walker’s gigantic sphinx was an imperfect project in many ways, from its overreliance on shock and scale to the fact that, when you got down to the nitty-gritty, it was basically a really amazing advertisement for condos. Yet “A Subtlety” remains one of the most powerful works of art I saw all year. For me it was less the size of the thing and more the way it smelled, the way it decayed, the way it managed to be both beautiful and grotesque at the same time. Too often bad (or mediocre) artists are given more space and money than they know what to do with; Walker was a good one. Here’s to doling it out to more of the same in 2015. —JS

Honorable Mentions

Life, Death, and Transformation in the Americas, Judith Scott: Bound and Unbound, and Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Brooklyn Museum

 Judith Scott, "Untitled" (1993), fiber and found objects (© Creative Growth Art Center, photo © Benjamin Blackwell)
Judith Scott, “Untitled” (1993), fiber and found objects (© Creative Growth Art Center, photo © Benjamin Blackwell) (click to enlarge)

It was a good year at the borough’s biggest art institution, which, for every Killer Heels, manages to also put on a handful of fantastic shows. Our favorites among 2014’s lineup included a traveling blockbuster that was unexpectedly affecting and engrossing (Ai Weiwei: According to What?), another fantastic Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art survey devoted to an artist too often overlooked (Judith Scott: Bound and Unbound), and an under-the-radar permanent collection show that makes Crossing Brooklyn in the adjacent galleries look like Crossing Omaha (Life, Death, and Transformation in the Americas). (PS. “Crossing Omaha” is not the title of a real exhibition, just a hypothetical and presumably bland exhibition. With apologies to our readers in Omaha.) —BS

Arshile Gorky and a Selection of Contemporary Drawings at Outlet

The Arshile Gorky drawing at Outlet's Gorky show. (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)
The Arshile Gorky drawing at Outlet’s Gorky show. (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

June 6–29
Following on the success of his Giacometti exhibition last year, curator Jason Andrew orchestrated another “dialogue” between a bold-faced name in the art world (Arshile Gorky) and local artists. It was great to see how much the late Surrealist’s biomorphic forms and jagged lines still echo in the work of artists today. —HV

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