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Best of 2014: Our Top 10 Exhibitions Across the United States

This list gives you a sense of some of the best this year across the United States.

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Detail of Nicole Eisenman’s “Sloppy Bar Room Kiss” (2011) at ICA Philadelphia (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

As the art world grows, it is increasingly difficult to keep up with the excellent quality of exhibitions in cities across the country. But that doesn’t mean we don’t do our very best, and this list — which is no means exhaustive (none of us got to many of the smaller art hubs, such as Denver, Santa Fe, Minneapolis, and St. Louis, for instance) — gives you a sense of some of the best on the national scene this year.

#1 – Nicole Eisenman, Dear Nemesis at the Institute of Contemporary Art (Philadelphia)

Nicole Eisenman, "Brooklyn Biergarten II" (2008), oil on canvas (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Nicole Eisenman, “Brooklyn Biergarten II” (2008), oil on canvas (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

September 19–December 28
This mid-career retrospective of Brooklyn-based Nicole Eisenman is as enthralling as you’d expect from an artist who easily combines humor, painterly skill, queerness, art history, and a freewheeling sense of experimentation. The paintings in the show are the real attraction, and she has a knack for finding a covert political angle (sexual or otherwise) to her subjects and tickling your imagination in the process. There’s something deeply joyful about Eisenman’s world, so whether she is painting, drawing, or sculpting frat boys, therapy sessions, lesbians, or Brooklyn bohemia, you easily detect her love of humanity coupled with her keen ability to distill a scene to its essence. What makes Eisenman — and this show — really special is that you get the sense she is only starting to hit her artistic stride and the best is yet to come. —Hrag Vartanian

#2 – The Propeller Group at UNO St. Claude Gallery, as part of Prospect.3 (New Orleans)

A view of The Propeller Group exhibition (photo by Jillian Steinhauer for Hyperallergic)
A view of the Propeller Group’s exhibition (photo by Jillian Steinhauer for Hyperallergic)

October 25, 2014–January 25, 2015
This installation centers on a film by the Propeller Group, “The Living Need Light, And The Dead Need Music” (2014), which captures the vibrant life of Vietnamese funeral customs, from fire breathing to shipping a coffin down a river, in a whirlwind of constant motion and dazzling visuals. The exoticizing flare of the film is tempered by its empathy, and by its surprising connections to New Orleans: the brass bands, the swamps, the brightly colored costumes. Christopher Myers further mines these ties in his installation in the rest of the gallery, where the outrageously overloaded brass instruments he’s constructed share space with photos of locals playing them and New Orleans marching band suits. In a Prospect.3 that feels fairly tame and somewhat disconnected from the city in which it resides, the Propeller Group and Myers’s contribution is a gripping standout. —Jillian Steinhauer

#3 – Competing Utopias at the Neutra VDL Research House (Los Angeles)

View of Competing Utopias, Neutra VDL Studio and Residences, 2014 (Courtesy of The Wende Museum and Archive of the Cold War)
View of ‘Competing Utopias,’ Neutra VDL Studio and Residences (Courtesy The Wende Museum and Archive of the Cold War)

July 13–September 13
In this clever pairing the airy modern home of architect Richard Neutra was filled with furniture and housewares from the local Wende Museum, an archive of Cold War-era East Germany. Each room of the house was organized to suggest narratives of a lived-in home, from books and table settings to toys on the floor. The result was far less jarring than you’d think (besides the cameras and surveillance room), revealing many surprising parallel interpretations of modern living from each side of the Iron Curtain. —Lyra Kilston

#4 – Jack Leigh: Full Circle, Low Country Photographs, 1972-2004 at the SCAD Museum of Art (Savannah, GA)

Jack Leigh, "Nets and Doors" (1986) (photo courtesy of the Jack Leigh Estate)
Jack Leigh, “Nets and Doors” (1986) (photo courtesy of the Jack Leigh Estate)

July 15–October 2
This survey made a very strong case for the importance of Leigh’s photographic oeuvre beyond his best-known work — the image on the cover Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. His landscape and cityscape photos of his hometown of Savannah and the swamps of coastal Georgia and South Carolina were formally exquisite, all atmospheric fog, leaning trees, perfectly still marshes and ponds, and drooping Spanish moss. Even more impressive, though, were his series focused on workers in long-since-modernized industries, like oystermen and shrimp fisherman. —Benjamin Sutton

#5 – What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present at the RISD Museum (Providence, RI)

Forcefield's Dude sculptures at What Nerve! (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)
Forcefield’s Dude sculptures at ‘What Nerve!’ (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

September 19, 2014–January 4, 2015
Alternative histories have become increasingly popular in the last decade or so, and What Nerve! contributes to that trend by examining a strong tradition of figurative art in the United States that has been largely overlooked. From Chicago’s Hairy Who group in the 1960s, Funk in 1960s and ’70s San Francisco, Destroy All Monsters (1973–76) in Ann Arbor, and the more recent Forcefield group in Providence, artists as diverse as Jim Nutt, Robert Arneson, Ken Price, Mike Kelley, Niagara, Jim Drain, and others, mined a DIY strain of representation that was brash and always inventive. Judging by the strength of the curatorial argument, which includes artists who have built on these styles (Elizabeth Murray, Gary Panter, H.C. Westermann, and others), the exhibition is sure to raise more questions about why so much is omitted from mainstream art history. —HV

#6 – Herbert Singleton: Inside Out/Outside In at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (New Orleans)

Herbert Singleton, "Heaven Help Us All" (n.d.) (photo by Benjamin Sutton for Hyperallergic)
Herbert Singleton, “Heaven Help Us All” (n.d.) (photo by Benjamin Sutton for Hyperallergic)

October 25, 2014–January 25, 2015
This tiny gem of a show, part of Prospect.3, brought together no more than 10 of Singleton’s colorful and brutal woodcarvings of scenes inside Angola prison — where he was incarcerated — and parables and characters drawn from daily life in New Orleans’s 15th Ward. While so much outsider art is captivating for the maker’s ability to convey a rich and complex inner life with rudimentary means, what makes Singleton’s work so powerful is its unsentimental, practically documentary recording of events, from executions at Angola to drug dealers on the streets of New Orleans. —BS

#7 – Stan VanDerBeek, Poemfield at The Box (Los Angeles)

Installation view of Stan VanDerBeek: Poemfield at The Box (photo by Fredrik Nilsen, image courtesy the Estate of Stan VanDerBeek and the Box, LA)
Installation view of ‘Stan VanDerBeek: Poemfield’ at The Box (photo by Fredrik Nilsen, image courtesy the Estate of Stan VanDerBeek and the Box, LA)

September 13–November 1
In our current age of technological reliance and saturation, it’s refreshing to see work like Stan VanDerBeek’s pre-internet computer generated films. Made in the late 1960s, these mesmerizing works from his Poemfield series combine brightly-colored abstract visuals with bits of text, beautifully capturing the promise and excitement of this then-new medium. Instead of viewing technology as cold and impersonal, VanDerBeek saw in it the potential to connect and empower humanity, themes echoed in today’s crop of internet activists. —Matt Stromberg

#8 – Easternsports at the Institute of Contemporary Art (Philadelphia)

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A view of ‘Easternsports’ at ICA Philadelphia (photo by Hrag Vartanian of Hyperallergic)

September 19–December 28
A compelling collaboration between artists Alex Da Corte and Jayson Musson, the show perfectly combines Da Corte’s visual aesthetics — which are more muted here than usual — with Musson’s masterful language skills. Undoubtedly influenced by French New Wave cinema, arty filmmakers like David Lynch and Peter Greenaway, daytime TV dramas, and YouTube, Da Corte and Musson have created something refreshingly new that lulls you into its nest and keeps you there. If this doesn’t get curated into several major biennials in the next few years, I’ll be very surprised. —HV

#9 – Almost Ergonomic, curated by Third Object, at Studio 424 (Chicago)

Installation view of Almost Ergonomic at Studio 424 (photo via Studio 424’s site)
Installation view of ‘Almost Ergonomic’ at Studio 424 (photo via Studio 424’s site)

August 23–24
Although brilliantly executed as a whole, Alex Chitty’s immensely detailed display units stood out from this exhibition, which explored the possible ergonomic functions of a work of art rather than that of a designed object. The elements of Chitty’s shelves are displayed as if they were atop the hearth of a Midwestern home, fictitiously prized items arranged and curated in a mysterious order. The handmade objects are slightly tweaked versions of objects both mass-produced and found, ranging from a wooden Rubik’s Cube to a slight drawing on a Styrofoam cup. Another favorite was Jeff Prokash’s lazy cement works, sculptures that fought their inherent materiality by drooping and leaning against the walls and beams of the open exhibition space. —Kate Sierzputowski

#10 – The 5×5 Project (Washington, DC)

Photo of Sanaz Mazinani's "U.S.A.I.R.A.N." (photo by Jillian Steinhauer for Hyperallergic)
Photo of Sanaz Mazinani’s “U.S.A.I.R.A.N.” (photo by Jillian Steinhauer for Hyperallergic)

September 6–various dates in October, November, and December
One of the weaknesses of the 5×5 Project was that it was too sprawling and disjointed to add up to a unified whole; one of its strengths was that its open and multifaceted nature allowed participants to generate some truly memorable public art. Artist Sanaz Mazinani turned an abandoned building on H Street into a trippy DIY US-Iran embassy that stood out just enough to make passersby wonder. Artist Abigail DeVille’s “Second Line Parade” was a thrilling tribute to how transformative art can be. Curator A.M. Weaver’s billboards containing poems about, work by, and images of black men foregrounded racial politics in a city that would rather forget them. And curator Lance Fung’s Nonuments gave a neighborhood a (temporary) public park, filled both with art you could sit on and art you had to do a little more work to understand. —JS

Honorable Mentions

Samantha Bittman: Razzle Dazzle at Andrew Rafacz Gallery (Chicago)

Installation view of Samantha Bittman: Razzle Dazzle (image courtesy Andrew Rafacz Gallery)
Installation view of ‘Samantha Bittman: Razzle Dazzle’ (image courtesy Andrew Rafacz Gallery)

September 19–November 8
An incredibly physical exhibition, Samantha Bittman’s Razzle Dazzle blurred the visual plane, engulfing three walls in a site-specific multi-patterned wallpaper to further expand the details of her painted weavings. Produced out of previously used patterns, the wallpaper blended in and contrasted elements from the sparsely hung show, simultaneously vibrating and massaging the viewer’s eyes as they traveled between the colorful the paintings and the black and white patterns found both in the work and on the gallery walls. —KS

(Full disclosure: The author of this pick is the founder of a website that held a benefit auction at Andrew Rafacz Gallery earlier this year.)

Nick Cave at Jack Shainman’s The School (Old Kinderhook, NY)

Detail of Nick Cave's “Oh Me, Oh My’ (2014) at Jack Shainman's The School (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)
Detail of Nick Cave’s “Oh Me, Oh My’ (2014) at Jack Shainman’s The School (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Nestled in the small town of Old Kinderhook, New York, Jack Shaiman Gallery’s new space in a converted school opened this past summer with a large display of art by Nick Cave. In addition to his now iconic Soundsuits, the exhibition featured the artist’s new work that contrasts more palatable images of late-19th and early-20th century American design — with its floral elements, generic seascapes, and pastoral characters — with the objects of white supremacy that reinforced an ideology so virulent and destructive that it continues to infect and harm our culture today. —HV

Anila Quayyum Agha, “Intersections” at ArtPrize (Grand Rapids, MI)

Anila Quayyum Agha’s “Intersections” at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (photos by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)
Anila Quayyum Agha’s “Intersections” at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (photos by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

September 24–October 12
This crowd pleaser’s ability to snag both the critical and popular prizes may be a turning point for ArtPrize. Remarkably simple, Anila Quayyum Agha’s work captured people’s imagination, while suggesting that the overwhelmingly white and middle-class (and conservative Evangelical) ArtPrize audience may be more open to work beyond the range of quilts, super-realism, and Jesus paintings that won ArtPrize in the past. —HV

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