Admittedly, we do venture to Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx, and even Staten Island to see art, but increasingly the offerings in our home borough are so rich that we needn’t cross a river, creek, or narrows. From the continuously expanding array of galleries in Bushwick to the countless institutions and nonprofits in Dumbo, Gowanus, Crown Heights, Sunset Park, and points in between, Brooklyn art spaces pulled off ambitious things in 2016. Here are our favorites.
1. 30 Under 30ish at Victori + Mo
July 8–July 31
Victori + Mo had a really good year. The solo shows by Brian Willmont, Nic Rad, and Joe Nanashe were all wonderful, but I enjoyed this big (30 artists!) summer group show the most. Creative painting by Sean Phetsarath, Kyle Kogut, Crys Yin, and others demonstrated there are lots of young artists with a whole lot to say on the medium. This gallery is a breath of fresh air in a Brooklyn scene that sometimes takes itself too seriously. —Hrag Vartanian
2. Beverly Buchanan — Ruins and Rituals at the Brooklyn Museum
October 21, 2016–March 5, 2017
While the most familiar art of the late Beverly Buchanan, who died last year, are her miniature shacks that evoke vernacular Southern architecture, this exhibition affirms the incredible breadth of her over three decades of work, from land art to photography. Ruins and Rituals is an engrossing chronicle of a black woman artist from Georgia who did not conform to any expectations of that identity. Her earthworks, like the 1981 “Marsh Ruins,” with concrete covered in tabby — a material used in the construction of plantations — are understated alterations to the Georgia landscape, memorializing acts of racial violence with vanishing monuments that underline our amnesia for historic scars. And in one gallery, her 1992 “Medicine Woman/ Evelyn / The Doctor” towers, its figurative shape laden with pill containers like Southern bottle trees, a striking self-portrait of an artist who also had a career in public health. Each of these raw pieces echoed the idea that even if something is a ruin, it has survived. —Allison Meier
3. Disguise: Masks and Global African Art at the Brooklyn Museum
April 29–September 18
African masks have long been one of the iconic influences cited in European modernism, but this exhibition offered a corrective of sorts to that narrative, juxtaposing 20th-century masks from Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and elsewhere, with works by contemporary artists directly referencing these mask traditions, from Walter Otmann’s barbed wire helmets to Adejoke Tugbiyele’s reclining figure made from found materials, “Homeless Hungry Homo” (2014). Projects like Leonce Raphael Abgodjélou’s documentary photographs of egungun dancers in Benin and Saya Woolfalk’s “ChimaTEK Virtual Chimeric Space” (2012) show how performance traditions incorporating African masks endure today and may be adapted in the future. —Benjamin Sutton
4. Kameelah Janan Rasheed, On Refusal at A.I.R. Gallery
April 21–May 22
The biggest problem with Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s On Refusal was that it wasn’t bigger. This one-room exhibition had so much to say about faith, identity, and families. As Seph Rodney put it in his excellent review of the show: “The refusal of this work is the refusal to be enticed by that narrative, to be swallowed up by a mysticism doomed to repeat the cycle of sin-wash-rinse-repeat.” It is an artwork that challenges classification as it sprawls across walls and suggests a stream of consciousness that continues to writhe in the spiritual, never satisfied with the answers. All great art asks hard questions, and Rasheed has a unique talent for posing those queries clearly. —HV
5. SIGNAL at Smack Mellon
March 5–April 17
Curated by Alexis Heller, this exhibition featured works by 11 artists imagining non-binary gender identities. While the theme and concept were immediately engaging, part of what made the show so successful was the fantastic range of pieces, not only in medium but in terms of tone, from Gil Yefman riotous, hanging orb of knitted orifices and erect phalluses, to Carlos Motta’s short documentary portraits of intersex and transgender activists. The exhibition had serious political edge, devastatingly emotional projects, and a very pronounced capacity for humor. Between SIGNAL, the election-themed omnibus We the People over the summer, and Nona Faustine’s solo show of charged nude self-portraits in January, this was a good year at Smack Mellon. —BS
6. Glenn Ligon, We Need To Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is at Luhring Augustine Bushwick
January 16–April 17
Artist Glenn Ligon’s examination of a famous 1982 Richard Pryor stand-up routine captured in the film Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip was a slow burn. The multi-channel work dissects the famous comic’s shtick using closeups and framing and gives us little fixed meaning (and no audio). We’re left to fumble in the dark, trying to figure out the building blocks of comedy, and in the process it feels like we’re dissecting body language to reveal coded meanings. The result is somewhat alienating, but in the same way that having someone point out the obvious can be alienating when you’ve spent your life thinking otherwise (btw, there is no Santa Claus!). After a while, the video piece starts to feel more intimate, like the familiar gestures of a relative who repeats the same stories revealing their quirks along the way. Pryor’s allure can’t be traced to any one thing, as it is the cumulative impact that makes it work. In the same way, Ligon’s fixation on fragments reveals a system of seeing and identification that reveals itself to be a fiction. —HV
7. Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty at the Brooklyn Museum
November 4, 2016–April 2, 2017
Minter’s work helped me get through 2016, and this timely show demonstrates the breadth of an artist who continues to challenge the limits of sensuality and pictorial politics in contemporary art. A pro-porn political feminist, she makes images that are often unapologetically feminine, assertive, and sexy. This show tells the story of an artist who always questions what comes next without succumbing to fashion. She’s an intuitive artist who never seems bogged down by art theory, unlike some of her contemporaries. Her early floor paintings are clever and visually playful; her videos are brash and insightful; and her recent work — fixated on mouths and heels — is sexy and contemporary as fuck. Her work proves that you don’t have to give into bullshit trends to stay relevant. Sometimes the world has to catch up to you. —HV
8. Madeline Hollander, Drill at Signal
August 27–October 2
Turning emergency evacuation procedures into a dance is one of those things that sounds silly but also brilliant. In person, it was both, plus utterly captivating, as the performers (seven of them, rotating in and out) danced continuously for five hours to droning music, beneath emergency evacuation slides, kicking their legs and rotating their arms and spinning, all while maintaining a certain stiffness and sharp angles. The motions they mimicked are meant to be a means of escape, but at Signal there was no way out, only an existential loop of deep absurdity. —Jillian Steinhauer
9. Our Comics, Ourselves: Identity, Expression, and Representation in Comic Art at Interference Archive
January 21–April 17
Though comics these days has become associated as much with memoirs as with superheroes, this exhibition attempted to offer an alternative history of the medium as a form of personal and political expression — so, no Maus here (though it did start out in the pages of RAW magazine), but rather such lesser-known titles as Abortion Eve and Homos in Herstory. Like most Interference Archive shows, it was small, jam-packed, and impressively ambitious — at times overly so, as there was a lot to take in but not always enough guidance. Still, as comics becomes increasingly, definitively mainstream, this was an important showing of their radical, political potential. —JS
10. Deborah Kass, “OY/YO” in Brooklyn Bridge Park
November 10, 2015–September 28, 2016
This canary-yellow icon on the Brooklyn waterfront, with its reversible readings and exasperated riff on modernism’s male cannon — based on a pair of prints by Kass satirizing Ed Ruscha’s “OOF” (1962/63) — was such a popular piece of public sculpture that it spawned a petition to make it permanent. It also proved irresistible to Dumbo’s tourist droves, who used it as a popping exclamation in their photos of the Lower Manhattan skyline or the picturesque concrete canyons of the surrounding neighborhood. Though it has since been removed, it is apparently destined for a more permanent home in Williamsburg, so those 601 petition signers may prevail in the end. —BS
11. Duke Riley, “Fly By Night” in the Brooklyn Navy Yard
May 7–June 19
I never thought I’d find pigeons beautiful, but there was no other word for “Fly By Night.” Sitting on a bench facing Manhattan and watching 2,000 LED-lit pigeons swoop around me in orchestrated anarchy brought on feelings of euphoria, despite the cold and pain in my neck from bending it backwards. It was art as spectacle, no doubt, but the kind that also upends your expectations. —JS
12. Torkwase Dyson, Unkeeping at Eyebeam
March 9–April 10
In her exhibition at Eyebeam, Torkwase Dyson refreshed the often overplayed visual languages of Abstraction and Minimalism to present something powerful about the overlooked built environments of slavery and racism. Dots marked lynching trees, white grids outlined auction blocks, and narrow shapes represented Harriet Jacobs’s hidden garrett, a site that represented an architecture of freedom. On the surface, the dark fields of color could appear placeless, but the tech-focused Eyebeam presented them as data visualization, their support of Dyson emphasizing that new media art isn’t always about access to expensive technology, it’s using your available tools to activate new connections — in this case, to an invisible spatial history. —AM
13. Rachel Stern, Yes, Death at Black & White Project Space
June 17–July 31
There’s something fantastical about Rachel Stern’s candy-colored plot in the middle of the gallery that made you embrace death a little more joyfully. Southern Gothic gets a makeover in this ahistorical treatment that doesn’t feel nostalgic, even if smaller pieces may be referencing specific iconography or places. The black-and-white photographs in this show were serene but the almost whimsical sculpture — I mean, there was even a draped obelisk — is what made it stand apart from many other shows this year. Death really becomes her. —HV
14. Or Bust at Honey Ramka
July 8–August 14
Honey Ramka bucked the summer group show trend by using a form, rather than a theme, as its organizing principle. Or Bust featured all manner of sculptural busts, ranging from somewhat conventional figures like Paul Bergeron’s “Boom! One cast big red Jim Creek smoker” (2016) and Rebecca Morgan’s delightful contemporary face jug, “Big Jug” (2014), to more deconstructed fodder, from Hein Koh’s fanciful “Little Twin Stars” (2016) to Roxanne Jackson’s sci-fi creature “Family Jewels” (2015) and Janice Sloane’s disco mummy “Hard” (2016). —BS
15. Michelle Vaughan, Generations at Theodore:Art
February 26–April 3
There are few things I love more than when someone delves deeply into a topic I’ve never thought about. That was the case with this show, for which Vaughan considered the Habsburgs and their catastrophic inbreeding through the lens of digital images. It was one of those standout exhibitions where you could see the amount of care and thought that went into making the method and materials match the content. Just as important, the resulting mash-up portraits were funny and deeply unsettling — an underrated combination of qualities in art. —JS
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