2020, what a cruel brat you’ve been. Reflecting on this year, it’s hard to hold back a shudder (or a list of expletives). Though between the mask mandates, vigorous protests, and precarity, there have been a few bright spots, thanks to the exhibitions, artists, and projects I’ve had a chance to spend time with. In lieu of a traditional ranked list — given the non-traditional state of this year — here’s a rundown of projects that have sparked joy, challenged, moved, or otherwise stuck with me through this hell of a year.

In what now feels like the comparative bliss of pre-quarantine reality, I spent several blustery winter afternoons camped out at David Zwirner Gallery, basking in the moody palettes of the late artist Noah Davis. In his surreal compositions, Davis rendered the domestic familiar, yet strange, and always explicitly Black. His life’s work, both on the canvas and off, carved out space for communities rarely represented in Los Angeles’s museums and galleries, and this exhibition organized by Helen Molesworth allowed a rare East Coast opportunity to spend time with such a wide sample of his rich body of work. (Read our full review here.)

New Red Order: Informants Get Paid!, performance documentation, January 23, 2020, Artists Space (photo © 2020 Paula Court)

Packed into the basement of a newly renovated Artists Space — pre-rona as well, of course — is not necessarily where I would have expected to find myself cackling until my cheeks hurt. But thanks to the incisive and delightfully snide “public assembly” that was Informants Get Paid!,  that’s exactly what happened. Organized by New Red Order, an Indigenous-led “public secret society” whose core members include Adam Khalil (Ojibway), Zack Khalil (Ojibway), and Jackson Polys (Tlingit), the evening consisted of readings, performances, and screenings of work that satirized the capitalist, colonialist rat race and the stubbornly persistent US tradition of “playing Indian.” Particular highlights included an “Indian Captivity Kink Workshop” led by Lou Cornum (Diné), during which audience members bold enough to burn a miniature US flag were rewarded with a kiss from “safe savage lips.” The gravity of the need to decolonize our institutions and frankly, minds, is such that it can be tricky to approach the thorny subject of where to start in a manner that doesn’t skew academic. The artists of NRO, however, seem to have a few strategies figured out.

Also before the pandemic hit (or at least began to be taken seriously in the US), a visit to Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds’s Standing Rock Awakens the World at Fort Gansevoort offered a scintillating opportunity to trace the interconnectedness of body, language, and land (ownership and dispossession) via the artist’s meditations on Indigenous sovereignty. 

Michelangelo Lovelace, “Untitled” (1993), marker on paper, 18 x 23.75 inches (all images courtesy Fort Gansevoort)

As stay-at-home orders tightened, Fort Gansevoort quickly pivoted, presenting a steady stream of smartly curated online exhibitions that have highlighted the work of numerous under-recognized artists working in two-dimensional media. A highlight was Michelangelo Lovelace’s Nightshift, organized by fellow artist John Ahearn, which presented a poetic selection of drawings focused on the residents and common rooms of nursing homes in Cleveland. (Lovelace has worked as a nurse’s aide for over 30 years, while sustaining his art practice.) Amid the devastation of the pandemic, which has continued to hit the staff and residents of such facilities particularly hard, the tender drawings were a poignant reminder of the human toll of these months of government mismanagement. (Read Billy Anania’s full review here.) 

Wading through the glitchy, often underwhelming sea of “viewing rooms” that have flooded screens this year has made me particularly appreciative of online projects that approach the process of exhibiting virtually as just that — a wholly different thing than what we can (or should) do with in-person presentations. To that end, Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki’s sly, dystopic Instagram series Two Lizards (2020) made for cathartic and often hilarious viewing for its centering of a pair of existential, animated lizards. The series’ lampooning of government and civil ineptitude amid the pandemic offered a welcome break from the usual doomscrolling. It was similarly heartening to see video artists and experimental filmmakers contend with the fact that it may be a while before we can pack back into our favorite art house and micro-cinemas again by temporarily making some of their work available online. (We can only binge so much Netflix and Hulu, after all.) Initiatives like the Cabin Fever film playlist and THOUSANDSUNS CINEMA, from Media City Film Festival, have offered particularly brilliant presentations of the type of formally inventive work I used to love catching at small art spaces and festivals.

Installation view of James “Yaya” Hough (left) and Russell Craig’s work in Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, MoMA PS1 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Likewise, it’s become almost a truism to refer to work as “urgent.” Cue the numerous art spaces that have tried, failed, and in some cases altogether avoided addressing the long-brewing reckoning with systemic racism and anti-Blackness that surged to national attention this summer, following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Sean Monterrosa, and many more at the hands of police. If I’m being cynical, or perhaps just honestly reflecting on my own experiences in such spaces, the fact that so few arts institutions have managed to thoughtfully address the disproportionate violence inflicted on Black, Indigenous, and POC by the state is unsurprising given the inability of these institutions to reckon with their own gross inequity and outright racist labor practices, as the harrowing testimonies aired on social media forums such as @ChangeTheMuseum and @CancelArtGalleries have aptly demonstrated.

Still, in thinking back on this year, there have been a few exhibitions that have stood out for their thoughtful and nuanced approaches to concerns magnified by our current times of plague and political reckoning. Chief among them is Marking Time, currently on view at MoMA PS1. Curated by Nicole Fleetwood, with Amy Rosenblum-Martín, Jocelyn Miller, and Josephine Graf, the exhibition reflects on the crisis of mass incarceration, in a country which locks more people behind bars than any other in the world (and where such individuals are being disproportionately impacted and killed by the pandemic). Taking this grim reality as its starting point, Marking Time invites visitors to reflect on the hidden yet omnipresent reality of state repression via an expansive and poignant selection of works by incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, and non-incarcerated artists alike. Installations, photographs, and mixed media works by Rowan Renee, Larry Cook, Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun, Sara Bennett, Jesse Krimes, and Russell Craig stood out in particular, for the way in which each honed in on the pernicious reach of the carceral system, as well as the lack of justice that those both in and outside of its physical structures must often contend with. (Read Erica Cardwell’s full review here.)

Installation view of Howardena Pindell, “Four Little Girls” (2020), mixed media on canvas, 108 x 120 inches, and Howardena Pindell, “Columbus” (2020), mixed media on canvas, 108 x 120 inches (image courtesy Kelly Marshall)

Similarly sharp is the Shed’s ongoing presentation, Howardena Pindell: Rope/Fire/Water, curated by Adeze Wilford. Gathering a selection of the artist’s brightly hued abstractions, as well as more recent works like “Four Little Girls” (2020), the show revolves around the focal point of the titular video commission, literally positioned at the center of a spiral. Devastating yet rhythmic, the film draws the viewer in to an intense confrontation with the violent impacts of US racism. Rope/Fire/Water devastates as much as it educates, knocking the wind out of you before releasing you back out into a sea of more tranquil, though still potent, abstraction. It’s a dizzying but deeply affective presentation. I won’t use the word timely here — also a truism these days — because Pindell’s never stopped, nor did she just suddenly start making work that draws attention to the vicious nature of racism. But as Wilford’s skillful curation reminds us, it’s been high time for the rest of the world to finally start paying closer attention. (Read Alexandra Thomas’s full review here.)

After many months of staying home and limiting my time outdoors to supermarket runs and mental health walks, braving the subway again was a daunting task, but for me, one that felt safer than getting on a bike. (This is still New York after all, the land of “Fuck you, I’m double-parking/turning in the bike lane.”) Luckily, galleries in Chelsea, Bushwick, and across the Lower East Side offered some fitting rewards with exhibitions like Joiri Minaya’s anti-colonial, ecofeminist powerhouse at Baxter Street and the resplendent blues of Ficre Ghebreyesus: Gate to the Blue at Galerie Lelong. (Read Alexandra Thomas’s thoughtful takes on Minaya and Ghebreyesus here.)

Joiri Minaya, “Container #7” (2020), archival pigment print on Canson Baryta Photographique paper, 40 x 60 inches, edition 1 of 3 (+1 AP) (all images courtesy Baxter Street at the Camera Club of New York)

Ina Archer: Osmundine (Orchid Slap) at Microscope Gallery was also a welcome escape from the late summer heat, though its sharp cinematic critiques simmered in their own ways. The sumptuous textiles of Feliciano Centurión: Abrigo at Americas Society made a particularly trying trip up to Park Avenue extremely worth it, and proved a gratifying introduction to the late, queer Paraguayan-born artist whose textiles have only rarely been exhibited. (Read Cassie Packard’s full review here.)

During a year when death has loomed larger than usual, Kenny Rivero’s compact but exquisite presentation at Charles Moffett accomplished the rare feat of reckoning with mortality in a manner that was both moving and cathartically humorous. Honing in specifically on the ever-present threats faced by communities of color, I Still Hoop nodded to the ladders, liminal spaces, and magical elements of a specifically Caribbean diasporic mundane in a manner that resonated precisely. 

Kenny Rivero, “Limpieza of the Head” (2020), oil on canvas stretched over panel, 8×8 inches (image courtesy Charles Moffett)

Last but certainly not least, to every single artist who generously shared their work with me and our readers as part of our past series Queer Art Workers Reflect and Meet the NYC Art Community, thank you. Your insights and the opportunities to engage with your work have provided many a bright moment amid the bluster of 2020. 

Dessane Lopez Cassell is a New York based editor, writer, and film curator, as well as the former reviews editor at Hyperallergic. You can follow her work here.