It brings me great joy that we were able to punctuate this still-difficult year with in-person visits to art exhibitions. Thank you, LA artists and art spaces for your dedication and terrific, life-giving work. Below is a selection of the exhibitions that stuck out for me and some of our LA-based contributors. —Elisa Wouk Almino, Senior Editor


1. Pipilotti Rist: Big Heartedness, Be My Neighbor at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles

Installation view of Pipilotti Rist:Big Heartedness, Be My Neighbor at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA (image courtesy the Museum of Contemporary Art, photo by Zak Kelley)

September 12, 2021–June 6, 2022

Curated by Anna Katz

This show literally stopped me in my tracks. Walking into Pipilotti Rist’s first West Coast survey, I felt transported to another world. The visitor is spit into rooms connected by tunnels, so that turning a corner is always a little disorienting, and always surprising. One room is staged like a whimsical apartment: waves wash over a couch, a galaxy swirls over a bed. You can interact with all the furniture; at one point, I gathered around a dining table with a young couple, and together we watched each other be changed by light and color. I was struck by the sense of ease and cool with which people moved through this exhibition — the sense of discovery, wonder, and calm. It felt like we were all getting lost together in the glow of the light, the wetness of spring, the heartbeat of life. Each room is also set to a different soundtrack — Rist composed most of the moody and moving music that guides our emotions. If you saw Rist’s retrospective five years ago in New York at the New Museum, Big Heartedness, Be My Neighbor will still be a revelation (and includes new, different work). The curator, Anna Katz, has done fantastic work at MOCA before, so it’s not surprising that she nailed this presentation. —EWA

2. Yoshitomo Nara at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Installation photograph, Yoshitomo Nara, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2020, art © Yoshitomo Nara, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

April 1, 2021–January 2, 2022

Curated by Mika Yoshitake

This exhibition at LACMA features Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara’s largest exhibition to-date — and it’s a breathtakingly comprehensive look into a complex artist’s mind. Using his traditional technique of layering paint onto bandages to create unique textural patterns, Nara spends his life’s works irreverently plumbing the depths of pressing issues of his time — from anti-war sentiments to stances opposing nuclear power — through the lens of children. The large portraits of the children, who often unnervingly stare straight at the viewer, offer a way for Nara to express his rage at the world from the perspective of a wide-eyed innocent. His radical artwork also derives inspiration from musicians like the Clash and Bob Dylan, which independent curator Mika Yoshitake highlights in this sweeping retrospective. —Tara Yarlagadda

3. Alison Saar: Of Aether and Earthe at the Benton Museum of Art and Armory Center for the Arts

Alison Saar, “Hygiea” (2020) (detail), mixed media installation (photo by Ian Byers-Gamber, courtesy Armory Center for the Arts)

September 1–December 18 (Benton Museum of Art); July 16–December 12 (Armory Center for the Arts)

Curated by Irene Georgia Tsatsos and Rebecca McGrew

This survey of Alison Saar‘s work, split across two venues, is a must-see. The exhibition’s title alludes to Saar’s ongoing interest in “the binaries of body and spirit, earth and air.” At the Armory Center, her sculptures, most of Black women, ethereally levitate, dangle from ceilings, and take root in the ground. They are in many realms. In one astonishing artwork from 2020 named “Hygiea,” Saar has occupied a dark, narrow hallway with pots, pans, and dangling jars, the recorded sound of their clinking bouncing off the space. In the center, a sculpture of a woman with roots sprouting from her head looks out at us. “It feels like there needs to be some healing stuff going on,” Saar told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s what my ‘Hygiea’ piece is at the Armory. It’s a cleansing.” —EWA

At the Benton Museum of Art, the artist has utilized the character of Topsy from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In her depictions of Topsy, in which cotton branches are tied to her hair by string or white bows, she is armed with weapons intended for those enslaved or indentured to till the land — pitchforks, machetes, and axes, now deployed for a greater service of protection. In “Black Bottom Stomp” (2015), a nude Black woman wades in thigh-high waters, fearfully twisting her body while a snake coils around her. Saar here seems to turn her eye to Eve and the mythologized origin of humanity and the demonization of its female origin. A constant throughout the exhibition is Saar’s attention to beauty standards and how they entangle themselves into our perception of Black women. She underscores the significance of autonomy, generating a willful sensuality that demands looking. Her nude figures — many of which reach my height, or taller — are gazing at us, compelling us to halt; they command reverence. —Jasmine Weber

4. Queer Communion: Ron Athey at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Queer Communion: Ron Athey at the ICA LA, installation view (photo by Matt Stromberg for Hyperallergic)

June 19–September 5

Curated by Amelia Jones

Few artists integrate their life into their art as fully and poetically as Ron Athey. Over the past four decades, the radical performance artist has been at the heart of several tightly knit communities, from the SoCal goth/death rock scene in the early ’80s, to the AIDS Activism movement, and the transgressive body modification underground celebrating queer liberation. Operating on the fringes of the cultural vanguard, his incendiary performances are characterized by an intensity and immediacy nearly impossible to replicate. With Queer Communion, curator Amelia Jones did a remarkable job presenting Athey’s career not as a linear historical narrative, but as a living practice. (Indeed, some of the objects on view were borrowed during the tail end of the show for a performance at REDCAT.) Through performance props, photographs, ephemera, costumes, and some brief video excerpts, Jones put together an evocative rather than encyclopedic survey, capturing the pathos, humor, wit, and curiosity of Athey’s life and work with fitting vitality. —Matt Stromberg

5. Shattered Glass at Jeffrey Deitch

Shattered Glass at Jeffrey Deitch (photo by Charles White)

March 20–May 22

Curated by Melahn Frierson and AJ Girard

Perhaps no gallery understands the power of the spectacle quite like Jeffrey Deitch, and it delivered with the exhibition Shattered Glass. Co-curated by Melahn Frierson and AJ Girard, the ambitious group show featured figurative artwork by 40 artists of color, shattering — not just the content displayed inside the gallery space — but proprieties around how an exhibition is marketed and accessed, and for whom the exhibition exists. Whether you loved it or hated it, Shattered Glass was an undeniable phenomenon, setting the city abuzz; you couldn’t avoid mention of it whether on social media or IRL and, along with it, the conversations it spurred around the representation of Black and Brown artists. What stayed with me was the joy, plainly visible to all, of the artistic community that gathered to celebrate each other. —Caroline Ellen Liou

6. Paulina Peavy: An Etherian Channeler at Beyond Baroque

Paulina Peavy, “Untitled” (circa 1930s to 1980s), oil paint on board, 16 x 16 inches (all images courtesy the Paulina Peavy Estate and Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York)

June 1–August 14

Curated by Laura Whitcomb

Among the best Los Angeles art exhibitions of 2021, Paulina Peavy: An Etherian Channeler, curated by Laura Whitcomb, was also the most revelatory. At a seance in 1932, Peavy channeled an extraterrestrial spirit she called Lacamo; from then on, she considered her art a collaboration with the spirit. Paintings, writings, ephemera, and films about Peavy laid out her complex cosmology. Equally compelling, however, are her futuristic geometric abstractions and uncanny spirit portraits. Together, they establish Peavy as both a fascinating figure and a formidable artist. —Natalie Haddad

7. Holbein: Capturing Character in the Renaissance at the Getty Center

Hans Holbein the Younger, “Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey” (about 1532–33), black and colored chalks, and pen and ink on pale, pink prepared paper, 9 7/8 × 8 1/16 inches (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen, Elizabeth II 2021, Bridgeman Images)

October 19, 2021–January 9, 2022

Curated by Anne T. Woollett

This is the first major painting show of 16th-century German artist Hans Holbein the Younger, who was the “King’s Painter” to Henry VIII. Over the centuries, Holbein has impressed several other artists for his sensitive and exquisite portraiture, and in this compact yet rich exhibition, you can see why. My eyes lingered on particular, peculiar moments: a furrowed eyebrow, a hand awkwardly nestled in a cape. A number of the portraits are lavish and large, but often the ones that arrested my attention were small, including a portrait of an English lady, whose serious eyes penetrated the room. Another fascinating focus of this show is on Holbein’s involvement with illustrating books, from calligraphic to ornamental designs that also make their way into his portraits. —EWA

8. Black American Portraits at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Kwame Brathwaite, Untitled (Carolee Prince Wearing Her Own Designs), 1964, inkjet print, 31 x 31 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, promised gift of Kim and Keith Allen-Niesen, © Kwame Brathwaite, photo courtesy of the Kwame Brathwaite Archive and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles

November 7, 2021–April 17, 2022

Curated by Christine Y. Kim and Liz Andrews

The Obama portraits have been touring the country for years, but this is arguably the best presentation of them yet. After encountering Kehinde Wiley’s and Amy Sherald’s sensational paintings (which are completely worth seeing in-person, even if you’ve seen many photos), the visitor is taken to Black American Portraits, a selection of 140 portraits depicting Black subjects spanning from 1800 to the present. Curators Christine Y. Kim and Liz Andrews primarily mined LACMA’s permanent collection, underscoring how “Black Americans have used portraiture to envision themselves in their own eyes.” The text in the show is minimal — it would have been nice to have more of the curators’ analysis and storytelling — but the upside of this choice is that visitors fully devote their eyes to the works themselves, which are joyously installed from floor-to-ceiling and are finally getting the attention they deserve. —EWA

9. Made in LA: A Version at the Hammer Museum and the Huntington

Made in L.A. 2020: a version, installation view of Aria Dean’s “King of the Loop” (2020) at Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (photo by Joshua White /

April 17–August 1

Curated by Myriam Ben Salah and Lauren Mackler with Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi

Originally scheduled to open in the spring of 2020, the city was kept on its toes waiting to see the fifth and latest version of the city-wide biennial … and waiting and waiting. After multiple setbacks and revisions, Made in LA finally opened its doors a year later, marking the return to seeing artwork in person for many. Though the exhibition’s throughlines of horror, entertainment, and the fourth wall were hard not to view through the lens of the pandemic, curators Myriam Ben Saleh, Lauren Mackler, and Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi gave audiences plenty more to consider. The most notable departure from the biennial’s usual format was the curators’ decision this year to present two versions of the exhibition at two institutions — the Hammer Museum and the Huntington Library — with the latter venue including an exhibition-within-an-exhibition. —Caroline Ellen Liou

10. Nikita Gale: Private Dancer at the California African American Museum

Nikita Gale: PRIVATE DANCER at the California African American Museum (photo by Elon Schoenholz)

March 27–May 9

Curated by Cameron Shaw

For her first solo show at CAAM, Nikita Gale collaborated with lighting designer Josephine Wang to program lights that moved in response to Tina Turner’s 1984 album, Private Dancer. Curated by Cameron Shaw, the museum’s director, the show stranded the viewer in the equipment that structures our experience of live performances. Turner was everywhere and nowhere in this piece, a potent symbol that allowed Gale to meditate on the creative labor of public performances. Without a figure to absorb our projections, the ruins of performance blinked on, leaving us to contemplate the invisible structures that mask the corrosive effects of being a musician. —Allison Conner

Honorable Mentions

Intergalactix at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions

Tanya Aguiñiga, “Metabolizing the Border” (2020), blown glass, US/MX border fragments, flashlight, leather, neoprene, photo performance documentation by Gina Clyne (photo by Matt Stromberg)

May 14–August 14

Curated by Daniela Lieja Quintanar

Intergalactix: against isolation/contra el aislamiento was a research-driven project curated by Daniela Lieja Quintanar that highlighted creative networks of resistance in Central America, Mexico, and indigenous diaspora communities in the US. The works in the show underscored solidarity, connection, and mobility in spite of borders, detention centers, and neoliberal policies. These included contemporary versions of ritual Mayan objects made in collaboration between Beatriz Cortez, Kaqjay Moloj, and FIEBRE Ediciones, with guidance from the Kaqchikel Mayan community in Guatemala. Tanya Aguiñiga contributed her neoprene and glass suit embedded with border fragments, which she wore during her “Metabolizing the Border” performance, and Salvadoran artist Crack Rodriguez documented his performance on a MacArthur Park soccer field, for which he substituted a basketball hoop for a soccer goal — a metaphor for the overwhelming challenges facing migrants. In the back of the gallery, a reading room provided background on US-backed Central American civil wars and earlier examples of resistance through art and activism, showing that the networks in the exhibition extend not only through space but time as well. —Matt Stromberg

Miné Okubo’s Masterpiece: The Art of Citizen 13660 at the Japanese American National Museum

Miné Okubo and other incarcerees were uprooted from their daily lives, having to undergo a two-day train ride to Topaz, Utah. From Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo. (Japanese American National Museum, gift of Miné Okubo Estate)

August 28, 2021–February 20, 2022

Curated by Kristen Hayashi

This exhibition is a gut-punch of history, telling the story of the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II through the illustrations of Miné Okubo’s graphic memoir Citizen 13660. The show, curated by Dr. Kristen Hayashi, displays Okubo’s original images narrating the “relocation” and the squalid conditions of the camps. These are followed by a focus on Okubo’s artistic process, from the prolific sketches and magazine art she created in the camps to mockups and finished works. In this second section, Hayashi visualizes the often-invisible process of editing — and how it shapes the audience’s perspective — by displaying different drafts side-by-side. Providing thoughtful insight into artistic process and conveying the wrenching effects of a government policy that has long been minimized in American history, the exhibit is a must-see. —Anne Wallentine