William T. Wiley @ Hosfelt. The first posthumous exhibition of the artist’s work since he died on April 21 “exceeded all expectations,” wrote Mark Van Proyen. With 13 paintings, mostly monumental in scale, the exhibition felt like a mini-retrospective, “chock-full of polymorphic modalities. In any painting, we might see a fluctuating emphasis between graphic and schematic organizations of space, resting on a precarious balance between imaginary cartography and fanciful description. And if that weren’t enough, the same works also feature a plethora of written notations, many taking the form of puns and phonetic spellings, reflecting on the quagmire of signification.”
Wangechi Mutu @ Legion of Honor. The Kenya-born artist rattled assumptions about the narratives and ideas embodied in this decidedly Euro-centric institution by placing her works alongside those in the museum’s permanent collection. Using materials ranging from soil to cast bronze and sources from ancient lore to fashion glossies, Mutu “melds Afrodiasporic world vision and age-old African practices,” wrote Patricia Albers. The latter included scarification, self-adornment, beadwork and extravagant hairstyles, involving materials from rose quartz and feathers to swooping birds.
Meghann Riepenhoff @ Haines. This exhibition, titled Ice, placed Riepenhoff “among a remarkable coterie of West Coast artists who explore camera-less photographic processes dating to the medium’s early history,” wrote Renny Pritikin. Riepenhoff, who specializes in cyanotypes, places light-sensitive paper onto beaches, lakes and snowbanks, allowing the interaction of chemicals, light, water and temperature to create images that physically resemble and embody the natural processes that produced them. On view through January 29, 2022.
Break and Bleed @ San Jose Museum of Art. Group shows rarely make it into our annual best-of list, but this one, focused on geometric abstraction, stood out. Curator Rory Padeken cast a wide net, offering paintings by 27 artists who, in varying degrees, either adhered to or in some way modified or broke with non-objective abstraction’s original mandates. The show, rooted in Europe, but populated mainly by Americans, took flight most memorably with LA-area artists whose innovations, new and old, issued visual provocations and perceptual challenges.
Peter Alexander @ Brian Gross. Alexander, was a leading exponent of the Light and Space movement who left behind a remarkable legacy when he died last year at 81. Deep Dive, his first posthumous painting exhibition, explored his longstanding fascination with water and its interaction with light. He united the two by applying layers of blue pigment to aluminum panels topped with a transparent gloss. The paintings confused depth and perspective by reflecting light off both the surface and the back of the picture, making for a genuinely immersive (and sometimes disorienting) experience.
Nam June Paik @ SFMOMA. “Has there been another contemporary artist as radical as Nam June Paik? It’s a rhetorical question — there have been many — but one could make a case for Paik’s singular inventiveness,” wrote Constance Lewallen. “He crossed boundaries both physical and virtual and coined the phrase ‘electronic superhighway,’ presaging the interconnectedness that characterizes our lives today.” The exhibition surveyed Paik’s multifaceted contribution to the avant-garde and demonstrated the ongoing relevance of Marshall McLuhan’s famous 1964 pronouncement, “the medium is the message,” merging, as Paik wrote, “artist and technician into one person.”
Sydney Cain @ MOAD and Rena Bransten. “Acts of conjuration” is how Mark Van Proyen described Cain’s large-scale mixed media drawings of predominantly African-American subjects. They evoke “ghostly images of groups of people that come into focus looking like a parade of ancestors from a fever dream of historical amnesia, transformed into historical memory.” The work is the artist’s response to America’s racist history and collective guilt. Reversing them, he writes, “is no small feat, but Cain’s work accomplishes it by summoning the unquiet spirits that prompt that anxiety, allowing them to haunt the arena of public consciousness.” On view through February 5 @ Rena Bransten.
Issac Julien @ McEvoy. This richly textured video and photo-based dramatization of the life of Frederick Douglass (1817-75), reviewed by Renny Pritikin, portrays a towering historical figure whose rhetoric and use of photography made his name and likeness ubiquitous in the 19th century and beyond. With period costumes, interiors and location shots that evoke Douglass’ struggles and travels, Julien thrusts viewers into the abolitionist’s milieu, reminding us that his struggles remain our own more than 120 years after his death.
Arnold J. Kemp @ Manetti Shrem. In Kemp’s view, post-Blackness isn’t about transcending or erasing race; it’s about claiming for Black artists the freedom to participate in the formerly all-white domains of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. Kemp, to take but one example from this small but potent show, revisited Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, adding spidery “scaffolding” to edges interrupted by stains. So, instead of arresting our gaze at the surfaces as Reinhardt’s paintings do, his expansive perimeters encourage navigation, inviting viewers to partake of what Derek Conrad Murray called “the emancipatory pleasures of formalism,” a designation that also applies to a 52-image photomontage of the artist holding books from his collection, each painstakingly arranged to emphasize the physical component of intellectual labor.
Rosie Lee Tompkins @ BAMPFA. Art or craft? Tompkins, a prolific quiltmaker, rendered such distinctions null and void. “Rather than adhering to the strict geometries characteristic of the traditional patterns used in European-American quilts, Tompkins, wrote Maria Porges, “employed an organic accumulation of half squares (triangles), cut without measuring. The resulting compositions seem to have been built from the center outwards or in multiple sections that are later united.” The end products, most often highly abstract, “resemble sculpture more than painting.”
Stephanie Syjuco @ Catharine Clark. Syjuco’s work, though based on rigorous research, always rests on rich visual appeals that encourage viewers to closely examine whatever issue happens to land in her crosshairs. For Native Resolution, an exhibition about racial stereotyping, the artist combed the archives of institutions in the US and the Philippines, turning the gallery into something of an ethnographic museum. Distressed photos, diaries and object-packed dioramas showed how supposedly neutral observers (like anthropologists) injected biases into their findings to justify America’s colonial-era subjugation of a nation and its people.
Bill Armstrong @ Dolby Chadwick. Half of a two-part exhibition called Unspoken, Quarantine contained no Ouija boards or images of spouting ectoplasm, though neither would have felt out of place. That is because the photographer engaged in something of a conjuring act that recalled “spirit photos” of yore: While in lockdown, he downloaded images of artists and thinkers who lived in perilous times analogous to our own and subjected them to digital manipulations that effectively thrust them into the present. These camera-less resurrections, coupled with facts and quotations from those pictured, couldn’t have been timelier. From Shakespeare, Sophocles, Frida Kahlo, Nelson Mandela, Egon Schiele, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf and others, we learn of human predicaments every bit as bad as our own, if not worse, and from them we take heart.
Julia Goodman @ Euqinom. Goodman put a fresh spin on the European papermaking tradition of transforming rags into pulp for writing or drawing. Thus, the surface becomes an art object rather than a substrate in work in which the artist took T-shirts and bedsheets – the stuff of intimate bodily contact — and shaped them into flattened irregular circles, arcs, rectangles and meshes. All of which, wrote Jaimie Baron, suggest new ways of “understanding our most intimate relationships, many of which intensified, deepened, ended, began, darkened, or drifted during the pandemic.” Through January 8, 2022.
# # #
Compiled by David M. Roth, editor and publisher of Squarecylinder, with a deep gratitude to contributors Mark Van Proyen, Renny Pritikin, Maria Porges, Patrica Albers and Jaimie Baron.