Art@Bay’s Best of 2012 – Best Gallery Exhibit

bestgalleryexhibit
The highly prized and sought after A@B Best of 2012 “Best Exhibit” Cyber-Trophy!

This post is second in Art@Bay’s Best of 2012 series – check out the introduction and pick for Best Museum Exhibit here.

I initially felt some reluctance releasing this installment because I felt a tad guilty for not having attended some exhibits (thus, I couldn’t appropriately include them).  After some consideration though, I’ve mustered some gumption: Likely I’ve attended more local art exhibits than anyone (save perhaps for Luis from Art Taco).  Anyhow, if you disagree with my pick, let me know in the comments section below – I’ll tell you why it didn’t make my cut.

Best Gallery Exhibit

Neil Bender: Purple Nurple – Tempus Projects

(left) Looks Like, oil and acrylic on canvas, 49" x 85 ", 2009-10 (right) A Habitable Ether, oil on canvas, 40" x 50", 2011-12
(left) Looks Like, oil and acrylic on canvas, 49″ x 85 “, 2009-10 (right) A Habitable Ether, oil on canvas, 40″ x 50”, 2011-12

Perhaps its natural a solo exhibit came out strongest – they have fewer variables than a group show.  Regardless, last February’s Neil Bender solo show at Tempus Projects impressed me most.

The exhibit was dominated by relatively large-scale paintings visually tied together by medium (oil on canvas) and a subtly similar palette.  The centerpiece of the show – the 88 x 120 in. My Daughter’s Overturned Bedroom – hung alone on the gallery’s west wall.

Bender’s composition and style reflect an awareness of the contemporary dialogue on art and painting’s place in it.  With the field of relevant painting (presumably) shrinking, good work is all the more exciting.  His choice of medium wasn’t a trivial one – the use of oil was ideal for the subject matter.  The somewhat painterly fleshy masses of the pieces recalled Rubenesque figures through a contemporary lens, a sort of baroque R. Crumb.

However, I’m not saying that his work was in any way frivolous.  Rather, Bender was able to convey the moral muddiness of some pretty heavy issues – objectification, sexual politics, gender roles.  His paintings resist being heavy-handed politically, instead according an appropriate complexity to the concepts they touch on.

Bender also managed to resist being heavy-handed with the shock and awe.  When dealing with issues such as sexuality, artists can get as adolescent as the rest of us.  It’s easier to take a lazy pointlessly raunchy route.  The nudity in Bender’s paintings is relatively understated and effective.  The pieces encourage a slow look in contrast with the facile shock and instant impression (then consequent forgetting) of immature work.

Really, Bender’s work in Purple Nurple had a conceptual depth that is not seen often enough in the Bay area.  Further, it was executed with a balanced hand both aesthetically and in process.

Honorable Mention:

Parallel Movements: Justin Nelson and Daniel Mrgan – C. Emerson Fine Arts

156671_10152131771580632_24261848_nThis past October CEFA presented a dual exhibit of work from two popular Bay area artists: Justin Nelson and Daniel Mrgan.  Both had exhibited a few times locally throughout the year.  However, this exhibit featured new work from both artists.  More importantly, it signaled a subtle but positive shift in each artist’s style.

Nelson and Mrgan both use an approach to their work that is easily liked.  While popular art can run the risk of becoming populist art, this exhibit caught the work of both artists maturing.  In their own ways, the new work from Nelson as well as Mrgan abstracted itself further from earlier pieces.  The art investigated similar concepts and processes, but definitely deeper and more effectively in Parallel Movements.

Art@Bay’s Best of 2012 – Best Gallery Exhibit

Art@Bay’s Best of 2012 – Best Museum Exhibit

The Prestigious ART@BAY Cyber-Trophy
The Prestigious ART@BAY Cyber-Trophy

December brings with it the obligation of every critic to put forth in list form an unfair reductionist look-back on the year that was.  Being a responsible art blogger, I won’t beg off.

Now, I realize the ‘top-10’ list is generally the accepted format for these types of articles.  Tampa Bay, however, is not New York City – a top ten list here is nearly large enough to be called a ‘bottom ten list written in reverse order’.  For this reason I opted for the ‘Best in Category of 2012’ format.  Take heart if you or your exhibit is not mentioned here: if it makes you feel better you can assume that you would have come in second or third on my top ten list.  First we’ll tackle the year’s best museum exhibit.  That said, on with the judgements!

Best Museum Exhibit

Contemporary Prints by American Women: A Selection from the Gift of Martha and Jim Sweeny – Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg

Perhaps this decision is easier to understand when I emphasize that it isn’t the artist(s) under scrutiny in this category, but rather the exhibit itself.  (Although, I should mention a lot of the work was simply amazing; prints from Louise Nevelson, Vija Celmins, and Pat Steir (excuse the academic jargon) blew my mind)

There is only one aspect of the Contemporary Prints exhibit that ended up on the wrong side of my pro/con list: it was small.  The MFA’s upstairs gallery that housed the exhibit is about the size of a typical commercial gallery.  This wasn’t entirely surprising, though – the exhibit is effectively a preview of a collection in progress.  A larger exhibit is expected to be hung when that collection is complete.

This exhibition set itself apart as this year’s best by effectively accomplishing two things.  The first is its excellent presentation of the medium. The exhibit offered the prints as a medium unto itself rather than simply a means of replication.  The medium carries a tendency to be culturally undervalued, seen merely as reproductions of originals.  Contemporary Prints underscored the nuances of individual prints, the craftsmanship involved, and even the fact that some original artwork was intended to exist only as prints.

The second is highlighting women artists in the post-war period.  Women are still terribly underrepresented in museums nationwide and Bay Area institutions seemed to sadly make peace with the situation.  Thus, an exhibit that exclusively highlights the talent of contemporary women is especially welcome.  Further, the exhibit was tastefully curated emphasizing each artist’s work rather than their gender – not qualifying the art by sex in a misguided attempt to be politically correct.

In short, the exhibit was based on a thoughtful concept rather than shallow novelty, highlighting an underrepresented and often undervalued medium and artists.

Honorable Mention:

John Cage 33 1/3 – Performed By Audience, Tampa Museum of Art

John Cage 33 1/13 – Performed by Audience was by far the most fun museum art exhibit this year.  Although I may have annoyed a few museum guest, I happily sat on the couch listening to the cacophony of the four turntable I set into motion.  The exhibit is a musical score of sorts ‘written’ by John Cage.  Cage stipulates that about twelve record players be arranged in a gallery along with two to three hundred records.  Visitors are then encouraged to participate by playing the records as they see fit.

Perhaps Tampa Bay’s best curator, Jade Dellenger, organized the TMoA exhibit (as well as a corresponding show at Tempus Projects that ran concurrently) as part of the centenary celebration of John Cage’s birth.

Art@Bay’s Best of 2012 – Best Museum Exhibit