Best of 2017: Our Top 15 Brooklyn Art Shows

Dec 18, 2017 / by Hyperallergic / Hyperallergic

It’s been an exceptionally good year for art in Brooklyn, from the borough’s flagship museum and the galleries in Bushwick to the nonprofits in Dumbo and Red Hook. Some galleries in neighborhoods not typically associated with contemporary art grew into their own this year, making regular visits to Bed-Stuy and Park Slope essential. Here are our favorite shows we saw in 2017 without crossing a river, creek, or other borough border.

1. We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 at the Brooklyn Museum
We Wanted a Revolution was the first exhibition to comprehensively examine the art of women of color in the US during second-wave feminism and the Civil Rights movement. Hyperallergic’s Jessica Bell Brown called the exhibition “stunning and revelatory,” as it showcased a sprawling and extremely talented, steadfast group of artists who forged a powerful sense of community in the 1960s through the ’80s, together denouncing racism, inequality, and the exclusionary politics of white feminism. This show, curated by Catherine Morris and Rujeko Hockley, was a necessary and historically important one. —Elisa Wouk Almino

2. White Man On a Pedestal at Pioneer Works
When Kenya (Robinson) and Doreen Garner started planning this exhibition two years ago, they couldn’t possibly have known that it would coincide with national movements to reckon with monuments to white supremacy and to bring powerful and abusive men to justice. But their superb two-person show, White Man on a Pedestal, was made all the more impactful by its impeccable timing and their distinct yet highly complementary bodies of work. While Garner’s sculptures depict flayed, sliced, and otherwise mutilated bodies in a visceral, queasy-making, and uncomfortably beautiful aesthetic, (Robinson) works with archetypes of whiteness, foremost among them the figure of the generic white-collar worker, which she replicated thousands of times in a towering, tumbling monument. —Benjamin Sutton

3. Race and Revolution: Still Separate — Still Unequal at Smack Mellon
This exhibition was the second iteration of a show curated by Katie Fuller last year: Race and Revolution: Exploring Racial Injustices Through Art. That exhibition used visual art to illustrate deeply problematic historical events, many of them precipitated by the US government. This version was well served by the addition of a second curator, Larry Ossei-Mensah, who helped to find artists who would extend and deepen the critiques of the first show, to move beyond simple illustration to posing probing queries and haunting polemics. —Seph Rodney


4. Postcommodity, Coyotaje at Art in General
To say that Postcommodity is having a moment is an understatement; they’ve come to represent part of the zeitgeist with their poignant work that straddles (often literally) the border regions of national identity and spatial politics. Composed of artists Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist, Postcommodity’s Coyotaje was the group’s first solo exhibition in New York, and it came on the heels of their impressive contribution to this year’s Whitney Biennial (which I discussed in my review). This show focused on the decoys used by US border patrols on the US-Mexico border, creating an inflatable decoy that glowed in a darkened room as a projection of gallery visitors was superimposed on the form. An auditory decoy (yes, border patrol uses those too) turned a long passage into an ominous space punctuated by a photo of a coyote. Postcommodity’s work has a way of snake into your consciousness through its use of sound and deceivingly simple forms. —Hrag Vartanian

5. Nasty Stitches at Victori + Mo
This year, the deployment of artistic practices conventionally deemed “craft” in the service of articulating feminist politics reached critical mass with the hundreds of thousands of pussyhats knitted in anticipation of the Women’s March. That same anti-patriarchal fervor was palpable in this group show at Victori + Mo, which brought together works by four artists including the ecstatically and emphatically queer crocheted figures of Caroline Wells Chandler and Katrina Majkut’s finely cross-stitched renderings of objects related to sexual and reproductive health. The result was a visually eclectic but materially unified affirmation of empowerment, epitomized by Majkut’s affordably priced, DIY, cross-stitched “Woman Card.” —BS

6. One at We Buy Gold
This year, Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels’s roving art space We Buy Gold temporarily set up shop in a storefront in Bed-Stuy, presenting ambitious, discerningly composed shows with an elegantly low-key vibe. If you stopped by on a whim, you might have encountered Alexandra Bell’s “radical edits” project, or a number of works by black women artists for Black Lives Matter. The inaugural show, One, combined the space’s signature rigor and restraint with a selection of works around the theme of geography. The layout was intelligently deployed — from Renee Gladman’s pale, expansive drawings, you moved toward a painting from Torkwase Dyson’s Water Table series, overlooking Harold Mendez’s sculptural black box, which itself concealed a pre-Columbian death mask, as though you were being drawn into ever darker and murkier depths. The work on view was mostly black and white; the ideas were not. —Laila Pedro

7. Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern at the Brooklyn Museum
Most exhibitions foreground the art and not the artist. When the artist’s persona does come into focus, it tends to be of a woman (Frida Kahlo being the most obvious example). Living Modern, however, took care to not allow Georgia O’Keeffe’s persona to outshine her art. Rather, her bright paintings, androgynous clothes, and photographs all worked in tandem, together illuminating an artist who was not only modern and independent in her artistic vision, but in the ways in which she lived. —EWA

8. Morehshin Allahyari, She Who Sees the Unknown at Transfer
Allahyari’s fascination with myths is about deconstructing the layers of meaning that frame them in the first place. She often uses the term “Digital Colonialism” in her work, and it’s clear she means that with all the baggage it entails, including the implications on contemporary art in general. Reviewing this show, Claire Voon wrote, “For Allahyari, the tools of 3D-printing serve as feminist weapons — her command of this innovative technology is not simply a preference of medium but a meaningful assertion of her own creative power and prowess.” This is all true, and she’s only getting started. —HV

9. Tammy Nguyen, Primate City at Ground Floor Gallery
An elaborate narrative extrapolated from a 1969 US intelligence document about Vietnam literally unfolded in Tammy Nguyen’s fantastic solo show, which included elaborate artist books, prints, and paintings, and was curated by Dexter Wimberly. The works mixed fantasy, autobiography, and postcolonial critique, all crystalized in the figure of the red-shanked douc langur, a very endearing and endangered type of monkey that lives in and around Danang, one of the largest cities in Vietnam. In the tension between the US military’s righteous quest to “modernize” Danang and the unruliness of its native, tree-climbing inhabitants, Nguyen found a potent analogy for post-reunification Vietnam and her own hybrid identity as a Vietnamese American. —BS

10. Korakrit Arunanondchai, with history in a room filled with people with funny names 4 at CLEARING
Assuming I don’t win a free trip to Disney World, Korakrit Arunanondchai’s dazzling installation “with history in a room filled with people with funny names 4 (garden)” (2017) is probably the closest thing to “Pandora – The World of Avatar” that I’ll ever experience. The strange and sprawling environment freely mixed organic materials, mystic symbolism, and techy components, resulting in surreal juxtapositions like a wooden mask with computer cables for hair and its cheeks covered in colorful beetles, or a towering dragon with a face made of spiky crab shells, a glowing red glass orb for a heart, and a jet of turquoise liquid spewing from its mouth. The spectacular back room installation’s main drawback was that it distracted from the very strong video piece playing in the front of the gallery, a more beautiful and quietly sci-fi rumination on inter-generational alienation. —BS

11. E. Jane, Lavendra at American Medium
Much of the music I listened to in the 1990s was Black divas on repeat: TLC, Brandy, Aaliyah, Whitney Houston. Yet as I grew up, I left these women behind, trading them in for so many white guys and their indie rock. Stepping into American Medium’s glowing purple gallery for E. Jane’s solo show Lavendra, the first sound I picked out was Brandy’s “Sittin’ Up in My Room,” which I hadn’t listened to in probably two decades. The words came back to me immediately. Wow, did I feel feelings. Why had I let these women out of my sight? Without realizing it, I had followed along with mainstream American culture in diminishing their importance. In Lavendra, E. Jane created a necessary, sacred space for the celebration of Black divas. Her abstracted music videos provided the soundtrack, but the real stars were her digital collages of the singers’ likenesses. Printed on silk, they were embellished with Swarovski nail art crystals and draped like banners around the room, imbuing these divas with their rightful glory. —Jillian Steinhauer

12. A Walking Lesson: ABAKANOWICZ / MARKOWSKI at Green Point Projects
This was a sleeper of a show that paired Poland’s best known contemporary artist (Magdalena Abakanowicz) with a figure (Eugeniusz Markowski) who was able to navigate Poland’s late communist regime with great skill but was later ignored during the 1990s zeal for capitalism. The pairing wasn’t “obvious,” to use the curator’s own word, and Abakanowicz’s solo figures, even when they’re produced as part of a forest of forms, appear lonely and isolated, while Markowski’s paintings, mostly of pairs, reflect an interest in the space in-between, where relationships blossom or shrivel. Curated with flair, this exhibition examined in microcosm the conceptual conflict in late 20th century contemporary art between individualistic modernism (funded by capitalism), which continues to be at odds with a communal modernity (often funded by socialist states). The result was inspired. —HV

13. Finally Got the News: The Printed Legacy of the U.S. Radical Left, 1970–1979 at Interference Archive
Most exhibitions at Interference Archive feel like mini (because the space is small) history lessons, and this one was no exception: spanning movements for women’s rights, African liberation, anti-colonialism, and more, Finally Got the News showcased an incredible array of printed matter from the 1970s. There were posters calling for the freedom of Leonard Peltier and in support of the activists involved with San Francisco’s White Night riots. A pamphlet about “class struggle in the black community” shared gallery space with a mock death certificate for the AFL-CIO. A newsletter about police brutality hung on the wall near a broadside for the Third World Women’s Alliance. The imagery on all of these was simple — lots of pictures of people rising up, carrying weapons, their fists raised in struggle — yet persistently creative. To see the breadth of such a rich, radical, and recent printed legacy left me both fired up and a little nostalgic. —JS

14. Ron Baron, Beyond-Beyond at Smack Mellon
Ron Baron’s large installation paired ceramic sculptures of adult and children’s shoes in a quiet meditation on parenthood, generational divides, and transmission. My interest in this exhibition was partly in the way the artist was able to expertly suggest a myriad of narratives that never fully emerge into a coherent whole even as seeds of new narratives suggested themselves throughout. Where did the people go? Are they safe? Who is missing? We don’t know but we feel their loss. —HV

15. Otherwise, you don’t see me at SOHO20
In a year that witnessed multiple iterations of a blatantly discriminatory travel ban, a campaign to take healthcare away from millions, and countless other acts of administrative cruelty, this exhibition bringing together works by artists working with the material traces of bureaucratic violence felt painfully pertinent. Curated by SOHO20’s Rachel Steinberg, it spanned works very specifically taking up the imagery of visas and identification cards, like Andrea Arrubla’s pile of painted Social Security cards, to pieces that offered more cathartic relief, like the video by Deborah Castillo in which she slaps a wet clay bust of Simón Bolívar until it’s disfigured. Though Bushwick galleries can sometimes feel like they’re taking refuge from reality in formalism (especially in summer), this show and several others this year (including our number five, Nasty Stitches) brought together very smart, seemingly disparate works into very successful and cohesive frameworks. —BS

Honorable Mentions
CLUE: Mr. Drury with Eyes Wide Open at Urban Glass
It was a good year for group shows at UrbanGlass, from the fascinating Dead Horse Bay: The Glass Graveyard of Brooklyn in February — curated by Hyperallergic’s Allison Meier — to this clever fall show of tabletop installations curated by John Drury. The artists, all of whom are involved in UrbanGlass’s day-to-day operations in some way, each crafted something between a still life and a puzzle, forming discrete arrangements that invited close looking and sustained pondering. Some, like Rachel Rader (of the Ancient Truth Investigators) and Erica Rosenfeld created otherworldly little environments mimicking geological formations and other natural environments. Others went fully surreal, like Helena Parriott’s chromatic display of materially confounding objects and Esteban Salazar’s ominous yet playful glowing contraption of glass sculpture, found materials, and custom neon lights. —BS

The Soothing Center at Trestle Projects
Self-care became absolutely crucial this year, as we all struggled to stay sane despite being in an abusive relationship with our head of state. This exhibition at the tiny but mighty Gowanus space Trestle Projects, curated by Jesse Bandler, was intended as a nurturing retreat, complete with soothing sensory experiences like an alabaster iPod to cradle (by Devra Freelander) and a plaster belly to gently rub (by Deric Carner), as well as more practical, wearable protection like Weina Iin and Ayodamola Tanimowo Okunseinde’s cyberpunk jewelry Cole Lu’s padded “Crying Helmet.” This show was a much-needed restorative accompaniment to the many exhibitions channeling the widespread anger and outrage about the current political situation. —BS