1. Visual Arts

Best of 2017: 10 phenomenal art exhibits from this year

Photo by Lola Alvarez Bravo. Portrait of artist Frida Kahlo as she sits next to a lithographic stone1930 self portrait of muralist Diego Rivera, 1945 at Casa Azul, Mexico City. Photo on display at the Salvador Dali Museum.
Photo by Lola Alvarez Bravo. Portrait of artist Frida Kahlo as she sits next to a lithographic stone1930 self portrait of muralist Diego Rivera, 1945 at Casa Azul, Mexico City. Photo on display at the Salvador Dali Museum.
Published Jan. 4, 2018

At the close of a year that many are referring to as a dumpster fire, it's actually refreshing to look back at the great visual art exhibitions shown in Tampa Bay in 2017. While a few were political in nature or included pieces that were, the exhibits for the most part provided a great escape from the divided political climate. There were works from icons in the art world, as well as local talents. Fashion as art was celebrated, as were innovations in techniques and processes. And those that did explore political issues were handled with such finesse that they could open the floor for civilized discussions.

I wasn't able to catch every exhibit that was on display this year. No, I haven't seen the Star Wars: Power of Costume exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts yet; it's on my to-do list. But I actually mean it when I say, "so much art, so little time!"

Here are my favorite exhibitions of the year, in chronological order.

Kahlo is known around the world for her self-portraits, characterized by her fierce expression and legendary unibrow. But it wasn't until long after her death that she was catapulted into the mainstream as a feminist icon, and her mythology outweighs actual familiarity with her artwork. The Dalí's exhibit provided the opportunity to finally see many of her paintings, and many were surprised by their small scale. For me, the real brilliance of the exhibit was that it introduced who Kahlo really was as a person, taking you through her triumphs and struggles. A big takeaway for me was learning how she took control of her image through the way she dressed. I also loved seeing her letters, which she adorned with drawings. Not to mention the selfie-tastic flowered wall that led into the exhibit and brightly painted interior walls, celebrating Kahlo's love of flora and color.

In an unprecedented move, St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Arts, the Tampa Museum of Art and Sarasota's Ringling Museum got together to present works from local artists in all three institutions at the same time. Artists were selected from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties, and the exhibits gave them exposure, not only just in a museum setting, but often outside of the cities where they normally show. Skyway did a great job of showcasing the diverse amount of local talent here, from Selina Roman's photography series shot in Florida motel rooms, to Gregory Greens' installation depicting a terrorist's worktable, it was also clear that the works are museum quality.

The Black Lives Matter movement inspired artists and curators William Villalongo and Mark Thomas Gibson to present these exhibitions, held side-by-side concurrently at USFCAM. Black Pulp focused on more than a century of print media created predominately by African-American artists, writers and publishers, complemented by works of contemporary art from leading artists. The exhibit explores how African-Americans strove, and continue to reinvent the image so negatively painted by whites in the Jim Crow era. Woke was a small but powerful display of works by Villalongo and Gibson, continuing to address the way black people are perceived. Villalongo focuses on the physical body, while Gibson presents comic book-like images with a narrative exploring this American cultural crisis. Bonus round: Work from Villalongo and Gibson is featured in the "Utopias" exhibition at Gallery 221 at HCC's Dale Mabry Campus, opening January 18.

The exhibition of fiber arts blew away the notion of the genre belonging to an era past through a multitude of examples, not only through use of innovations in techniques and materials, but also conceptually, by addressing current topics. The absolute standout was Sarah Knouse's Cerement, a transparent sculpture of a human figure floating in a death pose, shrouded in black crocheted doilies and threads that cascade down to the ground. Knouse lifecasted herself for this and another similar piece; the floating effect achieved by a resin mixture she invented to create the stiffness for them to stand on their own. Here, innovation meets concept, as she explores her grief from losing her grandmother, as well as the grief the woman experienced when she lost the ability to use her hands and could no longer create.

Photorealism is a genre that will continue to amaze me no matter how many times or closely I study the works. It feels magical that someone would have the ability to render people and things with photo-precision, but then I can barely draw a straight line with a ruler. Regardless, this exhibit featured all the greats, including Audrey Flack, Richard Estes, Chuck Close and Ralph Goings. It's not everyday one can see the work of these masters locally, so this exhibit was a huge highlight for me.

Okay, I know I'm cheating a little here, but these fashion-as-art exhibitions shared many qualities. For one, the subjects of both were groundbreaking women: Bartsch as an influencer in New York City's burgeoning nightclub scene, and Elsa Schiaparelli as the leading fashion designer in Paris between world wars. Bartsch was muse to superstar designers including Thierry Mugler, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, fashions from all of whom were showcased at the Tampa Museum of Art. Schiaparelli enjoyed a collaborative relationship with Dalí that was fun to learn about, and the designs from that period, as well as the recently revived Maison Schiaparelli, are inspirational for this fashion aficionado. Both exhibits verify the notion that fashion and art are twin muses.

The Belgian artist manipulates film and photography with such brilliance, it's not an understatement to call his work mind-blowing. The exhibit featured four installations of photographs that are animated, creating a really new viewing sensation of moving through a still image. It's a trip how portions of the images are slowly revealed, then fade back away. He also manipulates sound in some of his work. I went in not knowing what to expect, but this exhibition made a huge impression.

Hawkinson's unique explorations of self-portraiture are meticulous and unexpected. One example is Screw Self Portrait, in which he photographed himself repeatedly while standing on a rotating base, then cut the photos into strips and reassembled them in order. When he's not considering his own physical being, he's finding ways to manipulate found objects into things that near little or no resemblance to what they're made of, like Hose, a hose-like object made from eggshells. Kudos to curator Francesca Bacci for bringing the acclaimed San Francisco-based artist to UT, where art students got to collaborate with him.

For the third year, the walls and streets of St. Petersburg continued to become an outdoor art gallery, thanks to muralists from around the bay and around the world. Works from L.A.-based Cryptik, the Netherlands' Joram Roukes and Tampa's Jujmo brightened up blank walls around the city. Wrapping up the nearly two-weeklong festival of spray paint, was the "Outside In" closing exhibition that featured work some artists that were included in Shine, others that weren't and a killer installation from New York's Yok and Shero. The festival just keeps growing and getting better. I can't wait to see what they do next year.

The photography exhibition explores what happens after war from a variety of perspectives, whether it's of the American soldier struggling to return to civilian life, refugees attempting to acclimate to a new home or families carrying on as usual amidst a pile of rubble. The images captured by artists and photojournalists depict the results of the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, and Israel. If you can, catch it before it closes on Jan. 21. Oh, and bring a hanky: I teared up a few times, from sadness and empathy, but also from hope and joy.