The 10 Best Art Shows of the Worst Year Ever

It’s early in the morning. Everyone else is asleep.

I’m drinking my coffee and contemplating the explosion of great art this past year in Orange County. The beauty of corpses, the poetry of abstraction, social conscience, mentorship, celebrities, new looks at the places where we live and the things we throw away: 2017 was a rich time whether you’re an art nerd or just appreciate the solace and inspiration it can bring during chaotic times.

Women artists and curators ruled the roost during the past messy months, far outnumbering the few male artists and curators worthy of extra attention. This “Top 10” list below is far from complete, covers only shows that I saw in their entirety, and is in no particular order.

“The Dead: The Photography of Jack Burman.” Curated by Jacqueline Ann Bunge at the Nicholas and Lee Begovich Gallery. Rotting bodies and amputated limbs never looked so good—or led to so many existential ponderings—as this sumptuous, graphic memento mori. Sensitive and painterly choices abound in Burman’s staging of his stunning photographs. Kudos to Bunge’s brave and intelligent choice of subject matter.

“2017 California-Pacific Triennial.” Curated by Cassandra Coblentz and Alyssa Cordova at the Orange County Museum of Art. This easily ranks as one of the best group shows I’ve seen over the past decade. Coblentz and Cordova introduced Orange County to artists worthy of the title, laying the diverse work out with a seamless Zen simplicity. Others planning even more modest shows would do well to make their curation here a case study.

“All Media 2017.” Curated by Kim Abeles at the Irvine Fine Arts Center. Previous “All Media” shows have been far too welcoming of amateurs less deserving of exhibition, resulting in exhibits cramped enough that you’d get black lung searching through the coal to find the occasional diamond. Not so this year. Artists such as Carlos Grasso, Irin Mahaparn, Kira Vollmann and Samuelle Richardson looked as if they all belonged to the same fever dream, despite being miles apart in theme and execution.

“Painting In the Abstract: Women Inspired by the Masters.” Curated by Suzanne Walsh and the staff at the Great Park Gallery. Six local women artists presenting work that demands viewers puzzle the work out for themselves and make their own judgements, without explanation or apology. A stroke of inspiration.

“You Have No Sound” by Kim Kei. Curated by Yevgeniya Mikhailik at the Irvine Fine Arts Center. Mikhailik’s idiosyncratic taste scores another win with Kei’s individualistic talent, molding the stuff we pitch in the trash to look equally like intestines, flowers or sea creatures. Kei’s solo show moved, caressed and danced with us.

“William Wray: New Work.” Curated by Sue Greenwood at Sue Greenwood Fine Art. Wray’s deft use of pinks, purples and oranges in his cityscapes had me admiring his palette, as well as his exceptional skill at catching the wounded visages of our skyscrapers, downtown boulevards and alleyways.

“Doorway to Joe: The Art of Joe Coleman.” Curated by Sara Fortson and Mike McGee at the Nicholas and Lee Begovich Gallery. The brilliance of painter Joe Coleman’s abrasive vision is that he knows you have to pick at the scab for the wound to get enough light and air to heal. It’s a bloody process, and Coleman’s enthusiastic dive into his subject matter—sexual abuse, serial killing and dead celebrities, just to name a few—reveals an artist looking for a better world than the one he’s faced with every day.

“War Wounds” by Trinh Mai and “Permanent Change of Station, Leave No Traces” by Gosia Herc-Balaszek. Curated by John Spiak at Grand Central Art Center. Under Spiak’s lyrical eye, these two installations perfectly bookended each other’s themes about war and military service with a cohesive effortlessness. The end result was an experience bordering on the meditative.

“The Golden Decade: Photography at the California School of Fine Arts, 1945-55.” Curated by Dr. Malcolm Warner, John Upton, Ken Ball and Victoria Whyte Ball at Laguna Art Museum. A 10-year overview of images from the school wise enough to give gigs to Ansel Adams, Mark Rothko, Richard Diebenkorn, Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Minor White and Edward Weston, among others. That assembled talent was on display in this flawless show, as well as the work of the students fortunate enough to have so briefly studied under them.

“Stark Beauty: The Photography of Edward Weston.” Curated by the Capital Group at the Bowers Museum. It seems that Weston or one of his peers has been a yearly presence at the Bowers—last year it was Imogen Cunningham; in 2015, a show with Adams and Edward S. Curtis—but the chance to take in his photographs yet again is welcome any time.

Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.

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