(Correction: Because of a reporting error, artist Peter Smuts, who had two exhibits at the Pepper Gallery in 2005, was misidentified as Peter Smith in the Galleries column in Friday's Weekend section.)
Boston galleries have been thriving in 2005. Harrison Avenue overtook Newbury Street as a gallery district, after the rush of gallery openings there last year. Except for the notable closing of two of the area's more experimental commercial spaces -- Clifford-Smith Gallery and NAO Gallery -- the Harrison Avenue galleries have kept up the head of steam they've been building in recent years.
Not that Newbury Street is on its way out. It's just a different atmosphere: It's a cultivated garden to Harrison Avenue's greenhouse. On Newbury Street, there's been a small game of musical chairs: Victoria Munroe Fine Art has relocated from its Charles Street digs to the floor above the Nielsen Gallery, and Alpha Gallery just moved down the street to 38 Newbury, where it has expanded its square footage.
Installation art, though hard for commercial galleries to sell, has made its mark this year in alternative spaces and commercial venues. Political art with edgier form and content is also on the rise, countered by more traditional painting and sculpture shows that achieved their ends with marked grace and intelligence.
On the installation side, Scott Snibbe's sharp and perpetually engaging ''Shadow Play" at Art Interactive employed cameras, animation software, and light projection to let viewers -- you guessed it -- play with their own shadows. While the show could be experienced simply as pure fun, it also examined shadow as a metaphor for the dark side of a person's psyche.
Petra Gemeinboeck, with collaborators Mary Agnes Krell and Craig Dietrich in the dreamy ''Impossible Geographies 01: Memory," utilized video projection and laser technology to hauntingly depict the memory of the gallery at Studio Soto. Cameras captured a visitor's image, then played it back, time-delayed, on the wall; slowly, that picture dissolved to reveal shots of previous viewers.
''The 19th Drawing Show" at the Boston Center for the Arts' Mills Gallery may not have been planned to work as an installation, but director Laura Donaldson and guest juror Denise Markonish achieved this anyway. The fresh take on an old standby this year focused on wall drawings, effectively inviting the viewer inside a three-dimensional drawing. (It's still on view, through Jan. 14).
''Jump Zone," Heide Fasnacht's wondrous installation at the Bernard Toale Gallery, made great use of drawing and sculpture to create the moment just after an explosion. The building she detonated in a corner of the gallery was actually a simple wall drawing deftly made with tape. Clouds of smoke and debris flying through the air, however, were solidly three-dimensional.
Denise Marika's stirring video installation was set in the darkened Howard Yezerski Gallery. ''Detritus" featured a double exposure of a building being demolished set over the nude, curled-up body of a woman; she might have been an egg in a nest that was methodically being destroyed. ''Gnaw" put the viewer face to face with a woman buried in the earth and disturbingly eating her way to the surface. Marika continues to unsettle with the daunting vulnerability and sheer tenacity of her subjects.
Fasnacht and Marika weren't the only artists to evoke demolition in their work. In ''Extend," Sally Moore's small wooden sculptures at the Barbara Krakow Gallery were splintered and torn open, on the verge of dissolution. Hanging on the walls, they looked like ocean piers battered and broken by a northeaster. Yet there was always a saving grace, even if it looked haphazardly jury-rigged. Moore's works illustrated the struggle between despair and hope and the way, even in the midst of disaster, we always look to hold things together and rebuild.
Todd McKie added a new dimension to his paintings in a show at Gallery NAGA. His work, featuring affable, befuddled stick figures, has always been easily accessible. The new paintings folded spatial depth into the mix, which made his flatly rendered heroes seem all the more out of their element, as they blundered along mottled, delicately painted, sometimes eye-popping backgrounds.
At the Green Street Gallery, Cristi Rinklin's ''Phantasmagoria" painting show sprang rambunctiously across centuries and through visual ideas. Baroque danced with digital imagery; Rorschach blots, cartoon thought bubbles, and architectural ornamentation all joined the game. The paintings were gleefully ambitious and easy on the eye.
In ''Artifacts" at Genovese/Sullivan Gallery, Kelly Spalding painted on old, bedraggled dish towels. Who knew the mundane could be so daring? Spalding painted stripes over her wayward ground, turning what might have been a regimented format into teasing contrasts of texture, tone, and medium (such as marble dust). Beneath the pageant of color and line, the dish towels seemed to squirm and pucker.
For political art, my pick is Peter Smith, who had two bodies of work up at Pepper Gallery. The scathing ''American Force Dolls" packaged news events into salable GI Joe scenarios, such as the black-hooded detainee at Abu Ghraib, with a leash and jumper cables as accessories. ''Preservation," his photo series, was less political, but visually, it grabbed you by the collar. Smith submerged toy animals in jars filled with colored water and photographed them up close, then blew the photos up so that the toys took on gigantic proportions and looked almost real.
The Best of 2005
Scott Snibbe, ''Shadow Play,"Art Interactive
Petra Gemeinboeck,Mary Agnes Krell, and Craig Dietrich, ''Impossible Geographies 01:Memory," at Studio Soto
''The 19th Drawing Show,"Boston Center for the ArtsMills Gallery
Heide Fasnacht, ''Jump Zone," Bernard Toale Gallery
Denise Marika, ''VideoInstallation," Howard Yezerski Gallery
Sally Moore, ''Extend,"Barbara Krakow Gallery
Todd McKie, ''Paintings,"Gallery NAGA
Cristi Rinklin, ''Phantasmagoria," Green Street Gallery
Kelly Spalding, ''Artifacts,"Genovese/Sullivan Gallery
Peter Smith, ''All Fun and Games," Pepper Gallery