It's been a good year for painting in Boston area galleries, with a range of inventive shows that tackled topics from war to shininess. And galleries as a whole have been thriving, as more and more jump into the overheated market for contemporary works at art fairs. A handful of venues have closed or are soon to, including the long-esteemed Mario Diacono Gallery (the last show is up through Jan. 18), a haven for ambitious, intelligent painting, and the Genovese/Sullivan Gallery, which had an edgy aesthetic and a commitment to sometimes difficult art. But more galleries have opened than have closed, with LaMontagne Gallery on Melcher Street making a particularly impressive debut with art that's riskier than what you see in most Newbury Street galleries.
Here's my list for the 10 best gallery exhibitions of 2007.
Erik Bakke's "Untitled: Saddam Hussein" at University Gallery at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell audaciously proved that an age-old medium such as painting can be a wonderful platform from which to grapple with new media, in this case the cellphone video of Saddam Hussein's execution. Bakke made small wood-panel paintings of screen grabs from the infamous video, capturing the often abstract images in lush, simple strokes. The project distilled a ghoulish spectacle into something beautiful and thought-provoking.
Oliver Lutz contemplated the same theme with his captivating installations of painting and closed-circuit video at Space Other. Lutz used infrared radiation to reveal layers beneath the surface of his paintings of public lynchings, which were based on historic photographs. You'd see part of the scene with your naked eye, but the video monitors, with infrared lights, could reveal much more. The way Lutz orchestrated it, the viewer ended up virtually standing with the mob, implicated.
That uncomfortable feeling of complicity played a role in Denise Marika's video installation "Downrush," the centerpiece of "Witnesses," a group exhibit at Axiom. Large video projections on either end of the darkened space showed a body in a cloth bag heavily thudding down a wooden bleacher. Similar bleachers stretched across the gallery, the kind you'd sit on at a Little League game. Marika invited visitors to watch and to imagine themselves inside the bag, compelling them to feel the responsibility of a witness.
While we're contemplating responsibility and mortality, let's not forget Matthew Day Jackson's stunning "Diptych," which paired a mixed-media painting and a sculpture at Mario Diacono Gallery at Ars Libri. Meticulously crafted, chock-full of symbols and cultural references, "Diptych" was a sobering, unsentimental, and gorgeous evocation of death and decay.
George Grosz took it upon himself to witness the debasements and debaucheries of his generation, from Germany's social ills to New York's high society in the 1920s and 1930s. "A World in Grosz Disarray: Works on Paper by George Grosz" at Pucker Gallery offered up drawings both scathing and tart by this restless and remarkable draftsman and caricaturist.
Carolee Schneemann's "A Selection of Recent and Early Work" at Pierre Menard Gallery was equally searing. The pioneering feminist artist's vision in "Fuses," a film she made 40 years ago, is still revolutionary, exulting in the creative and sexual forces of a woman's body. Schneemann is still at work; her most recent piece here, the shocking "Terminal Velocity," stacked photos of people plummeting from the Twin Towers on 9/11. She's an artist who does not flinch.
"Applaud the Black Fact," the Nielsen Gallery's elegant retrospective of the works of Jay DeFeo, an artist best known for her gargantuan and deeply layered painting "The Rose" (1958-1966), showed a surprising side to DeFeo. When she wasn't immersed in that epic enterprise, she was making spare, graceful visual haikus, in which she deployed simple forms, stepping neatly but deeply into spiritual matters.
Frank Egloff's superb paintings in "rethought" at Barbara Krakow Gallery deconstructed the presumed reality of photographs. This is not new territory, but Egloff's conceptual probing and expert technique made his lush works endlessly interesting, baffling the viewer by presenting what seemed real and then breaking it open into abstraction. In each work, he riffed on iconic photographs, such as Edward Weston's portrait of Tina Modotti, like a jazz musician stretching the limits of an old standard.
There was something gaudy and even ugly about the paintings in Laurel Sparks's "Christmas in July" show at Howard Yezerski Gallery. She went at it like a manic preschooler with papier mache, glitter, and marble dust. Sparks started each work with a drawing of a Venetian chandelier and then ran away from that elegance with abandon, building up her paint and smearing it around. You could see the risks she took with each canvas, creating gutsy, involving works of art.
Despite Sparks's glitter, the prize for shininess goes to Jacqueline Humphries and her self-titled show at Albert Merola Gallery in Provincetown. She pushed at the limits of paint's brightness and reflectivity, using shimmering silver paint she mixes herself and adding phosphorescent paint and glitter, punching up her bold, improvisatory brushstrokes to create harmonies of light modulating over canvases that playfully caressed the eye.