Top Ten Art Shows of 2016

Abigail DeVille's "Only When It's Dark Enough Can You See The Stars'"
Abigail DeVille's "Only When It's Dark Enough Can You See The Stars'" (Courtesy/The Contemporary)

1. Abigail DeVille, "Only When It's Dark Enough Can You See the Stars" via The Contemporary at the Peale Museum

There is always more to say about this work, an installation by Abigail DeVille in the former Peale Museum, commissioned by The Contemporary, which is why it’s our number one art show of 2016. The more you try to describe it through its objects and materials—festooned mannequins, taxidermied animals, ancient photographs, the darkened corridor with an epileptic flashing white light, the dry cleaning rack which clanked around its track on which found objects hang hauntingly—the more it unfolds in inquiry. Both an educational tour and a gripping emotional excursion, “Only When It’s Dark” told snippets of Black history and resistance and presence in Baltimore—and of the many shapes this museum took over the years. But the installation felt very much alive and ongoing, a site of future potential, with weekly salons held in the “The People’s Theater” featuring local performers and poets, such as Meccamorphosis, Tariq Touré, Kondwani Fidel, and Joyce Scott. (Rebekah Kirkman)

2. "Matisse/Diebenkorn" at the Baltimore Museum of Art

The Museum of Modern Art’s “Matisse Picasso” pairing in 2003 may have kick-started the 21st century’s museum exhibit as comparative study, but the BMA turns the comparative study exhibition into a transcendent visual feast. Co-curated by the BMA’s Katy Rothkopf and Janet Bishop, from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the exquisitely thought out “Matisse/Diebenkorn” showcases two painters having an intimate visual conversation across generations, continents, and the better part of the 20th century. Go often, because it rewards repeat visits, and even the first exposure will show you the exhibition ranks up there with the BMA’s finest from the past 15 years—“SlideShow,” “Franz West, To Build a House You Start With the Roof,” and “Work Ethic.” (Bret McCabe)

3. Stephen Towns, "Take Me Away to the Stars" at Galerie Myrtis

If you’ve followed his work over the last five or so years, Towns’ solo show at Galerie Myrtis offered one of those rare, priceless experiences of being a regular gallerygoer: witnessing an artist debut a body of work that represents a monumental creative leap forward. In subject matter, the way “Stars” wrestles with the Nat Turner rebellion and black resistance in general is a maturation of scope of complexity, but it’s the work itself that’s at times shockingly assured. Towns’ fabric pieces reveal a fully formed new quiver in his creative repertoire, but the paintings, especially the “Joy Cometh in the Morning” series, showcase a breathtaking refinement of his painterly confidence, control, and ambitions. (BM)

4. Theresa Chromati, "BBW" at Platform Gallery

Theresa Chromati’s solo show at Platform Gallery was highly anticipated by anyone who had seen her many distinctive fliers around town advertising local parties like Kahlon, and the artist delivered. Not only did her mixed media works on paper—digital renderings of poised black women braiding their hair, lacing up boots, just chilling; accented with collage and glitter—stand on their own as powerful celebrations of the beauty, power, and friendships shared by black women, but Chromati’s installation took the work and Platform itself to new heights. Checkerboard tiles covering the floor and vinyl ivy shapes crawling up the walls rooted the atmosphere in both the wild and the domestic, while also replicating the interiors the figures in her work occupy as a real, inhabitable space where black women are revered for their complexity and strength as much as their beauty. (Maura Callahan)

5. "Headspace" at Phoebe Projects

Alex Ebstein is a master of finding harmonies or harmonious dissonance between the artists she curates into shows; in their two-person show at Ebstein’s gallery, Carolyn Salas’ small, weathered-looking abstract sculptures were a surprising fit to Jordan Kasey’s enormous paintings of larger-than-life, marshmallowy figures in repose. Gathered onto a long pedestal in the center of the space, Salas’ concrete-like blocks, arches, and looping structures referenced architecture and childlike construction. Peeking through them, we felt as though we were sneaking up on Kasey’s enigmatic, otherworldly beach-bathers and television-watchers, sort of trip-falling into their worlds and spaces. (RK)

6. Hermonie "Only" Williams, "Not Now" at Gallery Four

Few contemporary artists, period, are as unafraid of the dramatic juxtaposition of positive and negative space as Williams, and her first solo show at the spacious Gallery Four gave her the real estate to toy with the gorgeously menacing interplay between light and dark, and the emotional vortexes each can carry, with the expressive extravagance of a film noir cinematographer. Whether working with charred-wood sculptures, polycabornate rods, or charcoal-pigmented cement, Williams uses the clean, crisp language of minimalism to convey the messy, fugitive emotions of this fleshy existence, where the overwhelming sometimes hides in the innocuous, and the seemingly simple can weigh on the soul like the most complex of life’s toils. (BM)

7. Malcolm Peacock, "Let the Sun Set on You" via Rose Arcade at Druid Hill Park

This was not really an “art show” at all; it was something more akin to a happening. On a Monday evening in October, about 50 people came to Druid Hill Park and divided into teams. First we read an essay that touched on death and legacy written by Thomas Cummings’ sibling (Cummings died in 1953 at age 13, when he drowned in the water near the Hanover Street bridge; his death led to the NAACP’s demands to integrate pools in Baltimore). Then we walked as a large, casual procession toward Joyce Scott’s “Memorial Pool”—a meditative monument on the site of the former blacks-only Pool No. 2 in the park. Here, the crowd sat on steps and listened to two tennis players talk about growing up in Baltimore and swimming in that pool (now they’re regulars on the tennis courts); then we sat and communed with one another in the grass, where the pool once was, eating hand pies and watching the sunset. The third act led us down to the tennis court, where we sat on bleachers and watched two sets of doubles play tennis, their bodies backlit by yellow-orange lights powered by a generator, their steps, breaths, racket thwaps, and patter of tennis balls the only other sounds. “Let the Sun Set on You” had us ruminating on death and its impact on the present, but also the ways in which blackness and black lives exist and matter completely on their own, outside of tragedy, too. (RK)

8. Skye Gilkerson, "Unending" at Gallery Four/Institute of Contemporary Art

Over a range of media—video, installation, works on paper—Gilkerson showcased a flair for being a bit of a magician. Not through visual sleight of hand or some other canny technique, but by using her work to encourage viewers to recognize how fantastically bizarre the vast universe we occupy already is. Like a scientist explaining the vastness of subatomic or deep space, Gilkerson’s work rethinks the visual world we see every day, be it a newspaper’s broadsheet or the horizon line in a photograph. The result is a visual vocabulary where awe and wonder sit comfortably alongside humor, reflection, and an understanding of the permeable boundary separating our atmosphere from the deafening void of the universe. (BM)

9. Phaan Howng, "If It Bleeds We Can Kill It" at School 33 Art Center

Something this multicolored shouldn't be so sneakily creepy. And yet that's exactly what Howng pulls off with her room-swallowing installation at School 33. Both an allusion to "Predator," the 1987 military/sci-fi action flick starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Reagan-era politics of the time period, "If It Bleeds" wraps her gift for nature-designs that echo thermal-vision camouflage around a survivalist's techno paranoia to create a room that could turn the most tree-hugging peacenik into a concealed-carry permit holder. The installation is a meditation on what a defense system is, why somebody or something might need to have one, and gets the brain trying to triangulate who is the hunter and who is the prey. (BM)

10. Baltimore Youth Arts x Free Space, "A Way Out" at Platform Gallery

For this show, every wall in the gallery was covered nearly floor to ceiling with art made by local young folks in the Baltimore Youth Arts program and adults in the Free Space program. BYA works with youths, teaching them artistic and creative skills (in addition to job/marketing skills; we've seen them selling their wares at pop-ups in places like Gallery CA, Jubilee Arts, and the Motor House recently), focusing on those in the juvenile justice system. Free Space offers weekly art classes to adults who are incarcerated in Maryland, teaching them art skills and encouraging them to use art as self-expression—or whatever they want to do with it. This show at Platform highlighted the creativity and multiplicity of people who, in the criminal justice system, are often disempowered or reduced to a number, and on the walls there was a little of everything: expressive self portraits, sports cars, portraits of civil rights leaders, tributes to lost loved ones, landscapes, abstract paintings, emojis, dragons, devils, angels. (RK)

Recommended on Baltimore Sun