When I start to take stock of the past year in art, it never fails to surprise me just how much good art we have in our museums and we see in the local galleries, cooperatives and arts organizations. 21c Hotel/Museum is also an important part of our art scene with its collection of photography using the latest technology by artists who are the hottest in the market.
This year our art world made news when N. C. State opened its Gregg Museum in a beautiful new facility on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh with easy access and parking, and Larry Wheeler, director of the N. C Museum of Art, announced his retirement after 24 years.
Wheeler’s most significant accomplishments were his negotiation of a $25 million gift of 29 Rodin sculptures from the Cantor Collection which generated the $75 million West Building, funded by the N.C. Legislature, and an art park which has become an art destination. He leaves an outstanding museum with a superb staff and program and a solid legacy to build on.
The 10 Best Exhibits of 2017
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▪ “Unpacking the Past, Designing the Future,” Scrap Exchange, Durham. When The Scrap Exchange bought the old Center Theater in Lakewood Shopping Center, it acquired a time capsule to be opened December, 2016. Unsealing the capsule reminded us of the vibrant Durham of 50 years ago and also celebrated the grand plans to bring a renaissance to this neighborhood by making it a Reuse Arts District with ScrapEx at its center.
▪ “Ansel Adams: Masterworks,” North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh. Considered by photography historians as the greatest photographer of the 20th century, it is impossible to separate Adams, the photographer, from Adams, the conservationist. The exhibition included some of his most iconic images, “Mount Williamson, the Sierra Nevada from Manzanar, California,” 1945,” and “Moonrise at Hernandez,” 1941. Wall texts and the catalogue told about his love of the land and how his testimony to Congress played a vital role in the congressional designation of Sequoia and King Canyon as national parks.
▪ “Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush,” Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University. Ten years out of graduate school, Abney (b. 1982) has had dramatic success with a place in the important collection of Donald and Mera Rubbell, and now her first museum show. She paints big, with flat figures, clear colors and large black lettering; her themes are about celebrity, mixing rock and roll stars and politicians. The art world thinks she is on her way to the top. Keep watching.
▪ “Installation: Leonardo Drew,” Contemporary Art Museum, Raleigh. Drew (b. 1961) makes installations from hurricane debris; the Raleigh one comes from Wake County homes destroyed by Hurricane Matthew. Local kids helped gather the debris and threw the pieces as hard as they could against the wall. According to the artist, “the arrangement is pretty much theirs.” With objects scattered across the gallery, the art addresses destruction and reuse; torn fabric, wood, rusted iron and shreds of paper can be turned into art.
▪ “Los Trompos: Spinning Tops,” Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill. The Ackland, which faces Columbia Street, looked like most of the buildings on the UNC campus until Katie Ziglar, the new director, decided to move art outside. First were giant spinning tops people could get into, made by Mexican sculptors, Esrawe and Ignacio Cdena. Now, until August of 2018, is a sculpture by twig and stick artist Patrick Dougherty. Passersby cannot miss the outdoor art and, hopefully, it will lure them inside where, among many treasures, are 134 drawings given recently to the museum by Leena and, long-time Durham resident, Sheldon Peck. That gift includes seven Rembrandts and is valued at $25 million.
▪ “Judy Keene: Color Search,” Craven Allen Gallery, Durham. Judy Keene (b. 1946) paints the landscape as abstract color. The overall effect is the paint has its own qualities of depth and flatness, settling finally into window-like shapes through which we see her vision of nature.
▪ “New Permanent African Art Gallery, N.C. Museum of Art, Raleigh.” African art was only considered important in the systematic study of people and cultures until Picasso saw a 1907 exhibition of African objects in Paris’ Trocadero Ethnographic Museum and realized these objects had been made by artists. It was then ideas started to change and throughout the 20th century major art museums began to make room for African art. That has finally happened at the N. C. Museum and the African collection now occupies the entire first floor of the East Building. Although still separated from the progression of western art, it now has a position of honor. .
▪ “Truth to Power,” Pleiades Arts Inc. This is an annual juried show with social justice as its theme. Pedro Lasch, Duke University professor of Art, Art History and Visual Studies, juried the show. The exhibition focuses on art as a powerful tool to fight injustice. According to the contemporary Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, governments are afraid of art because they are afraid of freedom and art is about freedom.
▪ “63rd Annual Juried Exhibition, Durham Art Guild, Durham. One of the oldest visual arts organizations in North Carolina, the Guild promotes the region’s best artists. This year’s juror was Alexys Taylor of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, in Charlotte. The exhibit runs the gamut from J.P. Trostle’s “ The Best Healthcare in the World,” a large baby pool where three plastic bombs with detonators of empty pill boxes seemingly float, to Stephen Hayes’ “Jesus Piece,” made of gouged wood painted black with a halo of woven straw.
▪ “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” closes Jan.21, N. C. Museum of Art, Raleigh. In the first show of women’s fashions the museum has ever presented, we are treated to beautiful clothes by the fashion world’s top designers and they were for African American women. “Ebony” Magazine catered to the black reader and began sponsoring fashion shows of haute couture in 1958 when American black women could not go into most department stores and try on clothes. The clothes are gorgeous; the story beneath the surface is one we all need to know.