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The Best Art I Saw in 2021

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Installation view of an LED sign in 'ABT: A Limited Hour 24-Hour Funny Business' at Cushion Works. (Photos by Graham Holoch; GIF by Sarah Hotchkiss)

I didn’t write one of these last year. There was art, and I had some great viewing experiences—often alone, overly emotional, relishing texture and color. But the local visual art scene was largely shuttered, especially our largest institutions. In the end, I wrote more stories about layoffs, furloughs and closures in 2020 than I did about artists presenting new work.

Thankfully, that hasn’t been the case this year. In fact, there was too much going on for me to write about all the beautiful, challenging, exciting stuff I saw in 2021. So without further ado, may I present: the best art I saw in 2021* but didn’t write about at the time.

A row of multicolored gallon jugs in a row against a white wall.
Anthony Discenza’s 1-gallon containers of various liquid products, alternately titled ‘The Heat Death of the Universe and Other Stories,’ 2007; ‘Un’opera intrisa dei luridi colori dell’arcobaleno di un mondo inquinato (A work imbued with the lurid rainbow colors of a polluted world),’ 2019; and ‘$1000 Worth of One Gallon Containers of Various Products,’ 2019. (Courtesy the artist and Et al. )

*The 2020 Show I’m Still Thinking About

Anthony Discenza, No 3: Variations
Way back in January 2020, I had no idea Anthony Discenza’s show was giving me a glimpse of my future. In Et al.’s Mission Street space, the artist accumulated a prepper-level supply of cleaning products, plugged the sockets with ultrasonic pest control devices and mounted a countdown clock measuring the exhibition’s duration high on the wall. The show tapped into a paranoid energy I was just about to fully inhabit—and the three “variations” of the show (manifesting in three different exhibition statements and three different artwork lists) came to represent the vastly different realities individuals faced during the height of the pandemic.

A painting of a blurry photograph under a plexi vitrine.
Elisheva Biernoff, ‘Rose,’ 2019; acrylic on plywood, painted both sides; painted poplar stand. (© Elisheva Biernoff; Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.)

The Art That Made Me Say ‘Wow!’ the Most

Elisheva Biernoff, Starting from Wrong
It was very necessary for the works in this Fraenkel Gallery show to be under vitrines. I needed to be protected from my own impulse to get as close as possible to the surface of Elisheva Biernoff’s acrylic on plywood, double-sided paintings. Based on found photographs and rendered at the same scale, Biernoff’s paintings realistically capture all the ways that cameras can fail to capture reality; in her hands, fading, blurry focus, sun-flares and color shifts no longer “ruin” a picture but make it ethereal.

Sculpture on wood pedestals, a hanging text piece, a black and white drawing and a large blue and black painting.
Installation view of work by Lena Gustafson, Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo and Maria Paz in ‘Holding’ at pt.2. (Courtesy the artists and pt.2)

Best Group Show I Almost Missed

Lena Gustafson, Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo and Maria Paz, Holding
Oakland’s pt.2 gallery consistently impresses, and has mounted some of the most exciting shows of local artists the Bay Area’s seen in recent years. My one complaint is that the gallery’s exhibition schedule moves too quickly, and that magnificent shows like Holding, which was up for only three weeks, deserve to be seen by more eyes. The grouping combined Lena Gustafsonʼs optically intense paintings on canvas and paper, Maria Pazʼs ceramics and charcoal drawings, and Lukaza Branfman-Verissimoʼs delicate mylar assemblages in a show that felt like it was made not by three people, but more of a hive mind—in the best possible way.

Installation view from ‘Wangechi Mutu: I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?,’ Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 2021. © Wangechi Mutu. (Photo by Gary Sexton; Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Best Intervention into a European Art Collection

Wangechi Mutu, I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?
One of the best moments in the Wangechi Mutu exhibition at the Legion of Honor was the one everyone could see sans ticket. In the museum’s blindingly white stone courtyard, where Rodin’s Thinker sits, the artist placed two bronze figures laying limp under bronze mats. In The Thinker’s shadow, Shavasana I and Shavasana II were people resting, exhausted after a long yoga session. But they were also something else: representations of the violence perpetuated against women of color in the name of progress, colonialism and Western thought.


Best Street Art

Michael Jang’s Wheatpastes
Amid the hullabaloo of controversy surrounding fnnch this year, I was delighted to see other work of the non-honey-bear variety proliferating across San Francisco, namely the wheatpasted photographs and delightful remixes by Michael Jang. Drawing from his deep archive of images (of his family in the 1970s, of celebrities and musicians, of aspiring weather reporters), Jang’s work started appearing on boarded-up storefronts, on sandbag-reinforced signs along the Great Highway, on the corner store down the block from my house—often with a #stopasianhate label nearby. Watching them accumulate and disintegrate, and spotting pieces in new locations has become a favorite pastime of 2021.

Brightly colored math-related objects for children.
An Arithmetic Foundation book and Arithmetic quiz (c. 1940s); a Mickey Math and Toy adding machine (c. 1960s); and
a Little Professor (1976). (Courtesy of Mickey McGowan, the Computer History Museum)

Best Show I Saw While Stressed Out and In Transit

Mathematics: Vintage and Modern
It’s no secret that SFO has some of the best darn exhibitions in the Bay Area. Always surprising, thoughtfully curated and beautifully presented, the airport museum held my attention during a particularly fraught travel time. For the 20 or so minutes that I spent taking in this display of elegant computational mechanisms, vintage toys and sculptural objects rooted in modern math, I completely forgot about the internal calculations I was doing to justify a flight during a pandemic. (This show was also a runner-up for “wows” uttered. Please look into “Klein bottles.”)

Installation view of work by Matt Borruso for ‘Urs’ at TamShack.

Best New Art Space That Didn’t Stress Me Out

In August, over one weekend, Facundo Argañaraz organized a lovely exhibition of work by Will Rogan and Lauren McKeon outside his home in Mill Valley. For many who attended, it was the first time they’d seen art in person since the beginning of the pandemic—or seen persons, for that matter. Argañaraz has since put together two other two-person shows, arranged around a small patio, a back porch and a sloping hillside. Each time, I’ve felt the simple but great joy of being able to linger, talk and approach art in a nontraditional setting, without the sometimes claustrophobic surroundings of white gallery walls.

Best Show as Gift Shop

ABT: A Limited Hour 24-Hour Funny Business
A project of Asian Brain Trust (Amy Fung, Divya Mehra and Wattis curator Kim Nguyen), this show at Cushion Works was ostensibly a shop of wares—all actually for sale—that met the moment of institutional handwringing over ongoing racial reckonings with hearty doses of sarcasm and skepticism. Objects marketed toward self-declared “allies” included a “Racism Runs Free Frisbee” (“aerodynamic and performs well under all conditions, just like your generic language!”); a “Diversity Tsar Mug” (“Supreme rulership never looked so cute!”); and a “My Authentic Self Sweatshirt” (“Maybe the problem isn’t us!”). Animated videos advertising the “deals deals deals!” looped endlessly, the aural equivalent of grinning and bearing it.

Black and white ceramic sculptures sit on a sidewalk around a building corner.
Ebitenyefa Baralaye, still from ‘ContAxts (Tenderloin),’ 2017; single-channel HD video (with sound), 3:57 minutes. (Courtesy of the artist and David Klein Gallery, Detroit)

Best Look at Local Dealings With Dirt

Origin Stories: Expanded Ceramics in the Bay Area
This quiet group show at the Berkeley Art Center curated by Tanya Zimbardo gathered artists working with clay in relation to site. In approaches both delicate and forceful, the artists of Origin Stories demonstrated the remarkably mutable qualities of clay, making clear it’s a material with not just deep historical connotations, but one that continues to offer new ways of approaching art—and its place in the world. A favorite among many: Erik Scollon’s crowd-sourced takeaway CERAMIC TRUISMS (after Holzer), which included the statement “Avoid putting people or pottery on pedestals.”

Two scissor lifts and workers flank two vibrant panels of fresco painting.
A large upper panel and a small lower panel of Diego Rivera’s ‘Pan American Unity’ await installation in the Roberts Family Gallery at SFMOMA. (Katherine Du Tiel/SFMOMA)

Greatest Feat of Art Handling


Diego Rivera, Pan American Unity
The Mexican artist’s monumental fresco, made in front of a live audience during the 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, has been on display at City College since 1961. And this summer, it moved—in pieces—from the school’s theater lobby to SFMOMA. It was a feat of engineering and art handling, one that required years of planning, creating near-exact replicas of two panels to test the fresco’s resilience and wee-hours transportation trips across town. Even without this backstory, the artwork awes, but nothing comes into being out of thin air, and Pan American Unity, moved with the help of a pan-American team, is a great reminder of this fact.

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