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.
*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.
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.
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.
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.