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The Best Art I Saw in 2023

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It’s that time again — time for a hyper-specific superlative-laden list of the best art experiences I had this year but didn’t get a chance to write about. Looking back at 2023, some throughlines emerged: revisited histories; revels in texture and sparkle; experiments in form; small moments stretched through contemplation. Here’s hoping for more of all of the above (and more art, period) in 2024.

Gallery view of earthen rectangular pedestal covered in small glass and metal cast objects
Installation of ‘Kelly Akashi: Formations’ at the San José Museum of Art. (Benjamin Blackwell)

Most Materially Exciting Installation

Kelly Akashi, ‘Formations
San José Museum of Art
Sept. 3, 2022–May 21, 2023

In this quietly evocative solo show, the artist’s hand was — quite literally — always present, in the form of cast bronze, stainless steel and lead crystal. Akashi’s hands rested on rammed-earth pedestals, hung from thick rope, held glass flowers and actual onions. Throughout Formations, she elegantly combined these examples of her superb craftsmanship with other modes of measuring both geologic and human time. Among these were photographs, castings and samples of “witnesses” (rocks, trees and earth) to the lives of Japanese Americans — including Akashi’s father — once incarcerated at the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona.

 

Most Instructive Documentary

How to Blow Up a Pipeline

If we’ve entered an era of how-to films for the sake of averting climate disaster, I am here for it. In the vein of this year’s orca uprising, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, based on Andreas Malm’s 2021 nonfiction book of the same title, persuasively presents sabotage as the next step in climate activism. Written collaboratively by director Daniel Goldhaber, Jordan Sjol and Ariela Barer (who also stars), the film is a thrilling heist-like narrative about a group of resourceful and determined young people targeting an oil pipeline in West Texas. The “why,” here, is not an imagined future but a clearly evident present of extreme, horrifically deadly weather. The message and the performances are utterly compelling.

Red and black stripes painted on white walls and ceilings of lobby space
Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, ‘Strips of Stripes’ at SFMOMA. (Don Ross)

Best Lobby Art

Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, ‘Strips of Stripes
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Sept. 16, 2023–Ongoing

It’s been five years since Barbara Stauffacher Solomon graced the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s entryway with Land(e)scape 2018, her stripey, pointy response to both the architecture and the political moment. At SFMOMA, the nearly 95-year-old has been given an even larger canvas and access to adjoining planes. Walls, ceilings, elevator doors and columns flatten and morph under the application of her striking black and red stripes. As the supergraphics wrapping around SFMOMA’s lobby assert — it’s Bobbie’s world, we’re just lucky enough to live in it.

A crowd outside of a tile-roofed storefront on a sunny day
The crowd outside Personal Space during the opening of ‘Salad Days.’ (Amy Owen)

Best Reasons for Art Optimism

The Bay Area lost some great art spaces this year (most notably, Ratio 3 and McEvoy Foundation for the Arts), but we’ve also had a minor explosion of artist-run spaces and expansions. Lindsay Albert and Ivana Colendich created staircase in January (its name tells you everything you need to know about this gallery’s invigorating layout). Cole Solinger and Nicolas Torres opened House of Seiko, while Et al.’s Mission Street outpost expanded their footprint to take over Ratio 3’s former space. In June, Lisa Rybovich Crallé launched Vallejo’s Personal Space to cheerful crowds. And Et al. rented their former Mission gallery to Nico Colón, who opened Climate Control in September.

Just last month, Steuart Pittman and Savannah Rusher held the inaugural show (of sign painters!) at Pacific Saw Works in Oakland, while Facundo Argañaraz housed his previously itinerant project 1599fdT in the old Union Cleaners in San Francisco’s Chinatown (another Et al. sublet, for those keeping track). And within the space of the year, In Concert opened and closed after Theadora Walsh and Gabriel Garza held down the fort for Cushion Works’ Jordan Stein — a reminder that not everything marvelous and influential needs to last forever.

 

Most Excellent Object

Dawn Cerny, ‘Tabletop Sculptures

Where do you put your keys? How about coupons? Rubber bands? If your home is anything like mine, there exist any number of errant yet important things that must remain in sight at all times. My own solutions are multi-prong and imperfect: hook, jar, desk stack, fridge. But what if there was an object — a strange and colorful object — that could somehow hold all the things? Enter Dawn Cerny’s Tabletop Sculptures, published this year by RITE Editions. These customizable wooden stands come with felt pads, glass cups, clips, pencils and pegs, offering absurdist organization for the necessary detritus of human life.

Group of people circled around man in baseball cap, buildings surround them in plaza
Ted Barrow begins the walking tour ‘Skate Modernism’ in St. Mary’s Square, San Francisco. (Barrett Reiter)

Sickest Skate Tour

Skate Modernism: The California Street Corridor
Oct. 29, 2023

Led by art and skate-historian Ted Barrow (host of Thrasher’s “This Old Ledge”), this walking tour organized by Docomomo Northern California sauntered down eight blocks of California Street, demonstrating the entwined history of some of San Francisco’s most preeminent architecture with an activity those architects likely never foresaw or never endorsed. As the very first issue of Thrasher proclaimed, “skate architecture is everywhere, grind every edge — you’ve gotta find all the lines you can.” From Black Rock (Masayuki Nagare’s black granite Transcendence at 555 California St.) to Embarcadero Plaza, Barrow engagingly pointed out the design details of a mostly corporate, mostly private environment that skaters, more than any other city dwellers, have challenged and reinvented.

Three rows of framed photographs of bonsai on white wall
Installation view of Takeshi Moro’s ‘Benign Neglect’ at the Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center in San Francisco. (Courtesy of the artist)

Most Impactful Show I Almost Missed

Takeshi Moro, ‘Benign Neglect
Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center, San Francisco
Sept. 16–Oct. 22, 2023

Laid out in a tight grid along two walls, this was a spare presentation of 60 seemingly unremarkable bonsai. The “portraits” represent just a fraction of Dennis Makishima’s historic bonsai collection, captured together for the last time before they went to public auction in 2021. Makishima, a renowned aesthetic pruner who taught bonsai workshops around the world, inherited his collection from Japanese Americans who mostly grew the plants from seed post-WWII.

These bonsai didn’t always receive the kind of attention Makishima would later devote to them, and for that reason he considered them examples of “benign neglect” — evidence of their owners rebuilding their lives after incarceration. While the bonsai weren’t perfect, or even aesthetically “correct” in Makishima’s view, an accompanying handout captured his many feelings about, frustrations with and plans for each plant. Unique yet emblematic, these living markers of history told an eloquent story of a very human need to nurture and grow.

Fractured and multicolored tile pieces on light gray walls, in foreground a sculpture made of white gridded material with a ceramic piece on top
Work by Jim Melchert (on walls) and Tracy Ren (on floor) in ‘Still, The Meandering Path’ at Gallery 16. (Gallery 16)

Best Posthumous Retrospective

Jim Melchert, ‘Still, The Meandering Path
Gallery 16, San Francisco
July 28–Sept. 7, 2023

We lost a giant of the Bay Area art scene this year. Jim Melchert, known for his fractured and colorfully glazed abstract ceramic pieces, was a beloved educator and mentor — and not only to the artists in his UC Berkeley classes. I regret that I only spoke with him once in passing, but it was enough time to experience his legendary warmth and kindness. This Gallery 16 show brought together Melchert’s last works, including Jim’s Final Tile, a snaking river of buoyant color against a neutral tan background, with work by 14 contemporary ceramics artists as “a testament to his enduring influence and living legacy.” Melchert’s material experimentations, his use of both chance and rule-making, and his commitment to form echoed throughout the work of artists like Erik Scollon, Liz Hernández, Nathan Lynch and Gay Outlaw. It was a fitting, beautiful farewell.

Three large rainbow-hued abstract paintings in white-walled gallery space
Installation view of Rema Ghuloum’s ‘4 is a Rainbow Line’ at Et al.’s former Mission Street space. (Et al.)

Most Transcendent Solo Show

Rema Ghuloum, ‘4 is a Rainbow Line
Et al., 2831 Mission St., San Francisco
March 4–April 8, 2023

Stepping into a room of Rema Ghuloum’s large-scale paintings is like entering a prism. Rainbow shades spread luminously across her canvases, emanating out from central tangles to create otherworldly portals. In 4 is a Rainbow Line, the paintings’ scale (some nearly seven feet tall) made standing before them akin to worship — you could look up, down, all over, but you can never really get a sense of the whole. Like Seurat, Ghuloum uses a framing technique to create perceptual shifts along the edges of her paintings, encasing her canvas in thin strips of contrasting tones or dots of color. Looking elicited only pure awe and delight. Photography, of course, utterly failed me here.

 

Best Reminder of a Revolutionary Spirit

All the Beauty and All the Bloodshed

(This 2022 documentary by Laura Poitras sneaks onto the list because I caught it at the Roxie this year.) Photographer and activist Nan Goldin has lived a life marked by tragedy, recovery and defiance. While this film does its expected job of charting the chronology of Goldin’s life and the development of her frank, arresting photos, those details are interspersed with her contemporary fight, in her 60s, against the Sackler family. In 2017, Goldin founded P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) as result of her own Oxycontin addiction and near-fatal overdose of fentanyl. All the Beauty tenderly shows how Goldin’s experiences prepared her for both sides of this work: staging aesthetically dramatic protests in Sackler-funded art spaces and connecting intimately with those left behind in the wreckage of addiction.

White tote bag with "I survived the SF doom spiral" in black lettering
Artist Tucker Nichols’ A+ tote for Park Life. (Courtesy the artist and Park Life)

The Most Fitting Commemorative Merch of 2023

A tote bag by Tucker Nichols
Available at Park Life, 220 Clement St., San Francisco

We made it to the end of another year. As per usual, Tucker Nichols knows exactly what to say.

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