The Year in Overlooked Art

“Great art opens horizons, develops alternative histories, presents ideas for the new world”


In 2017, more than most years, art supplied solace and refuge. The exhibition that healed my soul was “Beverly Buchanan: Ruins and Rituals,” the Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective, last winter, of the late painter, sculptor, and land artist. Buchanan’s slow, stubborn, quiet involvement through her art with the American — specifically Southeastern — landscape and its histories helped settle my agitation in the wake of the presidential election, and strengthen me for whatever came next.

The exhibition that taught me the most was “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85,” also at the Brooklyn Museum, an illuminating and necessary survey that warranted multiple visits. And the show that dropped my jaw to the floor, for sheer mastery and emotional depth, was “Nkame,” the retrospective of the Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón, at El Museo del Barrio.

Great art opens horizons, develops alternative histories, presents ideas for the new world. I visited dozens of shows, and wrote about many. Below are ten more that time and space constraints did not allow me to cover. I wanted to note them before the calendar turns to 2018.

M. Pravat, “From Today I Have No Future”
The Delhi-based Pravat had his first U.S. solo show this year, and it was a small revelation. His mixed-media works on paper often start with architectural plans, of real or imagined structures and sites. He adds color, collaged photos and images, and sometimes textural breaks, such as punctures and rips in the paper. It’s a distinct visual language, technical and lyrical, that renders the built environment as emotional geography.
(Aicon Gallery, January 20–February 18)

“High John the Conqueror Ain’t Got Nothing on Me: American Hoodoo and Southern Black American-Centric Spiritual Ways”
Hoodoo — the work of seers, healers, root doctors — is both country wisdom and a Black survival practice going back to slavery days. Here, thirteen artists added to this living tradition in works suffused with mystical information, such as Nyugen Smith’s suspended purses adorned as “Spirit Carriers,” Allison Janae Hamilton’s horse-mane staffs, and the beaded and feathered wands by Deborah Singletary.
(Rush Arts Gallery, January 21–March 18)

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, “Figures, Grounds and Studies”
Sepuya, based in Los Angeles, has a striking style of deconstructed portraiture: He uses curtains, mirrors, and other props to scramble the studio space, and assembles composite images, rich with photos-within-photos, in which his own body and tools are often seen. Sepuya photographs handsome gay men, often undressed, but we see them in fragmented, elusive ways that complicate both their role and ours.
(Yancey Richardson Gallery, February 2–March 18)

“Architecture of Independence — African Modernism”
Architecture shows demand work from the viewer, reliant as they are on models, photos, and documents; this show rewarded the effort with a fascinating study of five African countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, Zambia. In the 1960s and 1970s, banks, ministries, universities were sites of architecture experimentation. Some of these modernist edifices aged poorly or got engulfed in sprawl; others are enduring landmarks.
(Center for Architecture, February 16–May 27)

Valerie Maynard, “Artist in Print”
An undersung elder whose work in multiple media stretches from the Black Arts era to today, Maynard, who was born in Harlem in 1937 and remains active, now in Baltimore, has influenced several generations of Black creators. This show in a community space tucked at the foot of Sugar Hill focused on her printmaking practice, with black-and-white works made over several decades, by turns abstract, informed by African iconography, or expressing civil rights and anti-apartheid politics.
(LeRoy Neiman Art Center, March 10–April 15)

Postcommodity, “Coyotaje”
This year’s Whitney Biennial offered an introduction to Postcommodity via their room-scale video speeding along a stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border. The collective of Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist, who live in the American Southwest, also had this small, effective show at DUMBO’s Art in General, mixing photography, sound installation, and an eerie chupacabra sculpture, glowing green in a dark space as if seen through night-vision goggles — part of their ongoing exploration of the border and its pathologies.
(Art in General, March 25–June 3)

Sanford Biggers, “Selah”
While Kara Walker’s raw, brash, difficult new exhibition drew — with good reason — great attention this fall, her contemporary Sanford Biggers offered new work in sculpture, installation, and compositions of painted fabric rooted in the quilting tradition. The materials and motifs made this seem a softer, more sedate show than Walker’s, but one of Biggers’s methods — shooting bullets into sculptures inspired by African statuary — was just as devastating if not more so, particularly in a harrowing video installation.
(Marianne Boesky Gallery, September 7–October 21)

Meriem Bennani, “Siham & Hafida”
Hafida is an older, conservative woman, unable to read and write but steeped in Aita, a Moroccan song and dance tradition; Siham is a young, modern performer, who wants to shake up the genre and takes lots of selfies. Bennani’s thirty-minute film, presented in immersive fashion on multiple screens and projected onto objects in the Kitchen’s upstairs gallery, delved into their world, mixing documentary and animation sequences. The two women’s tension — polite but real — resolves into tenderness in a stirring, unscripted unfolding.
(The Kitchen, September 13–October 21)

Dominique Duroseau, “Black Things in White Spaces”
Garbage bags, a hand truck, a broom, mannequins, and other objects are raw material for sculpture by Duroseau. The Chicago-raised, Newark-based artist’s show appeared gloomy at first, with its evocations of racial trauma, violence, and death. Seen closer, it contained a wry but bracing humor, with its limited-edition “legacy jars” said to contain unguents and spells, and the stack of giveaway cards printed with messages like “Shut da fuck up!” to hand out when responding to microaggressions becomes too tedious.
(Gallery Aferro, Newark, September 23–October 28)

Jill Freedman, “Resurrection City, 1968”
Weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, the Poor People’s Campaign he launched came to Washington, D.C., where 3,000 people set up in wooden shanties on the National Mall. Freedman joined them, and photographed life in “Resurrection City” until its demolition by police in late June 1968. Her black-and-white images eschew heroism or pity; they are simply present, and deeply humane. They remain on view through next week.
(Steven Kasher Gallery, October 26–December 22)