The Best Visual Art of 2017

Fine work in museums, galleries and on the streets

In looking at the most successful art exhibits/events of 2017, the natural place to start is BLINK, the four-day festival that was held downtown and in Over-the-Rhine during October. As someone noted on social media, this new event — featuring projection-mapping displays as well as murals and interactive and stationary art exhibits — managed to be both family-friendly and appealing to urban hipsters. 

Among its other accomplishments, BLINK gave us some reference points for evaluating the growing field of projection mapping: it seems to work best when it can bring a mural’s painted elements or a building’s architectural elements to life in a new and transformative way rather than by using those surfaces solely as backdrops. To that end, the standout for me was Lightborne’s futuristic reimagining of the Contemporary Arts Center, but there was worthy competition.

click to enlarge Joe Girandola’s and Matt Lynch’s “Endless Commerce” was a BLINK towering achievement. - Photo: Sheng Yin
Photo: Sheng Yin
Joe Girandola’s and Matt Lynch’s “Endless Commerce” was a BLINK towering achievement.

The BLINK artwork that was most memorable for me was comparably low-tech, although it was a marvel of construction. Joe Girandola and Matt Lynch constructed “Endless Commerce” by piling (and securing) milk crates into a 70-foot-high tower on a vacant space along the appropriately named Pleasant Street near Liberty Street. At night, 30-watt LED bulbs inside each crate illuminated the tower. With the artists, friends and visitors relaxing in the lot at night, the space felt like an intimate backyard get-together with the best party lights ever. The artists conceived the installation in tribute to Constantin Brancusi’s 1918 “Endless Column,” one of the 20th century’s most important public sculptures. They’d like to see theirs have a permanent home somewhere in Cincinnati — what a great public sculpture that would be!

click to enlarge Ugo Rondinone clown sculptures at Contemporary Arts Center - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Ugo Rondinone clown sculptures at Contemporary Arts Center

Moving indoors for a look at our major museums, the Contemporary Arts Center caught the zeitgeist with its summer presentation of Ugo Rondinone’s let’s start this day again exhibit, in which life-size clown sculptures posed within a gallery to emphasize their introspection and melancholy. People seemed to respond to this deeply and contemplatively. 

Another CAC show that was one of my 2017 favorites is up through April 22, 2018 — Los Angeles artist Glenn Kaino’s A Shout Within a Storm. The titular piece — golden arrows suspended in air, narrowing to a cone-like point — is strongly metaphoric. 

At the Cincinnati Art Museum’s exhilarating Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion show, the very contemporary Dutch designer created clothing out of such materials as the spines of children’s umbrellas and PET plastic. I thought of Méret Oppenheim’s famous fur-trimmed cup and saucer — you could actively use (wear) it, I guess, but wouldn’t you rather just admire its audacious beauty? Transforming Fashion is up through Jan. 7.

At the Taft Museum’s Bijoux Parisiens: French Jewelry from the Petit Palais, Paris, I really liked the electric skull stickpin, from approximately 1870 and made from enamel over gold with diamonds. The artisans Gustave Trouvé and Auguste-Germain Cadet-Picard had outfitted it with a miniature battery that, activated via a wire, made the jaw chatter. (It wasn’t operable, alas, but you could imagine it.)

Beyond the major museums, the Weston Art Gallery, a downtown nonprofit exhibition space, launched Sanctuary: Kathy Y. Wilson Living in a Colored Museum. For the exhibit, curator Emily Buddendeck moved portions of the material in Wilson’s museum-like apartment into the gallery. A large part of Wilson’s collection deals with objects related to the portrayal of African-Americans throughout our country’s racist history. Viewing these items will be a learning experience for many visitors, but one that’s infused with the liveliness, wit and engaging personality of writer Wilson, a longtime CityBeat contributor. It’s on display through Jan. 28. 

Another nonprofit space, Camp Washington’s Wave Pool, showed the solemnly beautiful short film Apotome, by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, as part of the Kim Paice-curated Animal Magnetism show. Wave Pool also was the first venue to feature Still They Persist, FemFour’s collection of protest art from this year’s historic women’s marches. And another evocative show there was Kate Cunningham’s Utopia Remains, photographs of present-day sites of former communal communities. Its title is literally descriptive of the images, but also implies that the hope of the utopian lifestyle remains alive. 

At the Carl Solway Gallery in the West End, a show that gallery director Michael Solway had long been working on, Pioneers of Psychedelic Art: Isaac Abrams, Ira Cohen, Tony Martin and USCO (curated by Carlo McCormick), came to fruition and exceeded expectations. These artists have lately started to be rediscovered for their work internationally, and Solway’s show helped that process. And in USCO’s Gerd Stern, the exhibit had a personality worthy of a film. 

There was also a photography show focusing on Cincinnati history that I found especially memorable — Finding Kenyon Barr, which exhibited some enlarged archival Cincinnati Museum Center photos documenting an area of the West End before it was destroyed for I-75 construction. 

click to enlarge Nina Katchadourian’s “Under Pressure” - Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery
Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery
Nina Katchadourian’s “Under Pressure”

Finally, one artwork not to be missed is on the second floor of the 21c Museum Hotel, part of the current The Future is Female exhibit. A two-channel piece on phone-sized monitors, Nina Katchadourian lip syncs (you can hear it with attached headphones) to the David Bowie/Queen classic “Under Pressure.” Wearing different head covers, she looks like two different people in duet — her emotive facial expressions seem different, too. It’s completely enticing and convincing, but then you notice something weird around her neck on the right screen. Could it be a crumpled toilet-seat cover? It turns out she filmed this in the lavatory of an airplane, part of her ongoing Seat Assignment series. Suddenly, the song title takes on extra meaning. I am in awe of anyone who can make art out of a plane ride — especially one that captures the inherit anxiety of such travel in such an original way. Her “Under Pressure” might have been made in 2014, but it gets my vote for Cover Version of the Year.  

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