The Best Phoenix Art Exhibitions of 2017

Rebirth (detail) by Bryan David Griffith.
Rebirth (detail) by Bryan David Griffith. Bryan David Griffith/Photo by Lynn Trimble
Several major exhibitions came to Phoenix in 2017 including the Kehinde Wiley show at Phoenix Art Museum and the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera show at Heard Museum. It was also a stellar year for student exhibitions, where the best offerings included Step Gallery shows by ASU students Verónica Aponte and Elliott Kayser.

The year’s best exhibitions were on view at several museums and galleries, most located in Phoenix but some in the East Valley. Lisa Sette Gallery set a high bar again this year, with an exceptional lineup of thought-provoking exhibitions filled with work in diverse media created by exceptionally skilled artists. People who claim the contemporary arts scene in Phoenix has little to offer clearly need to spend more time at Sette's gallery.

Phoenix Art Museum presented several of the year’s best shows, including one featuring work by Phoenix-based artist Patricia Sannit as well as five Arizona artists honored last year by the museum's Contemporary Forum support group. Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum topped the list as well, with a solo exhibition of work by Bryan David Griffith, a Flagstaff-based artist represented by Bentley Gallery in Phoenix.

In several cases, these exhibitions reflect artist concerns about environmental issues – from global warming to deforestation. Others address deep-seated conflicts in American society, such as racism and sexism. One art show in particular, the “Tell Me Why” exhibition at Lisa Sette Gallery, beautifully conveyed the ability of art to address societal issues with strength yet subtlety.

Here’s a look at the 10 best exhibitions we saw in metro Phoenix in 2017.

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Wane by Bryan David Griffith.
Courtesy of Bentley Gallery
“Rethinking Fire”
Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum
January 20 to April 9, 2017

Flagstaff artist Bryan David Griffith explored the rise of catastrophic wildfires by using fire as a primary medium. His exhibition included burnt tree remnants, leaves from trees in fire-ridden areas, sculptures formed with wood, and photographs that depict the interplay of darkness and light. Through these works, Griffith challenged Western dualities such as life and death, while highlighting human disruptions to the continuous cycle at the heart of the natural world. Griffith's exhibition prompted reflection on the role human choices play before, during, and after a wide variety of events typically dubbed natural disasters. But it also demonstrated that tragedy can give birth to beauty and resilience.

View of Missouri River from Standing Rock Sioux, South Dakota by Krista Elrick.
Krista Elrick
“Retracing Audubon: Contemporary Views”
Northlight Gallery
February 9 to March 3, 2017

Krista Elrick spent a decade retracing the path of famed naturalist and artist John James Audubon, where she found landscapes scarred by commerce and other human activity. Her photographs in this exhibition recounted those travels, while revealing the ways land once traversed by Audubon has changed over time. In an adjacent community gallery, Elnick showed a series of maps showing the geographies of slave ownership and Native relocation by the federal government, as well as currency with images that capture prevailing views of women, slaves, and Native people. In the community space, curator Liz Allen also showed work by Stephen Marc exploring the Underground Railroad system used to free slaves, and art created by Averian Chee for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (also called DAPL).

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Part of NOITISOPPOSITION featured in the "RE:SISTERS" exhibit.
Lynn Trimble
ASU Art Museum
July 8 to October 21, 2017

Art meets resistance in the work of Lisa and Janelle Iglesias, whose exhibition at ASU Art Museum delivered a strong, creative take on disrupting borders, embracing absurdity, and fostering collaboration. Working together as Las Hermanas Iglesias, the sisters and fellow artists examined their relationship while undertaking creative acts of resistance rooted in optimism rather than nihilism. The artists filled a gallery space at ASU Art Museum with prints, sculpture, and mixed-media work created with found and made objects that reflect five weeks spent in the desert Southwest and Phoenix-area communities. Most notable was a flag-size sculpture saturated in bright yellow, which hung from the gallery ceiling and cast imposing shadows on a nearby wall as it prompted reflection on the nationalism that’s saturated so much of today's political landscape.

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Proof-Reading by Ann Morton exhibited at Lisa Sette Gallery.
Lisa Sette Gallery
"Tell Me Why"
Lisa Sette Gallery
March 4 to April 29, 2017

Gallerist Lisa Sette curated an elegant exploration of issues at the heart of contemporary rhetoric, proving that art addressing politics doesn’t have to scream in order to be heard. Her “Tell Me Why, Tell Me Why, Tell Me Why (Why Can’t We Live Together?)” exhibition featured work by 12 artists “addressing narratives of difference and resentment as well as hope and beauty.” Participating artists tackled a wide range of issues, including immigration, mass incarceration, and religion's role in violence, to name a few. Several drew on current events, including a police shooting of an unarmed black man and the election of Donald Trump. Collectively, their works constituted a cautionary tale against viewing those one disagrees with as the alien or other — and the exhibition gave viewers a quiet, unhurried setting for introspection about their own culpabilities and responsibilities within the greater community.

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Squidsoup’s installation at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.
Lynn Trimble
"Oceans of Light: Submergence"
Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
May 6 to September 24, 2017

For several years now, Scottsdale Public Art has presented a multi-day event that brings light-based art installations to a section of the Arizona Canal that runs through downtown Scottsdale. This year, Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art brought light-based art indoors, filling a small gallery space with this installation meant to visualize the vast expanse of data in the digital age. Created by a United Kingdom-based art collective called Squidsoup, the installation provided museum-goers an opportunity to interact with art in unexpected ways within a museum setting, where the manta is more often hands-off than hands-on. In doing so, it inspired fresh thinking about the relationship between art, people, and public spaces.

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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble