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.
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.
“Retracing Audubon: Contemporary Views”
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).
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.
"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.
"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.
”Rise Fall Rise"
Phoenix Art Museum
June 7 to September 17, 2017
Phoenix artist Patricia Sannit received last year’s Scult Award from Phoenix Art Museum’s Contemporary Forum support group. And this year the museum presented her solo exhibition titled “Rise Fall Rise,” which featured ceramic forms bearing unique artist-made marks referencing particular events. Several were mounted atop tripods in an open circle, calling to mind the endless cycle of creation and destruction that Sannit often channels in her work. The exhibition prompted reflection on the interconnection of diverse people and places — sometimes through objects whose materials, uses, and perceived values shift over time. Sannit's work invites consideration of not only the arc of human history, but also the very real ways that arc is being bent by disruptions in the fabric of American civic life.
"Past/Future/Present: Contemporary Brazilian Art from the Museum of Modern Art, São Paulo"
Phoenix Art Museum
September 1 to December 31, 2017
For "Past/Future/Present: Contemporary Brazilian Art from the Museum of Modern Art, São Paulo,” Phoenix Art Museum worked with the Museum of Modern Art, São Paolo, to spotlight 70 works by 59 artists. As the first large-scale exhibition in the U.S. to feature art from this South American museum, this show gave museum-goers the chance to take in diverse artwork created in recent decades by pioneering Brazilian artists working in multiple media. Featured works were organized around five themes that include reimagined landscape, shifting identities, and reinvention of the monochrome. Nearly all conveyed profound layers of meaning that demonstrate the power of art to inspire, adapt, and share significant ideas. Even as the exhibition revealed distinct points of view, it gave voice to the collective humanity that spans the globe.
Lisa Sette Gallery
September 5 to October 28, 2017
Calling on traditions of itinerate performance and occult mythologies, New York artists Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick create fictional histories for the future as well as the past. For a recent exhibition at Lisa Sette Gallery, they showed paintings of carnival figures, round photo-collages of staged environments facing ecological rupture, artist-made tarot cards with a book of interpretations, and a sculptural figure called a mummer. Using costumes and props from earlier eras, the pair creates photos that address environmental degradation, thus encouraging viewers to consider the impact their actions could have on future worlds. For this exhibition, Sette paired the duo's work with oil painting portraits by Phoenix artist Rachel Bess, whose work conjures similar other-worldly qualities.
“Sheila Pepe: Hot Mess Formalism”
Phoenix Art Museum
October 14, 2017 to January 28, 2018
This exhibition, which was organized by Phoenix Art Museum, is the first mid-career survey of work by Sheila Pepe, a Brooklyn artist whose work often incorporates large-scale, site-dependent installations, as well as sculptural objects and ephemera. The exhibition captures Pepe’s proficiency for playing with various conceptions of feminism and craft, as she elucidates both personal and cultural narratives. Sometimes Pepe's pieces reference work by artists and others, such as Judy Chicago, who have helped to shape the feminist traditions that inform her art practice. But she also creates work that's responsive to current events, and is adept at critiquing museum culture through her work. There's much to think about here, including the legacy of early feminists and the responsibilities of current ones.
October 12 to October 21, 2017
For her intermedia installation at Step Gallery, Alison Sweet addressed popular mythologies about the American West while combining her interests in history, feminism, and landscape. Using historical photographs from her great-grandfather’s failed homestead, sewing typically viewed as women’s work, patterns constructed from sifted flour, and an anti-western dual-channel video projection, Sweet explored the prevalence of partial histories devoid of women. Her work prompted viewers to consider the misguided romanticism that masks rampant colonization, in the wider context of questions about how and why history is written. Her feminist stance also inspired reflection on the ways women are currently portrayed in the media and other contexts.