Aesthetics Be Damned—Our Visual Art Critic Only Had Eyes for Political and Social Relevance in 2017 | Visual Art | Indy Week
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Aesthetics Be Damned—Our Visual Art Critic Only Had Eyes for Political and Social Relevance in 2017 

Nina Chanel Abney: "Ivy and the Janitor in January"

Courtesy of Kravets Wehby Gallery/The Nasher

Nina Chanel Abney: "Ivy and the Janitor in January"

I try to be balanced in my critical approach, but this year I wasn't. If you weren't making or showing work that was relevant to political or social resistance, I didn't much bother with it.

That said, plenty of exhibits this year stayed with me. I keep thinking about Nina Chanel Abney's work since Royal Flush closed at the Nasher in July. At first glance, I thought the bright colors and patterns of her hybrid scenes and figures interfered with their Afrofuturist power. But the clear-eyed directness that emerges from the visual noise quickly redoubled that power and made me aware that the eyes I was seeing through are those of a white, straight, middle-class man. Suddenly, all of the presumptions that I had carried into the galleries as truths were revealed as the real noise in the room. In other words, this show challenged me and changed the way I look at art now. Critics and casual art-goers alike rarely get to say that.

NCMA's reinstallation and expansion of its African galleries, which opened in June, was another revelation. Ranging from ancient artifacts to an overwhelming mural by Nigerian-born, Washington, D.C.-based artist Victor Ekpuk, the permanent exhibit combines works from different eras to show thematic connections not just across centuries but across the African diaspora. Ekpuk's mural seems somehow both ancient and alien, with a meaning that changes depending on the context you bring to it. Overall, the exhibit is an engaging and varied historical foundation for African-American consciousness in this moment of resistance.

The Carrack bookended the year with crucial shows in Durham. January's Nasty Women was one of more than thirty nationwide sister shows to the art and activism phenomenon that began at the Knockdown Center in Queens. Focused on women's rights and social issues, the wild and wonderful exhibit raised more than five thousand dollars for Planned Parenthood and provided a high-energy, positive focal point at the moment of Trump's inauguration; it was also a premonition of the #MeToo movement. And Anthony Patterson's Full Circle, which just closed Dec. 24, looked at police violence against black Americans through abstracted, tortured figure drawings and remarkable poetic narratives written on the gallery walls. Patterson's show is part of the Black on Black Project, which also organized significant shows of André Leon Gray's work at The Carrack in the spring and William Paul Thomas at Raleigh's Anchorlight in February.

Plenty of other shows were terrific and relevant in 2017, including work from the Subverbal Collective at both The Carrack and VAE, The Supernatural at 21c Museum Hotel, the continuing collaboration between visual artist Heather Gordon and choreographer Justin Tornow at CAM Raleigh, and the annual MFA show at the Ackland Art Museum at UNC-Chapel Hill.

And plenty more shows just did what they've done for years, pretending that the art they hang on their walls doesn't have to relate to what goes on outside those walls. Keep the pedal down, people.

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