SO MUCH TO SEE: The walls at Stairwell Gallery.
In 2008, real estate and jobs dominated local art news. The University of Rhode Island suddenly, shockingly announced in June that it was closing its Kingston art galleries and laying off director Judith Tolnick Champa. (She's now working on independent projects while pursuing a new steady gig.) Meanwhile, the future shined bright at RISD, where in September John Maeda was officially inaugurated as president (and blogger-in-chief — see: our.risd.edu) and the museum opened its new Chace Center. A quartet of galleries clustered on Federal Hill. And AS220 confirmed plans to expand downtown, again (and organized a fun house group exhibit in the Washington Street building before they launched renovations). But in the end it all comes down to the art — so here are the highlights of what was seen here this year.
"Views and Re-Views," a crackerjack survey of Soviet political posters and cartoons at Brown University's Bell Gallery, envisioned the 20th century as seen through the eyes of the so-called "Evil Empire" and offered a bracing mirror-view of ourselves. At a moment when Russia is resurgent, capitalist economies shudder, and the Russia-Georgia fight inspires neo-Cold War posturing, this historical exhibit felt up-to-the-minute.
Tom Deininger's installation in "Trash" at 5 Traverse included a (real!) dead dog, plus lots of plastic junk that magically melded, when you looked in a mirror, into a portrait of Angelina Jolie (yes!). Part of a series of optical illusions the Newport artist has been conjuring, it was the most perverse, weird, amazing piece of art I saw all year. The RISD Museum should give him a show.
It was part of a strong year for the Providence gallery that included the Apartment At the Mall gang covering the walls with tape art murals, Neal Walsh's deliciously rotty abstract paintings, and Entang Wiharso's harrowing painted dance of demons (and Batmen).
The RISD Museum's marquee exhibits featured big guns (and former RISD teachers) Dale Chihuly, David Macaulay, and Harry Callahan. (Props to the museum programming shows with local — RISD — ties.) But its sharpest shows were smaller affairs — and included curators mapping art trends. Wisconsin artist Beth Lipman's glass installation (through January 18) is a fairy tale world on the verge of melting. In "Styrofoam," organized by Judith Tannenbaum, art made from Styrofoam plumbed contemporary disposable trash culture. "Evolution/Revolution," organized by Joanne Dolan Ingersoll, paired 19th-century Arts and Crafts designs with of-the-moment fashion to illuminate how love-hate responses to new technologies spur ravishing design.
LAND DOWN UNDER
For a few years beginning in 2004, Peter Goldberg of Pawtucket photographed life among the sand hogs burrowing the massive sewer overflow tunnels under Providence. His gritty black-and-white shots at Gail Cahalan Gallery portrayed a little-seen side of the physical development of Providence — a subject which remains one of local art's cardinal concerns.
ROUGH AND TUMBLE
Brian Chippendale's diced-screenprint collages at Stairwell Gallery offered radiant punk psychedelic visions of pumpkin-head people, a girl atop a candy mushroom, andn an idiot in an armchair lofted into the air by balloons. And the Providence artist's patchwork technique symbolically mulled how to live sustainably in a plastic castoff world.
Other notable Stairwell shows included paintings, prints, and "primitive toys for modern times" by Leif Goldberg and Erin Rosenthal of Providence, and the resplendent everything-but-the-kitchen-sink "Dead and Gong" installation by Muffy Brandt and Ali Dennig of Providence, Ryan Riehle and Keith Waters of Boston, and Miles Huston of New York. The year's theme seemed to be: seeking hopeful ways forward in a warped and trashed world.
In the '60s, Sister Corita Kent, of LA and then Boston, transformed advertising imagery into incandescent flower-powered screenprints ecstatic for peace, love, and Jesus. Largely overlooked since her death in 1986, a show of her art at Beslin Fine Arts in East Greenwich was part of a growing, well-deserved, and necessary rediscovery.
BURN, BABY, BURN
Iron Guild's 6th Annual Halloween Pour at the Steel Yard featured moody electronic music, molten metal cast as bats and skulls, and bloody zombie attacks. In the finale, a giant skull-cart exploded in a shower of sparks and fire. The event's mix of badass and slapstick, spectacle, invention and, liquid energy epitomized a spirit that burns bright in Providence art — and draws us ever to its flame.