The challenge that every critic or reviewer meets with happiness and trepidation at each year's end is the "Best of" list. There's certainly a sense of pleasure and revelation at going back through 12 months of visual art stories and reviews, but that pleasure is tempered by the looming questions:
What to include? What to leave out? The answers to those questions will be found in my roster of the 10 best exhibitions of 2012.
Ted Faiers, "Flat Space, paintings and works on paper, 1953-56," David Lusk Gallery, January. Of the series of shows of early abstract works that Lusk has drawn from the estate of Ted Faiers, who died in 1985, "Flat Space" seemed like the most coherent, the most revelatory, the one that most particularly made the case for Faiers as an important American artist.
"Art & Scandal: The McCall Purchase," Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, January-May. This in-house show organized by Stanton Thomas, the Brooks curator of European and decorative art, concerned the museum's purchase in 1943 of 38 "Old Master" paintings for $25,000; many of the works turned out to be damaged, dubious or outright fakes. A consummate piece of scholarship and finely tuned irony.
"Facts, Fictions & Figures," Memphis College of Art Nesin Graduate Center, February-March. Provocative but not quite confrontational, this exhibition, organized by independent curator Rehema Barber and MCA's former curator of exhibitions Jennifer Sargent, gathered works by 15 contemporary artists to explore and explode myths about America's racist attitudes.
Veda Reed, "From Dawn to Dusk," David Lusk Gallery. April. Perhaps it's not fair to say that Reed, now an iconic figure in the city's artistic life, is producing the best work of her career, but this show felt like the epitome, both in style and sensibility, of her long search for the spiritual and esthetic revelations of the night sky.
Laura Kalman, "Tributaries" series, National Ornamental Metal Museum, May-June. Leave it to the Metal Museum to mount the most transgressive and shiver-laden exhibition of the year. Kalman's little jewels, pushed into and piercing her body in patterns that mimic diseases (shown in vivid photographs next to the actual pieces) not only crossed but elided the borders of beauty, pain and dread.
Carl Moore and Melissa Dunn, "Can See Your House from the Highway." L Ross Gallery. June. An intuitive juxtaposition of very different artists and methods — cool vs. warm, detached vs. involved — this exhibition provided fruitful resonance on themes of displacement and domesticity in the creative and social spheres — and some flat-out beautiful work.
"Soul of the City: Memphis Collects African American Art," Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, June-August. Organized by Marena Pacini, the museum's chief curator, "Soul of the City" ambitiously sought to portray the diversity, energy, insightfulness and provocation of a century's worth of works created by black artists and collected by patrons in Memphis.
Jim Buchman, "Sculpture," Dixon Gallery and Gardens, October-December. Buchman's exhibition of monumental cast-cement sculptures, displayed in the Dixon's forecourt, was the breakthrough show of the year. Weighty, abstract, dense with carved and graven patterns and details, looming like sentinels, these evocative works were unforgettable.
Margaret Munz-Losch, "Beauty & the Beast," L Ross Gallery, November. Munz-Losch draws and paints like a dream, but she uses that facility to etch paradoxical, slyly erotic and anthropomorphic nightmares into our susceptible imaginations. The work is indeed beautiful and rather beastly.
John Dilg, "Sources in Another World," Clough-Hanson Gallery, November. If the Nine Muses aimed their collective arrows at my brow and asserted that I could see only one of these 10 exhibitions again, this would be it. Wide Western landscapes depicted in miniature scale and in muted colors belied the tremendous spiritual and philosophical scope of these quiet, vibrant paintings.