The Best 25 Shows of 2015

by The AFC Staff on December 31, 2015 · 1 comment Lists + The Best

Hito Steyerl at Artists Space

Hito Steyerl at Artists Space

2015 was great for art. For all the bitching that went on about art fairs, the dominance of the market, and sub-par museum shows (cough, cough Björk), I saw more great shows than I have in my ten years working as a critic in New York. Rather than try to whittle our picks down to a few select shows, we wrote up every show we thought was truly exemplary.

The result is 24 truly outstanding shows organized in the following clickable categories:

Best PerformanceBest Museum Shows, Best PavilionBest Artist-Run ShowsBest Alternative to Soul-less Art FairsBest Gallery ShowsBest Digital Art Shows, Best Exhibition Concepts


Dynasty Handbag

Dynasty Handbag

Dynasty Handbag’s Soggy Glasses: A Homo’s Odyssey at American Realness. Review here.

If I could watch this performance twenty times I would. Jibz Cameron’s character Dynasty Handbag plays the role of a migrant ego trudging through the insides of her own body to examine her deep-seated depression. Every stereotype about artists, lesbians and contemporary life gets skewered. As Whitney Kimball diligently laid out for AFC, “highlights include: a tribute to her vagina set to Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman”; a character’s declaration about not being a cyclops; Handbag chasing an imaginary mate with a strap-on, grumbling.

The whole performance is so inventive; when you’re not laughing you’re marvelling at how smart Cameron must be to have spun it together. If you have a chance to see this performance, ever, drop everything and do it. It’s that good. — Paddy Johnson

Ivo Dimchev

Ivo Dimchev, Performance shot, “Fest”

Ivo Dimchev, “Fest” at American Realness. Review here

Art world politics have never been so revolting. In this play by Ivo Dimchev, we learn that nothing gets done without a blowjob or fuck, no matter how long it’s been since the recipient’s last shower. Sexual politics lubricate the art machine, which according to Dimchev’s vision of the world, couldn’t be more broken. It’s a bleak story, but hilarious for its absurdity. Watching it felt like being sprayed with golden showers.  Paddy Johnson


Jim Shaw

Jim Shaw’s The End is Near, installation view from the fourth floor

Jim Shaw, “The End is Near”, The New Museum. Review here

If we’re Rome, Jim Shaw’s The End is Near is four floors worth of our Nero fiddling. For his New Museum retrospective, Shaw filled an entire floor with creepy thrift store finds from banners to playing cards to paintings—many of which were either apocalyptic in tone or espouse some creepy racist or revisionist message. Another floor showcases Shaw’s paintings and drawings, all rendered in whatever style suits him.

As a craftsman, his skill is astounding. The show’s success relies less on that skill though, then it does his inventive spirit and sustained focus and eye for the most corrosive elements of American culture. Shaw’s show suggests he may not have much hope for our future, but I left with my faith in art’s critical functions reaffirmed.  Paddy Johnson


Meleko Mokgosi at the ICA Boston, Installation view.

“Meleko Mokgosi: Democratic Intuition” at ICA Boston. Review here.

Meleko Mokgosi’s solo exhibition at the ICA Boston was tiny—just one gallery packed with irregularly-shaped canvases crammed end-to-end around the walls—but the impact was huge. Their scale and vague suggestion of incomplete landscapes, horizon lines, or architectural features transformed the space into a wholly immersive, foreign environment populated by painterly figures coming in and out of focus. It was a great installation, and as individual panels, each canvas was a stunning painting. Collectively, the disjointed narrative recalled cinema or a non-sequential comic strip, but it’s origin was based in collage and appropriation—each vignette was assembled in New York out of newspaper clippings from Mokgosi’s native Botswana. I can’t think of another artist who has used oil on canvas as originally and evocatively in recent history. Democratic Intuition made me want to visit Botswana, and for a brief moment, it felt like I had. — Michael Anthony Farley

The New Whitney installation view

The New Whitney installation view

The New Whitney building. Review here

I hated the old Whitney building and actively avoided it. If there was a show I thought I could skip, I’d do that. Sometimes, I would procrastinate going out to shows I wanted to see long enough that I would miss them entirely.

No more. The Whitney’s new building may have the facade of pharmaceutical giant, but the inside is full of light-filled galleries dedicated to showcasing one of the country’s most important art collections. And thank God—now that art collection really sings. In broad chronological and thematic strokes, the permanent art collection tells the story of America and American art-making from European Modernism to ’50s abstraction ’60s pop art and the rest of the 20th and 21st century. Our country’s most important art collection is now properly showcased for the public. I can’t think of a better outcome for this collection. — Paddy Johnson

PS1 Greater New York, Installation view.

PS1 Greater New York, Installation view.

Greater New York at PS1. Review here

What can be said about this year’s iteration of Greater New York that hasn’t been said before? The recurring survey of New York’s past and present art-making was a lot like the city itself—sprawling, diverse, inconsistent, crowded, funny, heartbreaking, and dripping with bitter nostalgia for the days before AIDS, terrorism, and gentrification bleached Manhattan of its subversive glamour. But while this show felt like a eulogy—or perhaps a rallying cry to save/recapture what really is/was “great” about New York—it also offered undeniable evidence that the city will always attract, inspire, and incite critique from new generations of artists, even if they can’t afford to live or work here. — Michael Anthony Farley

Chris Ofili

Chris Ofili, installation view of “Day and Night”. Forth floor.

Chris Ofili, “Day and Night” at The New Museum. Review here

This show opened in 2014, but because it closed in 2015 we feel safe adding it to our 2015 Best of List. And what a doozy. There may be no painter with a better mastery of color and texture than Chris Ofili. Color combinations vibrate in these large-scale figurative works that reference Matisse, Blaxploitation, religious icons such as the Madonna and psychedelia. Much of the subject matter of these works centers on black identity, fertility, and how landscape both informs and provides a backdrop to these themes. Perhaps the most striking quality of this show, though, was the sheer volume of work that dazzles the eye. Nothing did that better this year. — Paddy Johnson

Installation view.

Installation view.

The Rubell Collection, “No Man’s Land”, Review here. 

Women, from Cindy Sherman to Katherine Bernhardt, make a lot of the art out there. And a lot of it is awesome. That’s pretty much the guiding curatorial ethos of this show, which features over 100 female artists from the Rubell collection. The resulting exhibition refreshingly felt as if it had nothing to prove, except, perhaps, that the Rubell Family has great taste and enough money to match it. I can’t recall another exhibition that made me so giddy, skipping from a gallery with an Isa Genzken mannequin to a room of portraiture with beautifully washy and intimate Elizabeth Peyton portraits. I’m not sure where the stereotype that feminists don’t have a sense of humor came from, but when there’s no dudes in the room, artists sure seem to have a lot fun. From process-intensive to playfully absurd, this show restored our faith in the joy of making and viewing art when we needed it most. — Michael Anthony Farley


Joan Jonas's Venice Biennale Pavilion. Credit: Artspace

Joan Jonas’s Venice Biennale Pavilion. Credit: Artspace

Joan Jonas’s Venice Biennale Pavilion.

I found Okwui Enwezor’s All The World’s Future curatorial direction for this year’s Venice Biennale to be exhausting: an over-blown culmination of neo-liberal aesthetic idealism that would have vastly benefited from an edit. Flawed as it was, experiencing the Biennale off-season was worth it for Joan Jonas’s multi-media installation, They Come to Us without A Word. Walking around the five rooms of the US pavilion, I found myself quickly cast under its witchy, elemental spell.Snatches of images stirred confused and overwhelming emotions: a projection of children playing dress up in white ceremonial robes, artifacts laid on the ground of their play acting, cave-like ink drawings of bees and fish, the sound and play of shadow from fun-house mirrors. It drove home the point that we repeatedly enact the same forms of expressions as a feeble way to capture our surroundings. By the time I saw a home video of a dog paddling in a river, I was crying—shattered by an immersive experience that made me consider the sacredness of nature, and the fleeting yet enduring ties that bind us to memories and varied lineages. It was forceful, moving and honest work. — Rea McNamara



Chanel Von Habsburg Lothringen

Chanel Von Habsburg Lothringen at Boyfriends. Review here

I’m used to seeing masks like the one above worn by young serial killers, bank robbers and thespians. Place an aging grandma in one of these, and I don’t know what to think. I’m guessing that’s part of the point; disorientation appears to be part of Chanel Von Habsburg Lothringen’s objective. Like many of the pieces in this body of work, the aging woman strikes a pose from a popular ’70s ad. A viewer might not spot those references in the work immediately—before reading the press release, I found the work vaguely uncanny, but couldn’t explain why. The result is a kind of neutered consumerism that feels oddly performative—as if the models were teleported from another planet and were forced to try and fit into this strange work by miming it out. Paddy Johnson

The Waasaic Project

The Waasaic Project

The Waasaic Project, “Deep End”, Review here

If you drove two hours out of the city to Wassaic for the Wassaic Project’s annual summer show this summer you’d have won the art lover lottery. 60 present and former Waasaic resident artists blanket the Wassaic Project Mill with art depicting weird dystopic realities—and incredibly, almost all of it was good. Stand-out works included a latch rug cyclops owl, an obsessive crayon drawing of the world’s atrocities, and a lawn full of failed 3D architectural renderings. However, the true show stopper came from Corina Reynolds, who fully transformed the top level of the mill into an office space complete with a gray carpet, an air-freshener that smelled an office (think the smell of an inkjet printer)  fake plants and office furniture. In the center of the room, a lit tower rotated, transforming the mill into a light house. As I mentioned in my review, the whole installation read like a venus-fly trap for office workers.  Paddy Johnson

Brian Belott

Brian Belott

Brian Belott, “Dr. Kid President Junior” at 247365. Review here

Consummate collector Brian Belott produced an exhibition of 34 counterfeit paintings of children’s art. Hung salon-style at 247365, these reproductions of reproductions draw from books on children’s art. Why go to the trouble of recreating all these images? It’s about finding ways to connect to viewers.  “Kids stuff is worthless,” Belott told me earlier this year while explaining the importance of the exhibition.  “And the original drawings and paintings are probably destroyed. I feel like the art world masters should all know these things, but I thought reproductions would be way less fun for the viewer.”

Needless to say, it worked. I looked harder at these paintings, some of which were more than 100 years old when originally rendered, than I would have in any book. And the exhibition came with a zine showing the various developmental stages of childhood drawing development. I can’t remember the last time I learned so much about drawing and painting from a single show.  Paddy Johnson

Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates’s Stony Island Bank. Installation view.

Theaster Gates, Stony Island Bank, Chicago

It’s impossible to overstate the significance of Stony Island Bank, a derelict bank Theaster Gates purchased from the city of Chicago for a dollar and transformed into a community library and event space. Gates fundraised to make all this happen, and in fact, the renovations are still going on; the basement vaults have not yet been touched. The library includes a lantern glass slide collection, thousands of books and magazines, and 5000 records bequeathed to the organization by the godfather of house, Frankie Knuckles.

The project addresses the neighborhood’s lack of hangout spaces without leaning on the most common signifier of gentrification: coffee shops. “I lead with how do we take care of this building?” Gates told me this September. “How do we get people involved without a hunger strike? Without the biggest political action we can imagine?” His solution? The bank. “We can do this.” he continued. “You just don’t have to care about making money. The rewards are emotional and spiritual.” Paddy Johnson


Stupid Bar at Artist Run

Stupid Bar at Artist Run

The Artist-Run Art Fair at Artscape, The Art Fair that Didn’t SuckPutting Artists First at SATELLITE.

From a parking garage on the fringe of a street carnival to a long-vacant hotel many blocks from Art Basel Miami Beach, artist-run satellite exhibitions injected some much-needed fun and criticality to otherwise bland 2015 events. Over the summer, we crowned Open Space’s Artist-Run Art Fair in the shadow of Artscape Baltimore “The Art Fair that Doesn’t Suck,” We loved it so much, we invited many of the galleries who participated to join us at The Artist-Run Show Tiger Strikes Asteroid organized at the SATELLITE Show in Miami Beach this month. With shoe-string budgets, artist-run spaces pulled off some of the most impressive art-viewing experiences we’ve had in recent memory—presenting smart, sometimes-challenging work approachably at accessible prices. This is a trend we hope continues for years to come. — Michael Anthony Farley

The Internet Yami Ichi

The Internet Yami Ichi entrance

Yami Ichi Flea Market.

This September, roughly 100 internet creatives became Yami Ichi venders at the Knockdown Center. Typically, they sold work designed to appeal to the senses of internet professionals—weird crap most of us would never think to make.

As proof, here’s a catalogue of ephemera I bought at the Yami Ichi Flea Market:

  • Two used passwords for 25 cents a piece (lost almost immediately)
  • Two Instagram prints printed at a resolution determined by the number of likes it received for $29 each.
  • A plastic $5 USB drive containing animated GIFs
  • Two free badges
  • A 32 page coffee stained zine filled with Internet slang.
  • a bitmoji rendering of my face.

Regrets: That I didn’t buy any of the $1 dollar memes available. — Paddy Johnson

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