Katy Diamond Hamer’s Top Ten Contemporary Art Picks

As 2018 came to a close, it’s time to look back at the year gone by contemplating everything that happened or didn’t happen and most importantly, all of the art exhibitions that occurred! My top ten picks this year might be somewhat surprising, but I chose work based on aesthetics that also functioned as a catalyst to thought while challenging perceptions of space and time. Art that moves me in the most significant way, is not only well made, but also provides a platform to contemplate something larger such as mortality, joy, love, and history. That’s right, love. Art is magic and can be for so many people in so many walks of life. It is as accessible as it is inaccessible and yet whoever takes the time to look, can walk away with an opinion and that is a gift. 

Salvatore Olentino at Muddguts. In his first official gallery exhibition, minus a show held in a local garage years ago, Sal Olentino had the opportunity to show a series of paintings made in his apartment. The self-taught artist originally from Italy, uses postcards, photography and his imagination in order to make his oil paintings, that he frames as well. At 86 years old, Olentino, a thin man who still has a thick Italian accent even after having lived in New York since 1960, sold out the show at Muddguts. The gallery, a former coffee shop, set the neighborhood into a tizzy as paintings by Olentino were acquired by locals and hipsters alike. There is something incredibly special about overwhelming support for an octogenarian artist, where the provincial goes beyond a cigarette and sidewalk chat, extending deep into the netherworld of the Internet and homes in Brooklyn and beyond.

On painting he said, “Most of the work is from memory. I know this place,” referring to Napoli, “as I know my own pocket.” Pointing at the paintings and particular details, Olentino walked through the gallery as if flipping through a photo-album but rather than faded photographs, he gestured towards walls of salon-style, colorful oil paintings.

Sal Olentino in his first official gallery exhibition at Mudd Guts, Brooklyn, 2018, Photograph by Katy Hamer.

Julia Phillips, Failure Detection, MoMAPS1 Failure Detection by young New York based artist Julia Phillips, was on view at MoMAPS1 until September 3, 2018. An incredible exploration of the body, Phillips’ mixed media sculptures, used a variety of mediums, including ceramic (glazed and unglazed) and metal, to create scenarios that hinted at apparitions, invisible in presence. It’s as if, a figure had literally just interacted with her work and was removed, only traces, such as footprints, left behind. The sculptures referenced the body through items that were a cross between gym equipment and something that could be found at an imaginary bathhouse. Low platforms with drains seemed to allude to sex, liquids, showers, although all was left to the imagination. The show was the first at the museum organized by Ruba Katrib, formerly a curator at the Sculpture Center, and a perfect appetizer exhibiting her taste and what I’m sure she will continue to bring to MoMAPS1. They may have lost Klaus but they’ve gained Ruba.

Julia Phillips, Failure Detection, Moma PS1, Installation view, 2018 (ceramic), Photographs by Katy Hamer

Wolfgang Tillmans, How likely is it that only I am right in this matter? at David Zwirner. In an exhibition that filled the full expanse of Zwirner’s 19th street gallery, Wolfgang Tillmans exhibited photographs, video and audio accompanied by installation. Feeling more like a museum retrospective, the work was impecably installed and ranged from literal portraiture to landscape including sand that had been photographed only weeks before by Tillmans on Fire Island. From his interest in deciphering technology and it’s disassociative relationship to human connections which took shape as an audio sculpture on iPhones, to a song performed by Tillmans overlapping with a video of factory machinery, the work was emblematic of today. Tillmans has been shooting photographs for many years and his undeniable way of looking was evident in images that were framed, glossy, editions and unique. It took me outside of Chelsea, allowing me to visit the factory, feel the sand between my toes and contemplate the iPhone in my hand, as I photographed each image along the way.

Wolfgang Tillmans (three separate photographs) all 2018, David Zwirner, NY, photograph/s and digital collage by Katy Hamer

“Kathy Acker: Who Wants to Be Human All the Time,” Bjarne Melgaard at Performance Space New York. As part of the East Village Series at Performance Space New York, artistic director, Jenny Schlenzka organized a group exhibition and events that focused on the life of artist Kathy Acker who passed away from cancer in 1997. A highlight of the exhibition was a performance by Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard, consisting of a group of puppets –three of which were modeled after the artist’s mother, father and sister, one that was an avatar for Kathy Acker herself. Donning a miniature leather outfit and a bright red lip, the puppet Acker seemed to sublimely merge her past life with the very present life of Melgaard. At one point the Acker puppet exclaimed, “The everyday man is the most scary individual in the world.” This was in between a series of statements woven into a conceptual dialogue and a violent video sequence of news footage from recent wars. Like most of Melgaard’s multidisciplinary practice, the performance was more than meets the eye and while it tried the patience of many present (including parents who had foolishly brought children), it was a fascinating albeit painterly sculpture, structurally bound by language and political dissonance. I’m sure Acker would have approved.

Bjarne Melgaard on Kathy Acker at Performance Space NY, 2018, Photograph by Katy Hamer.

FOS “Palimpsest — Hands Worn Smooth by Coins” at SCAD Museum of Art. In his first solo exhibition, the Danish artist FOS, who is somewhat of an enigma irl, presented a group of sculptural work; design objects, some freestanding and others installed on the gallery walls. Meticulously, the exhibition created a narrative specific to the artist. Rather than a story to be told, the objects were like artifacts unearthed from an unidentified cave. FOS, whose actual name is Thomas Poulsen, has collaborated with fashion brand Céline and makes work that is both functional (such as furniture and lighting fixtures) and referential of art history delving into Mesopotamian and Modern Art periods. Palimpsest is defined by Merriam Webster as writing material (such as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased and something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface. In the case of FOS, the title suits his work perfectly, as discovering his sculpture is like peeling the skin of an onion; delicate, layered, and in some ways melancholic.

FOS at SCAD Museum of Art, installation view, photograph/s by Katy Hamer, 2018.

FLUCT, Is it God or am I Dog? at Signal. More often than not, it is difficult for artists who are known exclusively for their performances, to do other types of art in a gallery context (i.e. work that can be sold in a more traditional way), successfully. This was not the case with FlucT. The duo, Sigrid Lauren and Monica Mirabile put together an exhibition that utilized their bodies and movement through video. The show was dynamic. It forced the viewer to move along with them to experience the work to the fullest effect. The figures moved via a rotating projector, larger than life, dressed in black their exposed flesh lit, glowing in a darkened room. Video appeared in three other forms in the exhibition. One on a flat rectangular screen hanging from the ceiling at eye-level, another in a doghouse, requiring the viewer to bend or squat to enter, and the third on a screen installed on a shape that was both a bed and a cage. The latter, had an audio component as well and those present had the option of putting on big, black earphones and laying down on the bed, the light from the film illuminating the scene. Lauren and Mirabile use gesticulation singularly and jointly, conjuring, or rather transmitting sexuality. They have such electric energy when live, I feared that this wouldn’t transmit to video, but with the sculptural objects, and movement of the spinning projector, the duo created a bubbling cauldron and perfect solution for the performative gesture even when bodies, couldn’t actually be present. This was one of the final exhibitions at Signal gallery in Bushwick and one of their best. The gallery will be missed.

Fluct, Is it God or am I Dog? Installation view at Signal, Photograph by Katy Hamer, 2018

Marc Quinn, Life Like, Sculpture, Color and The Body, Met Breuer. Sometimes seeing art is like visiting an old friend. Or in this case an acquaintance. This is how I’ve felt numerous times visiting various art over the years at the Met, the Whitney, MoMA and other museums. At the Met Breuer, “Life Like, Sculpture, Color and the Body” brought together figurative sculptures from 1300’s to the present. One of these sculptures was a self portrait by YBA -Young British Artist- Marc Quinn, who has made a series of portraits made from a mold of the artist’s own frozen blood. I saw an iteration of the work during the famed “Sensation” exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. Quinn, made one of these self portraits every five years from 1991 through 2011. Seeing this one at the Met Breuer, reminded me of the past, of the fragility of time and the humanness of the interior composition of the human body. While the exhibition received mixed reviews and some critics felt it was too Westernized with a focus on figurative art from the European and North American focus rather than delving into a global understanding of the body in three-dimensions. However, I found it to be incredibly engaging, sculptures from the Italian Renaissance in the same gallery as works by contemporary artists. I was fortunate to meet one of the curators involved in the organizing Life Like, who shared that the secret behind Quinn’s sculptures is that they are shipped in liquid form and are then frozen in the mold. This left me giddy and also made sense as I couldn’t imagine shipping a frozen blood head overseas. The work in particular stands out for 2018 as it was so familiar and yet foreign at the same time. Placed in a glass encased pedestal the texture of the ‘flesh’ seemed almost malleable and now we know it once was and will be again.

Marc Quinn, Self, in Life Like at the Met Breuer, Photograph/s Katy Hamer, 2018

Aurora, Light, Video, Sound Biennial, Dallas, Texas. One night in November, Aurora, a sound and light biennial, took over the Downtown area of Dallas. Working with five curators, the event felt as international as it did local. In the hours right after sunset on the evening of November 3, throngs of visitors filled the area around City Hall. Projections flashed on the sides of buildings and in a few stand-out moments, performances featuring live audio, attracted the largest crowds. They moved like swarms of insects both on foot and motorized scooters, drawn to the sources of projection. The organizers of Aurora had some control of light in the federal zone and the dimly lit area allowed the lights of projection to shine that much brighter, while the sidewalks and winding paths through the park were in shadow. A few hours into the event, rumors started to circulate that a storm was on the way and that half the city had lost power. Police cars rolled through the crowd, urging those present seek shelter. Thinking it all seemed fairly dramatic, I waited until a large crack of lightning made me jump as the sky started to glow. Following a crowd, of a few hundred, I ducked into the Aloft Dallas Downtown hotel. An hour or so later, we all emerged and projections and performances were up and running. Even when threatened with unstable weather, the team persevered.

A performance titled, Dances with Whales (Keiko – Always on my Mind)” by Dallas-based DGDG Dance Company and Icelandic, Miami-based artist Magnús Sigurdarson. Held in a recessed area, a huge crowd had gathered. Some watched from above, while others, such as myself were down in the bubble trenches. Techno music blasted from large speakers, while foam machines provided a soapy playground for synchronized dancers. Inflatable killer whales joined in the scene, an accessorized prop of sorts and Sigurdarson’s way of paying homage to Keiko the whale who starred in the film Free Willy. The whales, soft representations of Keiko, flew through the audience, similarly to beachballs at a concert. As bodies moved and bubbles floated above the crowd, the whales bounced from hand to hand in an interactive bubble rave. It was a surreal moment that seemed all too perfect and just as I had the thought, a woman turned to me smiling and said, “What happens in Dallas, stays in Dallas.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Aurora Light, Video and Sound Biennial, Dallas, Texas, Photos Katy Hamer, 2018

Urs Fischer, Things, at Gagosian pop-up. At 511 Fifth Avenue, an unexpected midtown location and former bank, a sculpture by artist Urs Fischer found a home from May 15 through June 23, 2018. The monumental piece made of aluminum, featured a life-size rhinoceros and everyday objects adhering to and emerging from the tremendous, ductile form. Located only a few blocks from Grand Central, in a business and shopping hub, the piece glistened from the minimal light in the venue and natural light that streamed in from the oversized arch windows. Passersby mostly walked without looking in and the rhino stood frozen in observance. It was difficult to decipher whether Fischer intended the objects to appear as if magnetized to the large mammal or if the rhino was a hybrid of sorts, a product of urban living and the ephemera we unwittingly absorb on a daily basis. I found myself magnetized, romanticized by the out-of-place sculpture, not in an official gallery or where one might expect to experience art in the big city. In a large nearly empty interior, the piece functioned just as it should; intending to arouse question and for all those who entered the space, a moment of respite from the sidewalks teeming with people, going hither and thither, destinations all their own.

Urs Fischer, Things, Gagosian Gallery Pop-Up, Photograph by Katy Hamer, 2018

Lyle Ashton Harris, AKA Daddy, Participant Inc. In June at Participant, Lyle Ashton Harris, had an exhibition and performance called “Aka Daddy.” The artist’s biological father passed away in the spring of 2018 and he in turn, made work expounding upon this process of mourning in the face of an existing practice. Returning to the performative gesture after many years, Harris read letters he had written to his father and former partners delving into what it means to communicate with those who are no longer available because of failed love, death or both. The performance was extremely moving, as Harris ventured into challenging what it means to mourn and how that can be received by others. While universal in nature, the process of how sadness is expressed varies due to cultural expectation and personal degrees of self awareness. As he lit candles, a video taken in Ghana at the funeral of his former partner’s father looped in the background. The artist read from written pages, slowly. “I have been in a wind tunnel of grief,” he stated, as soft jazz music filled the gallery as did sounds of mourning from the film. Friends, members of the artist’s family, and many important curators filled the room as Harris cleansed the space expelling energy common to those who have experienced loss. I found myself asking, “What does it mean to mourn? What does it mean to lose someone?” Harris’ father wasn’t available in his life in the way he would’ve liked and rather than create a vacuum, he evoked a spirit of forgiveness and endurance. Accompanying the performance, were a series of photographs of the artist as a child, a large-scale, dye-bond print and a new mixed media collage, similar to what he’s made in the past but additionally weighted through the recent tragedy, “Untitled (DAD),” 2018. In one of the most poignant moments, Harris read aloud, “Dear Thomas, aka Daddy, I trust this note finds you in good health and spirits. I’m ok. “

Perhaps that is the most important message to take away from 2018, as politics took a toll on so many as did the uncertain economy. Harris is ok, I’m ok, and you’re ok too.

Katy Diamond Hamer is an art writer based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She contributes to several magazines both online and in print. Visit her on Instagram @katyhamer