The Best Gallery Exhibits Of 2015

text by Adam Lehrer

Counting down your favorite gallery exhibits is much harder than putting together any other list. It’s not like your favorite music that you can hear again and again, or your favorite films and shows that in most cases you can go back to when you need to or want to, and it’s not even like a play where you most likely will have the opportunity to experience it again. A gallery show is a singular experience, and seldom do people go more than to passively glance at the work, schmooze with other high society types (note: I am not a high society type, I am a poor person that often rubs elbows with these people hoping they never get around to asking what a critic makes these days), and grab a drink. That means for the gallery exhibition to stick with you, it has to manifest as a transcendent experience. The best exhibits give you a feeling, and whether or not that feeling is the one proposed by the artist is beside the point. The art is your experience, and it belongs to you. 2015 has been, admittedly, a great year for art across almost all mediums. Bear in mind, I’m only including exhibits I’ve actually seen; thus, there will be a lot of New York-centric stuff.

1. Mark Bradford, Be Strong Boquan, Hauser & Wirth

Mark Bradford was recently featured in a T Magazine piece along with fellow artists Theaster Gates and Rick Lowe. The article celebrates the artists and their adherences to using art to a higher social calling. Bradford is not afraid to imbue his work with big concepts, as evidenced by his fall exhibition at Hauser & Wirth. In a collection of paintings and a video project, Bradford explores the early AIDS crisis and our government’s response to it, juxtaposing the horror to the jubilation of 1980s club culture. The exhibit’s most talked-about piece, Spiderman (2015), is a response to Eddie Murphy’s homophobia and misogyny in his 1980s stand-up classic Delirious. In the piece, an unseen black comedian makes jokes about Eazy-E’s battle with HIV and the black community’s encounter with AIDS, while a laugh track plays underneath. The piece implicates the viewers and their complicit laughter. Be Strong Boquan is not an easily forgotten body of work. Click here to see our full coverage.


2. Wolfgang Tillmans, Polymerase Chain Reaction, David Zwirner

Operating as a photographer since the early ‘90s, Wolfgang Tillmans has never felt as relevant as he does now. And that is saying something, considering he has been rightfully respected as one of the world’s foremost fine art photographers for over a decade. Tillmans is heavily featured in a stunning new issue of Arena Homme + with two full interviews and a slew of images culled from his amazing 2015 David Zwirner exhibit, PCR. Featuring 100 of Tillmans’ recent images, the installation is emblematic of Tillmans’ unique relationship to space. The exhibit itself was a considered artwork, with Tillmans using each image to create one solitary piece. It was an utterly expansive work, covering the entirety of Zwirner’s New York location’s first floor. Tillmans’ imagery of life: partying, suffering, joys, and pain; is juxtaposed by his references to time. All of this happens in a unique realm of the infinite. Click here to see our full coverage.

3. Agathe Snow, Continuum, The Journal Gallery

Agathe Snow has too often been relegated to the descriptor, “Dash Snow’s ex-wife.” The legacy that her late ex-husband left behind is one that surely shadows the fascinating body of work that Agathe has created. In Continuum, Agathe made great use of the Journal Gallery’s unique space with its 30 ft-high walls being met to the ceiling by her gigantic papier mâché sculptures. The sculptures themselves can best be described as totems, portals to a world beyond our own mortal lives. A startlingly personal show for an artist who has faced much loss in her life, Agathe was able to create an exhibition that was tactilely brilliant and emotionally resonant.

4. Mike Kelley, Kandors, Hauser & Wirth

Hauser & Wirth is my personal commercial gallery of the year, and the late Mike Kelley (my personal number one all time artist) had some of his later life work shown, specifically the Kandors. Some artists think sporadically, stacking multiple ideas into a single show. Kelley is more in-line with the obsessive artists that generate a quantity of ideas after the one. The one in this case, is Kelley’s take on Superman mythology, specifically Superman’s home city of Kandor that was shrunk to globe size by the villain Brainiac. The exhibition begins with a set of illuminated sculptures glowing in neon that all depict the various ways that Superman’s home planet was illustrated in various different series of the comics. The show culminates with Fortress of Solitude, a life-sized rendition of Superman’s secret cave with the retrieved Kandor globe where he would go to ruminate on his relationship to the Earth and his condition of being a part and apart from it all the same. It jibes with the narrative of being an artist in the contemporary world, as evidenced by the short film shown at the end of the exhibition, which uses Fortress of Solitude as a set. There will never be an artist like Mike Kelley again. Click here to see our full coverage.

5. Elmgreen and Dragset, Past Tomorrow, Galerie Perrotin

“Norman Swann’s Family Fortune is Long Gone,’ reads the opening line of a book written by Danish artists, Elmgreen and Dragset, accompanying the duo’s exhibition of the same name at Galerie Perrotin earlier this year. The labor that goes into Elmgreen and Dragset’s work is astounding enough, but the duo must be credited for creating a whole new form of storytelling. The exhibition is literally an interpretation of the home of unseen character Norman Swann, and as you walk through it, it becomes a mystery that can be solved. It is an engaging form of art, but what is at the root of Elmgreen and Dragset’s exhibition is a rumination on inconsoloable loneliness and regret. Though Norman isn’t real, we feel for him, or for whomever he actually is. The exhibition engulfed me in a profound state of empathy.

6. Jeffrey Gibson, Jeffrey Gibson, Marc Straus Gallery

As Jeffrey Gibson has come to embrace his Native American ancestry more in his work, the other elements of his work have become more effective: politics, music, subculture, queer theory, art history, and more are all given a unique perspective. Though it shouldn’t be surprising to have a Native American take on these subjects, it is simply due to the fact that I have not ever been exposed to it. If that is my fault or the educational system’s fault I am not here to say. I can say that I am a massive fan of Gibson’s work. His use of fabrics and beads are always given a contemporary feel, and his series of punching bags that are all applied the titles of various outsider sub-cultures (Goths, punks, etc..) look like nothing else available on the art market.

7. Isa Genzken, David Zwirner

I have been fascinated by German artist, Isa Genzken’s interest in clothing and how it relates to the sculpture of the human body. On May 1, in Berlin at Galerie Bucholz, Genzken had a honest-to-goodness fashion show with models of both genders wearing clothes she created in 1998. The paint splattered and mightily distressed garments stretch the boundaries of good taste while making us ponder the fact that if perhaps some mighty atelier sewed these, we might consider them to be the highest of fashion. At her recent exhibit at Zwirner, Genzken draped life-sized mannequins in similarly distressed garments as well as other human-shaped sculptures. Along with the fashion show, it seems Genzken is now more than ever looking to address how we sculpt our own bodies in image. Some of the mannequins wear Genzken’s personal clothing, denoting a kind of self-portrait or a need to understand her own shape. Not to mention, I met Kim Gordon at the opening, so it’s hard not to look back on the exhibit with a smile. Click here to see our full coverage.

8. Justin Adian, Strangers, Skarstedt Gallery

What I love about Justin Adian’s work is its juxtaposition. He has this very design-oriented and art deco-inspired clean aesthetic derived from his unique process of stretching canvases over shaped foam that at the same time captures his youthful love of what the pretentious art world would consider “low culture:” punk rock, horror films, Black Flag. Adian said at a seminar for his recent exhibition, Strangers, that he has never moved on from something he loves or finds interesting. From hardcore to Frank Stella, he just keeps adding references to his œuvre. Much has been said of the Texan artist’s thematic similarities to Texan minimalism. They aren’t untrue either, as Adian infuses a healthy amount of humor into his singular style. What separates Adian most from Texan minimalism is that narrative has a powerful place in his work. Adian does have stories in mind when he creates, and went as far as to include a booklet of short stories to accompany this exhibition. Click here to read our coverage.

9. Scooter LaForge, How to Create a Monsterpiece, Howl! Happening

Scooter LaForge had the biggest year of his career. First, Walter Van Bierendonck elected to use LaForge’s prints for his SS 2015 collection that saw LaForge working on an installation at the London Dover Street Market location. Then, after creating one off wearable art garments for Patricia Field for some years, high fashion and streetwear retailer VFiles brought LaForge in to do the same for their clientele. Finally, he just collaborated again with Pat Field on another installation at DSM’s New York location that offers a Pat Field-curated vision of fashion. All the work in fashion has exponentially increased interest in LaForge’s art resulting in four solo exhibitions this year. His show at Howl! Happening felt like the tip of the iceberg, using the gallery’s impressive space to show off all the work that he has accomplished in creating these past few years. His paintings, sculptures, and garments were all shown as a single body of work with identifiable imagery and characters. It also marked LaForge as the first contemporary artist to show at the gallery, putting him in the lineage of important downtown New York artists. Howl! Happening had a very first impressive year, with major shows by Lydia Lunch, Arturo Vega, Clayton Patterson, and Tim Clifford. The spirit of New York lives in this organization.

10. Jose Parla, Surface Body/Action Space, Mary Boone Gallery and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery

Jose Parla’s paintings are marked by decay, history, and emotion. The massive body of work that is Surface Body/Action Space that needed two galleries to host the large body of canvases tells a story that is both personal to Parla and to the viewer. It can be any story, and you can attribute what you need to it for your own purposes. Parla is able to make rust and decay look beautiful, or perhaps make you realize that deterioration is beautiful. He has exponentially matured artistically, but the essence of freedom within the work remains the same.