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A year of change and range in local galleries

The “Leidy Churchman: Lazy River” exhibit at the Stone Gallery was a highlight of 2013.
The “Leidy Churchman: Lazy River” exhibit at the Stone Gallery was a highlight of 2013.

It's been a lively year in Boston galleries. There's been movement — Ellen Miller decamped from Newbury Street and went into business with Howard Yezerski, merging into Miller Yezerski Gallery. There's been loss — Anthony Greaney closed, putting at least a temporary end to one of the smartest, nerviest, and most community-fostering commercial galleries in Boston. A passionate cadre of young artists seems committed to running alternative spaces, because whether you sell art or not, it needs to be exhibited. And performance art, once rogue and underground, is now routinely bolstered by institutional support. Here are some of my highlights of the year:

At Boston University Art Gallery at the Stone Gallery, director and chief curator Kate McNamara has brought academic rigor and a nuanced aesthetic to the venue since she arrived in 2011. This year, she staged one of the very best gallery exhibits of the year. "Leidy Churchman: Lazy River" was a startling and visionary painting show by a restless, expansive artist who brought video and performance under painting's big tent, and utilized the space in sly ways.

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Ian Alden Russell, the erstwhile curator at the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University (he left for a position in Istanbul midway through 2013), brought two outstanding exhibits to Brown. Iraqi-American photographer Wafaa Bilal recreated news photos from the Iraqi war using models dusted with human remains in his solemn and daring meditation on war, "The Ashes Series." Kelli Rae Adams's elemental installation about an economy of sustenance, "Breaking Even," at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, involved recycling clay and making preserves. For all its frugality, it had a lush beauty.

On the commercial gallery scene, Anthony Greaney staged two sparkling exhibits. Artist Nick Kramer organized the clever "Pure Smoke Culture," featuring artists who massage mundane objects into transcendent ones. Paul Pescador's solo outing, "6, 7, or 9" offered the type of bizarre, button-pushing art that Greaney does best. Pescador's photos and a video starred assemblages of everyday stuff — socks, lampshades — as stand-ins for his friends, lovers, and family, playing out narratives of disconnection and longing.

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A trio of painting shows stood out for their understatement. At Steven Zevitas Gallery, Nancy White made only incremental changes in color value in her small, claustrophobic, abstract paintings, giving everything a dusky cast. They inspired the unlikely sensation of near blindness. Guy Yanai's beguiling paintings at LaMontagne Gallery examined how screens and pixels organize visual information. He came up with his own organizational system for painting with horizontal strokes. By simplifying throwaway images in such a way, he made them iconic. Catherine Kehoe's exquisite still life paintings at Howard Yezerski Gallery likewise enabled the viewer to witness the artist construct a small, nuanced world brushstroke by brushstroke.

A collection of portraits by Rania Matar at Carroll and Sons.
A collection of portraits by Rania Matar at Carroll and Sons.

Lisa Sigal's show "Shifting Horizon" at Samson was an astute, layered merging of painting and architecture. She worked strictly within the rubric of painting — the pieces explored surface and depth, abstraction and representation — but she did it with building materials and images of urban desolation.

17 Cox, the alternative space in Beverly, mounted Floor van de Velde's gripping, glow-in-the-dark explorations of light, sculpture, pattern, color, and projection (still up, until Jan. 2). Using fluorescent acrylic panels under ultraviolet lights, she built a lofty sculpture emanating powdery orange light. Sadly, 17 Cox will close its doors in 2014, founder and director of operations Lucas Spivey has said. He has other projects to pursue.

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At Carroll and Sons, photographer Rania Matar's eloquent, discomforting portraits of young girls from Brookline to Beirut posing examined the power of the gaze, and the power of the model. Some girls thrilled in the trappings of femininity (of which posing itself seemed an attribute), while others were uneasy with them.

A display of John Cerderquist’s furniture at Gallery NAGA.
A display of John Cerderquist’s furniture at Gallery NAGA.

In the realm of performance, "System ECOnomies," by Lynne Cooney and Dana Clancy at Boston University's 808 Gallery, while not the tautest show, hummed with the hopefulness of artists taking social actions and building community. Art projects involved beekeeping and crocheting flotsam planted with marshy grass to support Boston's shoreline. The art was not about itself, as art so often is, but about how we can make things better.

Zsuzsanna Szegedi's piece "A Proper Erasure" in "Absent/Present," a two-person show with Kate Gilmore at Montserrat College of Art Gallery, staged and videotaped the epic creation and destruction of a wall mural. Then she mounted another mural in the gallery, making spray bottles available during the course of the show to obliterate that one, and screened the video of the original drawing and its vanishing alongside it. It was a disconcerting display of transience on a monumental scale.

But enough of big ideas. Sometimes sheer technique alone can dazzle. At Gallery NAGA, furniture maker John Cederquist's whizz-bang marquetry and devastating cleverness couldn't be beat. Using wood inlay, he draws pictures on his furniture that batted the viewer's brain like a Ping-Pong ball between perceptions of 3-D and 2-D. That's all good art has to do, really: Make us see something as we've never seen it before.

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Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com