When I first began covering galleries for the Globe 20 years ago, my editor counseled me not to spend all my time on Newbury Street, where most of the leading commercial galleries were. These days, only a handful of stalwarts remain.
Gallery central has shifted to the South End’s SoWa District, where developer GTI Properties has courted art galleries and boutiques with lower rents, easier parking, a pedestrian thoroughfare, and a popular monthly First Friday communal opening reception. Late this year, GTI opened several spaces, with more than a half-dozen galleries moving in, many of them brand new. Beth Urdang Gallery and Alpha Gallery, which arrives in January, come from Newbury Street.
At a point when it feels like more commercial galleries close than open every year, this is extraordinarily encouraging.
Public art, too, is finally looking up — as we looked up at Janet Echelman’s spectacular, luminous, aerial net, “As If It Were Already Here,” suspended over Rose Kennedy Greenway from May to October. Kudos also to independent curator Elizabeth Devlin, who heroically oversaw the smart, quirky Isles Arts Initiative at several sites on the Boston Harbor Islands and in the city over the summer.
2015 was the year major Boston institutions embraced the thriving local performance art/alternative space scene. The Museum of Fine Arts’s biennial Maud Morgan Prize went to performance artist Marilyn Arsem, godmother of all Boston performance artists; her exhibition there continues into February. The Institute of Contemporary Art awarded its James and Audrey Foster Prize (and a summer show) to four local performance artists and artist collaboratives.
As for exhibitions, my prize goes to a trifecta of keen and spritely group shows.
In an exhibit that slapped you in the face, “The Guston Effect” at Steven Zevitas Gallery positioned painter Philip Guston as seminal, and traced his nervous, raw, painterly aesthetic from 1980 (when Guston died) to today, spotlighting ballsy, angsty artists from Carroll Dunham to Dana Schutz.
At the Boston Center for the Arts’s Mills Gallery, curator Robert Moeller staged an electric weekend pop-up show, “Yeah, You Missed It!” (which also deserves a nod for best title). Its brief tenure gave the ambitious show a fugitive quality, and the wide-ranging art had the unpredictable sparkle and harmony of good improvisational jazz.
Also at the Mills, painter Steve Locke organized “Arcadia: Thoughts on the Contemporary Pastoral,” which embraced the fraught, tender places where nature and culture collide.
Good art often explores the uncomfortable gulf between perceived opposites. In the terrific “Lorraine O’Grady: Where Margins Become Centers,” at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (up through Jan. 10), the artist uses photomontage and video to dig deeply into fraught racial, gender, and other divides.
There were many terrific solo shows this year, but the most surprising was “James Cambronne: Where what is?” at Proof Gallery. Cambronne, a widely respected local artist who does not show enough in these parts, is known for paintings blending Native American patterning with a Modernist sensibility. He went 3-D in this sly installation, toppling viewers into sacred geometry.
Something holy, too, could be found in “Mary Frank: Today Is Yesterday’s Tomorrow.” Frank is best known as a sculptor, but the photographs in this exhibition, taken of scenes she fashioned from scraps found in her studio and outdoors, had the mythic quality of shadow plays cast on a cave wall eons ago.
From the sublime to the ridiculous: “Todd Pavlisko: Hummingbird” at Samson was a hoot and a half. Pavlisko layered Harold “Doc” Edgerton’s stop-motion photographs with vintage NBA posters, and the consequent accumulation of balls, baskets, and explosions (to which Pavlisko added comically melodramatic sculptures of drooping violins) made wry work of athletic machismo.
Usually, my year-end roundups are stuffed with painting shows. Not so this year (conceptual art and group shows are on the rise). “Mary Lum: Way Out” at Carroll and Sons is the exception. Her abstract paintings with collaged fragments of photos and cartoons reported on city sensations: hard angles, flat walls, descents into darkness. They’re all movement, space, and surface, probing and vital.
“Raqs Media Collective: Luminous Will,” at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, featured one particularly outstanding work, the video “Re-run,” which Raqs — Indian artists Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta — modeled after Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photo of a panicked bank run in Shanghai in 1948.
The artists restaged the scene with actors, and slowed the video down to a barely discernible crawl. Catch a movement, though, and you’re reeled in. In one sobering moment, a man in the midst of the crush turns his eyes directly at the viewer, and in that instant, everything changes. Suddenly, you care.
I saw Allison Cekala’s “Salt Mountain” show at Howard Art Project before the snow hit last winter. It included a poetic, almost wordless video tracking the journey of rock salt from its source in mines in Chile’s Atacama Desert to its storage area here in Chelsea. The video is leisurely and filled with startling imagery — natural, industrial, and both at once — thoughtfully framed and keenly attuned to light, texture, and landscape.
The project was the artist’s master of fine arts thesis exhibition for the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University, and it traveled to the Museum of Science. I can only imagine it became more compelling as the snow piled on, and the rock salt in Chelsea dwindled.