The Best Art of 2013

Given any particular year, I find myself wanting to review exhibitions I simply cannot cover. It's generally a matter of timing—shows having too short a run or too many competing events, for instance. In fact, my drive to consider intriguing work is such that I tend to write articles in my mind, even when I know they won't be realized in print. Having said that, I'll emphasize that a variety of local venues have presented art worthy of attention in 2013—quite successfully, too, whether or not they've been acknowledged by Metro Pulse. I'd prefer to recognize them all.

Most shows during the past 12 months featured work by either a single artist or a large group, with little in between. One thread running through the solo exhibitions is a quirkiness that's hard to pin down. The paintings of Thornton Dial, Cynthia Markert, Doug Waterfield, and Michael Zansky (who also presented kinetic sculpture) use exuberant color to express personalized and often obsessive notions. Film and television set designer Zansky, in his of Giants and Dwarfs show at the University of Tennessee's Ewing Gallery, was especially impressive.

I wrote in January that "Zansky finds spirit or beauty in disarray, destruction, and disjointedness. It's as if he's staring, unflinching, into the gaping maw of nothingness and finding his being." The artist's occasionally battered or burned pieces—alongside orbs, lenses, electrical cords, and works with imaginary creatures and disembodied heads—complement his polished tondo paintings, which I described as giving "infinite macro-form to what often seems to be micro-matter. They simultaneously resemble petri dish experiments and views of the universe through a telescope—bacterial plate cultures and plate tectonics." Zansky's exhibition was, in other words, the artistic equivalent of a supernova.

Dial's works in Thoughts on Paper, at the Knoxville Museum of Art in July and August, and Markert's paintings at Räla this fall, represented variations on a theme. Both artists depict women, with Dial adding birds and other creatures to the mix. In addition to exploring gender roles and sexuality, central to Markert's efforts, Dial alludes to race, subjugation, and political power as well. And politics were an inextricable part of Waterfield's atomic-age subject matter in Doomtown at the American Museum of Science and Energy last January. As memorable as these shows were, however, none had the breadth of scale and diversity found in Zansky's exhibition.

William Lamson and Fransje Killaars presented installations at the Downtown Gallery and Ewing Gallery, respectively. Lamson's Fieldwork, despite including photography and glass panels sandwiching evaporated salt water, mostly documented what viewers couldn't see: environmental projects in New Mexico's White Sands, the Mojave Desert, and elsewhere. "The photographs and video in Fieldwork … have an integrity all their own, whether it's due to interesting composition, Lamson's intuitive timing, or their demonstration that an artist's process can be every bit as intriguing as any object or effect produced," I wrote in March.

In September, Killaars' Color at the Center was large-scale and textiles-focused. The internationally recognized Dutch artist produces work reflecting the late 19th-century re-emergence of textiles as art as well as color-field painting and 1960s Op Art. "The tension she creates between the eye's purely visual response to color and one's bodily experience of inhabiting a colorful three-dimensional space can provoke a kind of physical response in viewers," I wrote.

Jean Hess' one-woman show at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church in October, a stunning mélange of collage-based pieces, served to kick off another Ewing show titled Remix. Like other 2013 group exhibitions, Remix was dizzying in its scope, presenting assemblages by more than 100 artists working in both new and familiar media. "If the primary impact of montage in films like Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin was to accustom viewers to shifting and malleable perspective, the advent of collage signaled a like-minded effort to convey the complexity of visual perception," I wrote. Resulting from the International Collage Center's "intergenerational mining," Remix was a potent reminder of collage's "capacity to confront issues related to societal upheaval and chaos, cultural fragmentation, and the dehumanizing effects of the machine age and advanced technology." No small accomplishment, that.

Tradition Redefined, at the KMA last March through June, featured almost as many artists as did Remix. Challenging clichéd ideas of what constitutes African-American art, its paintings, sculpture, mixed media, drawings, and prints collected by Larry and Brenda Thompson were impressive. Racial parameters aside (even if Tradition Redefined seemed "self-consciously noble in its effort to support artists ignored by the mainstream"), I wrote that the works in the show were "consistently striking, no matter what their provenance or goals."

Exhibitions of Turkomen artifacts and Native American pottery at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture were as interesting as usual. That venue's Birds in Art and the Downtown Gallery's Ossuary reflect a trend wherein shows add new works upon moving from place to place. Sculpture in April's Nexus 2013, also at the Downtown Gallery, was as dark and organic as ever. And on view that same month, the Emporium Center's prints from Poland's Wroclaw School likewise projected a hard-to-define edginess. All of which add up to a notable annual haul—one that seems to increase in terms of both abundance and quality every year.