Top Ten Art Shows of 2015

1. "REWIND" (Creative Alliance) Though this show closed a full month before three bike cops chased Freddie Gray through West Baltimore, Paul Rucker's retrospective became a manifesto for the entire year. Rucker dressed mannequins in Klan robes, decorated throw rugs with lynching scenes, titled one rug that portrayed Trayvon Martin with a target on his chest "One Less Thing To Worry About"—it all effortlessly demonstrated how white supremacy's plunder of black labor infuses everyday life. No single artist's mind has so passionately and powerfully articulated how America's past makes America's present such a horror show around these parts since Fred Wilson remixed history in 1992's "Mining the Museum." (Bret McCabe)

2. Wickerham & Lomax in the Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize exhibition (Baltimore Museum of Art) Formerly known as DUOX, the multimedia duo of Malcolm Lomax and Daniel Wickerham won this year's $25,000 Sondheim Artscape Prize with work depicting a fictional police state infused with frat-bro relics and Baltimore's queer subcultures—really, it's Baltimore through a pop-culture-inflected net-art lens that draws from the city's most complex and dystopian qualities. The installation revolved around the web-based series "BOY'Dega," presented on three screens, one of which allowed the viewer to explore the Baltimorean cyberscape and characters through an elaborate interface. The installation elements of the exhibition paralleled the digital works' multilayered maximalism: Massive frat pledge paddles loomed over the space like totems, wrapped and draped with various textures and prints in the form of beach towels, du-rags, jersey netting, and chains, evoking the most nightmarish party you can't forget. (Maura Callahan)

3. "I <3 My Emergency" (Springsteen Gallery) There was something in Nandi Loaf's and Amanda Horowitz's work that reminded us of our earliest world-building IRL and identity-building on the internet, and how that occurred simultaneously for us with the rise of everyday internet use. Loaf's pencil-drawn Slipknot fan art and hand-stitched Slipknot masks recalled our DeviantArt days and our own childhood fandoms and fan art, the dedication to which is probably what eventually led us to a life in art. Horowitz's sculptures and poetry explored her experiences of 9/11 as a kid, some of which were subtly echoed in a separate video piece about a female archetype who loses her own voice against the men and society and forces surrounding her and speaking for her. Each time we think about this show there are more things we want to say about it; it felt as boundless as the internet itself. (Rebekah Kirkman)

4. "Bubble Over Green" (The Contemporary) "Bubble Over Green" marked the triumphant return of The Contemporary as an exhibiting institution, as well as a brief comeback for an unsung brutalist cathedral. Victoria Fu transformed the former KAGRO offices on North Avenue into a shifting, immersive chamber of anti-cinema—hypnotizing visitors with painterly projections that implied interactivity between viewer, architecture, and moving image. The familiarity of the medium and its multiple references to the touch screen made the installation feel immediately accessible and engaging—despite content that seldom surrendered inscrutability. The result was awe-inspiring: a contemporary feat akin to the impression stained-glass windows must have made on medieval Europeans. (Michael Farley)

5. "100% YES (fill in the blank)" (Current Space) A collaboration between the Press-Press team and middle and high school-aged Burmese refugees via the Baltimore City Community College Refugee Youth Project presented a series of fill-in-the-blanks about what students say "100% yes" to, including "100% Yes Korean Drama" and "100% Yes My Mom." Those contributions hung on the wall as big wood-block-printed declarations next to personal photos from the students, and visitors could take home "The Chilly Smart Model," a publication full of poetry and art from the students. There was kind of a radical sense of inclusivity here that felt sincere, and legitimately collaborative—as best one can, Press-Press kept its curatorial paws out of the creative process. But "100% YES" also acknowledged darkness, which is always important in art: Hovering behind this exhibition is the grim reality that these student were uprooted from their country due to war and that here in the states, where they've come, is currently going through a particularly ugly wave of xenophobia. (Brandon Soderberg)

6. "Despues de la Frontera" (Creative Alliance) Local artist Tanya Garcia curated a multimedia show that addressed issues that immigrants and refugees from Central America's Northern Triangle face. She came at it from all angles, including photojournalistic work by Levi Vonk and Armando Mejía as well as a timeline by Emma Cervone and Silvia Mata-Marin displaying how the U.S. had a hand in making these countries so dangerous. Garcia's documentary video "Sigo Caminando" ("I keep walking") let three teenagers tell their own stories—from the violence that made them leave their homes to the dangerous journey itself to the difficulties in finding a safe and comfortable place to live once they got here, and reminded us that the personal is very political. (RK)

7. "Imaginary Islands" (ICA Baltimore) Life goes on around and often right in front of terror and abuse in the stark, massive, and darkly comedic illustrations and watercolors that make up Emily Campbell's "Imaginary Islands," presented at Space Camp by ICA Baltimore. In one drawing, two women in cocktail dresses hang from a tree while some well-dressed jerks converse and next to them, someone's being shoved into an oven—it's a Boschian whirl of omnidirectional rage at anybody and everybody in power (and in another drawing, we even see that hey, some people even get off on it, as a character with a nice big boner suggests). Campbell's drawing style recalls medieval illustration—all thick beefy lines, drawn by someone with the confidence to think there's a God—but also comics or cartoons, where everything is reduced and simplified for maximum impact. That Campbell's work all circles around the same aesthetic and thematic ideas lends a beneficial sameness to the exhibit: It's another way of showing how predictable but still quite terrifying abuses of power tend to be. (BS)

8. "Saccade" (Terrault Contemporary) Hermonie "only" Williams' works in "Saccade" were quietly assertive—almost speaking in the language of minimalist absolutes, but in a somewhat introverted whisper. These mostly monochromatic abstractions (both sculptural and on paper) bore the faintest traces of the artist's hand, serving as an index of a meticulous process and obsessive craftsmanship. A pair of black wall-mounted constructions, a graphite rendering of a square collapsing in on itself, and collections of nearly-identical 3-D forms on the floor spoke to a sense of balance, if not always symmetry. This balance, however, was never quite right—pairings were defined as much by tension as likeness. And that's what's great about the work: Williams can pack a load of conflicting associations in the most economical of forms. It's rare abstraction that's neither trite nor overly sterile. (MF)

9. "Positive Reinforcement" (Gallery Four) The FamilyFamilyTree collective behind this show loathes simplicity—be that tidy notions of authorship (25 artists/artist teams created/collaborated on the 28 works here) or media (those works run from video loops to sculpture to athletic jerseys to, well, cake). Such unorthodoxy is amplified in the works' thematic worlds: LJ Frezza pits surveillance against privacy in 'Nothing,' the video loop of building exteriors from "Seinfeld"; Patrick Reynolds' inkjet print 'I Firmly Resolve 2' comically recasts a religious iconography as candid snapshot. "Positive Reinforcement" is an irreverent assault on the passive comfort of the status quo, the most politically unsatisfied group show Baltimore has seen since the Nudashank's "Gran Prix" in 2012. (BM)

10. "topo(log) typo(log)" (ICA Baltimore) Lu Zhang spent the last year as the artist in residence at the stunning George Peabody Library, browsing its stacks and drifting through its architectural idiosyncrasies. The resulting work, presented by ICA Baltimore, is a survey of her findings, poetically recontextualized as a non-narrative, non-objective series of "books" that appropriate images, text, and textures from across the collection. Each is gorgeous as an object—but more important, points to a new approach to the "research" practice that's grown increasingly popular in artist residencies. Here, the work is personal and a little absurd—speaking to a collector's sense of wonder and the impossible desire to index all experience or knowledge. (MF)

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