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Orlando's 2018 art exhibitions snapped our eyes wide open

Time to wake up

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No one can explain how they survived 2018, but most of us did. It was like that scene in The Godfather where he wakes up to find a horse's head in his bed, replayed over and over and over. Every time you turn on the news, it's a different horse's head – Rick Scott, or Brett Kavanaugh, or Sheryl Sandberg – whoever. Would have been a lot better, maybe, just to sleep through it all, but that's not an option any more.

RTR: And anyway, if you slept through it all, you would have missed some great art, starting with Snap's dual artist show of Jamel Shabazz and Shawn Theodore (Shabazz | Theodore, Feb. 2–May 12, Snap! Orlando), visual poets of the street. I was deeply affected by both of these photographers. Theodore's portrait-narrative of the "Church of the Broken Pieces" touched universal themes of rejection and struggle; while Shabazz's mastery of New York's look is embedded in the soul of that city.

JBY: The Mennello stormed into 2018 with a Grace Hartigan exhibition (Grace Hartigan 1960-1965, The Perry Collection, Jan. 20–March 18, Mennello Museum of American Art), yet another show so conceptually big it surged against the walls of the little Mennello. Hartigan generally gets lumped in with Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner ... the "Female Abstract Expressionists," coverage of whom always come with an explicit or implicit subtext: "They're just as good as Willem and Jackson – honest!" (Or: "They ain't as good as Willem and Jackson, pal!") It's reductive not just to gender-label those painters, but specifically Hartigan – her earliest work toed the line of Ab-Ex orthodoxy, but eventually figuration began to slyly waft into view on her canvases. This show, pocket-sized though it was, captured the arc of Hartigan's evolution of self-assurance, as an individual and a master.

RTR: Speaking of great women artists, the Maitland Art Center has a lot of momentum. They started the year with an excellent pair of artists, Nikki Painter and Elizabeth Condon, both showing vigorous abstracts (Women of the Research Studio: Past and Present, Jan. 5-Feb. 18, Art & History Museums – Maitland). I applaud the Art Center's recently revitalized artist-in-resident program that brought them, among other talents, to mix into the Central Florida scene.

JBY: As happy as I was (and am) to see the gender imbalance redressed on local walls, I'm not sure I like galleries separating artists out by sex; "women artists" sounds like a subcategory of "artists." Not only is that a belittlement neither of us appreciates, it's becoming irrelevant; gender is more malleable than ever. Anyway, art has always been about staking one's place in the world – like Whitman said, "I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world" – and Ria Brodell's show at the Cornell did just that with a handful of witty portraits: women who lived as men, reimaginings of nuns as monks, and identity swaps of herself into her patron (matron?) saint, St. Philomena (Ria Brodell: Devotion, Jan. 20-May 13, Cornell Fine Arts Museum).

RTR: Allowing one to define one's own identity seems natural, in retrospect. It would be hard to live in a fake reality. Not so the State of Florida, perpetually faked. Invasive Species (May 17–June 23) one of Pat Greene's last events at Gallery at Avalon Island, featured nine Florida artists, plus his own installation, exploring the nature of Florida's fakery. As a homegrown effort, it was terrific.

JBY: The Florida Prize is another homegrown effort, one that has immeasurably improved the lives of Orlando art-lovers since its inception, and this year was no different. The 2018 Orlando Museum of Art Florida Prize in Contemporary Art exhibition (June 1–Aug. 19), collecting the work of 10 Florida artists, was challenging, off-kilter, jagged in some places and slick in others. I couldn't get enough of Rafael Domenech's bright, plasticky assemblages of detritus (especially as juxtaposed with Kerry Phillips' strangely somber accumulations of old furniture and suitcases and gloomy-hued plush upholstery). Winner Kenya (Robinson), with her tumbling waterfalls of tiny white men, deserved every dollar of her prize.

Nick Cave, Soundsuits
  • Nick Cave, Soundsuits

This year felt like a turning point, though; will OMA continue to focus on Floridian artists or will they open it up to contemporary artists around the country – or world? We shall see. In the meantime, the Florida Prize is still an overflowing bounty of brain candy and maximum fun.

RTR: I am an inveterate minimalist. Yet what stood out for me, personally this year, was the Nick Cave soundsuits at OMA (Nick Cave: Feat., Sept. 14–Dec. 30, Orlando Museum of Art). These are exquisitely maximalist and I love them. In a presentation to local writers, Cave told us how they were born from his reaction to the Rodney King beating in L.A. – how these suits swish, clash and jingle when you wear them – and they exuberantly defy the instinct to hide or to melt into the background. I think that kind of counterintuitive move is what we need more of. Contrasted with this, OMA is exhibiting Purvis Young and His Angels until March 3, 2019. The Miami artist's feral street saints, so full of despair and alienation, are hauntingly beautiful in a different sort of way.

In 2018, many art shows were intensely interior, and few presented overt political messaging. Artists like Ria Brodell did explore a certain type of social emancipation. Cave's soundsuits extend one's presence through art, and are political without being confrontational. No one can blame artists for sleeping through the gangster movie that our democracy has become. But once artists do awaken, they can often slip the truth into their work subtly, so we can see that dead horse's head for what it truly is: payback for not paying attention.