For arts writers, top 10 lists are as much a part of December as Christmas trees, eggnog, and overeating. This is the season for looking back over the past year, reviewing the highs and lows, reveling in memories of sublime aesthetic experiences and groaning over artistic failures endured. We begin our year-end summation with the visual arts. There were a bumper crop of great exhibitions this year at both museums and galleries, and narrowing the list down to 10 was difficult. And, of course, we cannot claim to have visited every single show in town. With those caveats, we present our favorite exhibitions of 2014. Although most are closed, many can still be seen—but not for long.
Menil director Josef Helfenstein has been planning this exhibition since he first came to the museum a decade ago, and the results speak for themselves. No matter how jaded you are, you can't help but be moved by the courage documented in a video of the famous Tiananmen Square protester blocking a column of tanks, or the photographs of Gandhi on his final hunger strike, or Martin Luther King Jr. leading a march. What makes this an art exhibition is the sensitive juxtaposition of such historical artifacts with works of art from the Menil's permanent collection that reflect, either directly or obliquely, on the show's themes of injustice and civil disobedience. A large mixed-media installation by Indian artist Amar Kanwar brings these issues into the present day by highlighting economic and political repression on the subcontinent.
Thru Jan 4
Although it only comes around every other year, Fotofest is the premier event on the Houston art calendar, and this year's massive exhibition didn't disappoint. Focusing on the Arab world and spanning numerous gallery spaces around town, the show was unapologetically political, bringing attention to the twin legacies of Western imperialism and autotochtonous autocracy while also highlighting the great beauty and humanity of Islamic civilization. Some of the most powerful photographs documented the plight of the Palestinian people suffering behind Israel's grotesque new "security wall."
3. Buildering: Misbehaving the City (Blaffer Art museum
From German artist Sebastian Stumpf's videos of himself unexpectedly jumping off low bridges in the middle of the day to Carey Young's restaging of famous performance art pieces at Middle Eastern building sites, this brilliantly eccentric exhibition succeeds in defamiliarizing the urban landscape in strange and often hilarious ways.
Thru Dec 6
There may have been no stranger sight in Houston all year than visitors strolling around this ingenious exhibition with futuristic-looking helmets strapped on, wires and electrodes protruding, making them look like subjects in some mad scientist's experiment. Which, in a way, they were—Houston conceptual artist Dario Robleto teamed up with a UH neuroscientist to measure visitors' brain waves as they took in the show. Whether or not the data proves useful, though, Robleto's intricate assemblages weave together strands of Houston's history—the invention of the artificial heart, the race to the moon, Dominique de Menil's influence on the city's cultural life—into a room-sized wunderkammer.
Thru Jan 4
Hancock is one of today's most celebrated Houston artists, winning international attention for his highly idiosyncratic and personal paintings about the Mounds, the weird half-animal, half-plant protagonists of his personal mythological system. This extremely well-curated exhibition was the first to examine Hancock's voluminous archive of drawings, beginning with the comic strip he drew for his college newspaper and including some overtly political works that reframes the way we see his career.
Like Hancock, McGee is another mid-career Houston artist with a growing national reputation. After a prolonged absence from the gallery scene, McGee returned with a vengeance in this exhibition, which was built around a recurring character named Mofo, an African American dwarf who has appeared in McGee's previous shows. The cheeky paintings in the show juxtapose the contemporary and the classical—a portrait of Snoop Dogg labeled "Van Gogh," an epic painting in the style of Velázquez featuring crumpled beer cans and dollar bills. McGee's obsessions—Moby-Dick, professional athletes, politics, were in full effect in this provocative and brilliant exhibition.
7. Lee Bontecou: Drawn Worlds (Menil Collection)
Best known for her dark, unsettling paintings and sculptures, Bontecou was also a superbly gifted draughtsman, as demonstrated by this exhibition, the first retrospective of her drawings. With its twisted, biomorphic imagery and themes of gendered violence, the mostly grisaille drawings evoke the works of H.R. Giger at his most gothic. Still, the nightmarish images retain a kind of hypnotic beauty that won't let you look away.
The nine stunning, life-size images of Hindu gods in this exhibition looked from a distance like paintings. But when you got closer you realize that they were actually elaborately staged photographs of actors in costume on a Bollywood-style set. New York–based artist Manjari Sharma hired dozens of Indian craftsmen to build the sets and sew the costumes, then hired actors to portray the gods, basing her designs on historical iconography. The process resulted in surreal, hallucinatory images that look like no other photographs I've ever seen.
Sargent remains best known for his portraits of well-heeled Boston brahmins, but the Gilded Age artist was also, it turns out, a masterful watercolorist. Featuring dozens of exquisite watercolors painted over the course of his career, many of them done during his extensive world travels, this is the kind of exhibition that changes the way you think about a canonical artist.
10. Kenneth Noland: Handmade Paper and Monoprints, 1978–1984 (Meredith long and company)
Between Trenton Doyle Hancock, Lee Bontecou, John Singer Sargent, and the unveiling of plans for the new Menil Drawing Institute, 2014 was a great year for works on paper, and this remarkable exhibition of prints by Amerian artist Kenneth Noland, who's perhaps best known for his surrealist sculptures, continued the trend. Using handmade paper, Noland created colorful, simple abstract designs featuring concentric circles, stripes, and chevrons. The rough-edged, DIY quality of the paper contrasts subtly with the pure geometry of the circles and stripes, giving these works a personal charm often lacking in color field painting.