Year in Art: Beyond the gloom

Continuing cheer in dark times
By GREG COOK  |  December 22, 2008

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ANNUNCIATION: El Greco’s 10-foot-high altarpiece painting starred the MFA’s blockbuster Spanish show.

The Boston art scene felt muted for much of 2008, with 10 galleries closing and the death of two local icons: Harriet Casdin-Silver and Jules Aarons. But the art itself was a source of continuing cheer. Museums showcased a "genius" of styrofoam cups, a rascally Chinese forger, and folk artists from across Massachusetts. The ICA went on a roll, the Peabody Essex Museum maintained its good run, and by November a rejiggered Harrison Avenue gallery district seemed to have regained its footing. Here are the bright spots of a dark year.

Yokels
When last month the DeCordova Museum announced that its trademark "Annual Exhibition" of local art will be going biennial, it seemed to be saying that there's not enough worthwhile stuff made here to sustain a yearly round-up. Or maybe curators just need new ways of envisioning the Boston scene. "This Is Boston, Not LA" at LaMontagne Gallery identified a crackling group of artists fueled by rock and roll and '80s nostalgia. "Keepers of Tradition," organized by the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the National Heritage Museum (it's at the NHM through June 7), plumbed the magic in often-overlooked contemporary folk art from around the state. In Laconia Gallery's "Overflow," Somerville artists Resa Blatman and Mary O'Malley bore witness to the group of locals (see also Pixnit) coalescing around sexy rococo decorative pattern painting.

Here and there local artists glittered in group shows. In the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists' "Reflections in Exile," Chaz Maviyane-Davies stood out with posters aimed like poison darts at the bloody dictatorship of his native Zimbabwe. Andrew Witkin's living-room-like installation in the ICA's Foster Prize exhibit (up through March 1) argued for the tastefully lived life and persnickety interior design as art. Now-closed Gallery XIV's "a politic" offered a glimpse of the Web art that Elaine Bay (a friend) has been making by distilling the style of Web sites, MySpace, and even terrorist videos into bright, crazy, flashy, pointed pop art. (Samples at www.revolt2die.comwww.goldenjasmineyetidancers.com, and www.myspace.com/centralregioncoastguard.)

Big minimalist spectacles
After a blah first year in its new Waterfront building, the Institute of Contemporary Art produced back-to-back hits from riffs on classic Minimalist sculpture. Brit Anish Kapoor's sleight-of-hand turned mirrors and funnels, bumps and caves, into streamlined sublime spectacles. MacArthur "genius" Tara Donovan explored the secret life of disposable cups and drinking straws to produce sculptures that recall seas and clouds. (The show's up through January 4.) A gem in the otherwise dull "The World As a Stage" was Brit Jeremy Deller's heart-rending video documenting his large re-enactment of an infamous British miners' strike, with dozens of the original participants returning to fight another day.

Old school
Organized by Duke University's Nasher Museum, "El Greco to Velázquez" at the Museum of Fine Arts surveyed the era bookended by El Greco's visionary expressionism and Velázquez's naturalism (with room for Juan Sánchez Cotán's crystalline still lifes). The result was a blockbuster review of early-17th-century art forged by Spain's urgent, dark, Catholic passion for crown and Christ. Big blowout old-masterpiece shows are the museum's bread and butter, but the MFA showed it can ace small too with "Zhang Daqian: Painter, Collector, Forger," a deft investigation into how a masterly 20th-century Chinese painter duped experts — including the MFA — with his bogus thousand-year-old Chinese works.

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