Triangle art hounds had it good this year, and they have reason to expect an even greater bounty for years to come. From a wealth of portraiture to the opening of the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) in Raleigh to landmark shows at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke, it was delightfully difficult to keep up with the visual arts this year.
30 Americans, the NCMA's show of contemporary African-American artists from the Rubell Family Collection, and Building the Contemporary Collection: Five Years of Acquisitions at the Nasher combined to form a panoramic look at black identity while drawing generational connections between black artists. Work by Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, Wangechi Mutu and Jeff Sonhouse was particularly revelatory. A personal highlight was getting to stroll through 30 Americans at Mera Rubell's elbow. The family matriarch had a story for each brushstroke in the show and I could have listened to her tell all of them.
My favorite exhibition wasn't at the big museums, however. Local Histories: The Ground We Walk On was the most wonderful, sincere mess of a show all year. Co-curated by artist and UNC-Chapel Hill art professor elin o'Hara slavick and historian Carol Magee, the show gathered work by more than 50 American artists, including many based around the Triangle, that expressed a local sense of place. It was an electric thrill to be in the same space with the sheer variety of work crammed into the old Chapel Hill Museum building.
But at the risk of dampening that thrill, a big shame-on-you must go out to Chapel Hill officials who continue to let the old museum building languish unnamed and underused, occupied only by the city's Historical Society since the museum's funding fell through in 2009. The Local Histories show was the perfect proof of concept for the funky building as a necessary community space, but the Town Council has dropped the ball. If they can fund budget line items for riot gear, they should be able to reanimate the space too—or at least get out of the way.
Portraiture was the big 2011 theme in the Triangle. The Ackland Museum's three-headed portrait show opened the year, and NCMA's Rembrandt in America mega-show is closing it. But Rembrandt isn't even the best portraiture show currently up at the NCMA. Reflections: Portraits by Beverly McIver just opened, bringing together colorful and complex images of McIver, her sister Renee and their late mother from the Durham-based artist's last decade of work.
One of the two best portraiture shows I saw this year was Morag Charlton's Regardless of what you think... at the Eno Gallery in Hillsborough. With just eight paintings it was a small show, but Charlton's large-scale versions of Facebook profile pictures made it feel huge. The Nasher Museum of Art's huge Becoming: Photographs From the Wedge Collection was the other show, requiring multiple visits but never getting old. Exiting the gallery after each visit, I felt like I had just traveled abroad.
But more than anything else, 2011 was the year of CAM Raleigh. Has it really only been open since April 30? In a little over a half-year, director Elysia Borowy-Reeder has exorcised any civic wraiths of Raleigh's old, displaced contemporary art museum that might have haunted CAM. Borowy-Reeder has no rearview mirror. From the opening installations by Dan Steinhilber and Naoko Ito to current surveys about ornament and technology, CAM has brazenly connected art and design and had a helluva lot of fun doing it.
Duke's MFA in Experimental Documentary Arts also debuted this year and looks to be as much fun as CAM is to have around. There's palpable energy flying out of the old carpentry shop that has become student studios. Students screened some in-progress classwork last week, although some of them were shooting and editing video for the first time. Joel Wanek's thoughtful portrait of Durham through the frame of the main bus station and Laurenn McCubbin's intimate interviews with sex film workers were so beautifully conceived and executed that I shamelessly begged them to submit the works to Durham's Strange Beauty Film Festival so more people can see this developing work.
Sculptor John Wendelbo ruffled some feathers this year when he tried to summon momentum for building one of his sculptures in Durham. Whether the 35-foot metallic intersection of forms that would be called "Dionysos" will ever be built is unknown, but for now, Wendelbo's restless presence has produced the Carrack Modern Art Gallery, a no-commission space that has woven itself into the community almost immediately, opening a new show about every two weeks. And who knows? The sculpture might yet be in the Bull City's future—the Durham City Council passed a percent-for-public-art policy in the fall that will go into effect in the 2013 fiscal year.
Two pieces spring to mind when I think about my favorite individual artworks of the year. Burk Uzzle's photograph "Red, White, and Blue" at the back of his retrospective show at Raleigh's Flanders Gallery was the right artwork at the right time, capturing the frustrations, hopes, anger and disgust of the American moment in this, the "Occupy" year. Stacy Lynn Waddell's large triptych of singed and burned paper and other mixed media, "The Amazing Adventures of Tar Baby Mama," also blew me away. Part of the NCMA show of female artists from our state, Mirror Image: Women Portraying Women, Waddell's work contained hundreds of years of African diasporic history without compromising its complexity.
Two great gallery shows that you probably missed were in Chapel Hill this year. If I close my eyes, I can still see Libby Lynn's encaustics and paintings of sex workers at the Underground Bar in January and Chance Murray's disturbingly surreal paintings at the Horace Williams House in February. Donald Furst's engravings and lithography at Raleigh's Adam Cave Fine Arts in March and the current Durham Storefront Project also provided great, fleeting moments.