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Five great local visual art shows of 2015

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The Triangle visual art scene continued its modernization of recent years in 2015, with the emergence of agile new spaces like Raleigh's Pink Building and Chapel Hill's L.O.G., renovations at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art (it turned 10 this year as Raleigh gallery Lump turned an astounding 20) and UNC-Chapel Hill's Ackland Art Museum, and large-scale construction projects at N.C. State's Gregg Museum of Art & Design and the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Factor in Triangle collaborations with other art centers in the state, like UNC's Allcott Gallery's retrospective of the Southern Constellations residency series from Greensboro's Elsewhere, or Guatemalan performance artist Regina José Galindo's public talk at Durham's 21c Museum Hotel during her career retrospective at Charlotte's Davidson College, and you see the Triangle scene building the strong connections it needs in order to thrive.

The arts found novel ways to go small, too. Two of my favorite exhibitions this year were tiny: André Leon Gray's unrelenting A Nation Under Our Feet at 21c (just four assemblage works) and MJ Sharp's unnerving The Terror Triptych at Durham's Chet Miller boutique (only three large photographs). We have a growing number of one-room options, from the steady stream of "Off the Radar" pop-ups in vacant studios at Golden Belt to the Ackland's "Adding to the Mix" alcove series, which showed a Marcel Duchamp valise this year.

It's a wonderfully active time, but an anxious one as well. After you get a drink or two into any Triangle gallery owner, conversation will turn to the escalating cost of space, with an admission of always being on the lookout for the next building to occupy. Perhaps consolidation should become a theme in 2016—Flanders Gallery already moved under Lump's roof to mutual creative and financial benefit.

That anxiety aside, there were more noteworthy shows this year than one could reasonably see. Here are five that spring immediately to mind, which is to say, five that genuinely stuck with me.

Chris Watts: "Nee Nee" (Flanders Gallery)—My favorite individual piece of the year was Watts' video in So Much to She, a two-person show at Flanders with Aaron Fowler. Watts' bleary depiction of studio rituals seemed both futuristic and ancient, combining familiar materials into visionary imagery. Any concerns about Flanders leaving its cavernous warehouse space at the end of Martin Street for the low-ceilinged intimacy of Lump were erased by this show, as well as by Stacy Lynn Waddell's marvelous LVMH (or Lovely Views Make Holograms).

Bill Thelen with Jason Polan (Curators): The Nothing That Is (CAM Raleigh)—I wanted this sprawling, madcap show from Lump's Bill Thelen to never leave CAM Raleigh. Packed with work from dozens of artists, Thelen's curatorial opus brought together every imaginable form of drawing and playfully displayed it in "chapters" all over the museum. It appealed as much to a general audience as it did to initiates. I visited five times and always left smiling—and reaching for a notebook and a pencil.

Susan Harbage Page/Rachel Meginnes: Recent Work; Various artists: Butterflies Are Free: Women in Photography (LIGHT Art + Design)—Two terrific shows highlighting women artists at Chapel Hill's LIGHT Art + Design merged in my mind. Page and Meginnes showed subtle, interrogative mixed-media work, while Butterflies Are Free: Women in Photography gathered challenging, beautiful imagery from Leah Sobsey, Tama Hochbaum, Barbara Tyroler and Sarah Cioffoletti.

Various artists: Scanners (The Carrack Modern Art)—Sobsey and Hochbaum were also part of the eye-opening Scanners at the Carrack, along with Jim Lee and John Gallagher. In a camera-obsessed culture, these artists used scanners as an image-capture device, reconnecting current technology with photography's origins to compose an alternative vision.

Durham Art Guild: 61st Annual Juried Show (SunTrust Gallery)—I was impressed by the rising quality of juried shows around the area this year. The Durham Art Guild's 61st, selected by 21c Museum Hotel curator Alice Gray Stites, had the best one. This shouldn't take anything away from a consistent cycle of great juried shows at Raleigh's tireless Visual Art Exchange, which added the fun and informative Ignite creativity conference to its annual street fest, SPARKcon.

So many other gems bear mentioning, from Richard Mosse's devastating Nasher video installation, The Enclave, to the double whammy of Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Leicester and M.C. Escher's retrospective at NCMA; from Gideon Mendel's moving portraits of flood survivors at SPECTRE Arts to Justin Cook's Made in Durham photographs wheat-pasted on the Cordoba Center for the Arts' outdoor blast wall. If we can keep these innovative galleries and art spaces from turning into condos and bistros, 2016 should offer even more variety to keep our minds tingling.

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