Among the art exhibitions available to local audiences in 2018, those that stand out most favorably at the year’s end include five shows at museums and galleries in Winston-Salem and four at venues in Greensboro.
In Winston-Salem, two of the year’s visual-arts highlights were art-historical exhibitions at Reynolda House, and it’s not too late to see one of them.
“Frederic Church: A Painter’s Pilgrimage” brought together a group of works that the famed 19th-century landscape painter based on his travels to Greece and the Near East in the late 1860s. Organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts, where it premiered in 2017, the show was at Reynolda House in the spring. It consisted mostly of drawings and smaller paintings that hint at Church’s thinking about the places he depicted and reveal something of his methodical approach. Its most impressive works were Church’s large paintings of Jerusalem and the Parthenon.
The year’s other noteworthy exhibition at Reynolda House is “Dorothea Lange’s America,” a traveling show from a private collection, which remains on view through next Sunday. It drives home the point that the Great Depression — which economically devastated the U.S. in the late 1920s and the 1930s — was a golden age for American photography. Its black-and-white photographs — more than 50 of them by Lange and some of her contemporaries — are vividly specific, strongly composed and evocative of broad human themes. Other photographers represented in the show include Mike Disfarmer, Arnold Eagle, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Wright Morris, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Doris Ulmann, John Vachon, Willard Van Dyke and Marion Post Wolcott.
Among the year’s timeliest exhibitions were two that ran concurrently in the fall at Winston-Salem State University’s Diggs Gallery. “Truth Be Told,” a four-artist exhibition curated by gallery director Endia Beal, was installed alongside “Race, Love, and Labor,” consisting of works by former artists-in-residence at the Center for Photography at Woodstock, NY. Aesthetics and message came together to produce a strong fusion in this pair of exhibitions that both engaged issues of identity, representation, history and social hierarchy.
The former show included works by Juan Logan, William Paul Thomas, Lien Truong and Charles Edward Williams. Among the artists represented in the latter were William Cordova, Isaac Diggs, Caleb Ferguson, La Toya Ruby Frazier, Gerard Gaskin, Eyakem Guliat, Tommy Kha, Alma Leyva, Gina Osterloh, Dawit L. Petros, Tom Potluck, Joanna Sam and Xaviera Simmons.
Because Lonnie Holley’s current solo exhibition at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art just opened in mid-December and will run through most of next spring, I’m exempting it from consideration in this list, but I’ll be astonished if it doesn’t rate highly among next year’s best regional exhibitions. Otherwise SECCA’s most ambitious and substantial show of the year was “Cubans: Post Truth, Pleasure, and Pain.” Organized by guest curators Gretel Acosta and Elvia Rosa Castro, the show brought works by 19 artists to SECCA during the summer and fall.
The most engaging and thought-provoking works on view related specifically to the history and culture of Cuba. Those by Manuel Mendive and José Bedia, for example, referenced Cuba’s African-derived spiritual traditions. The protagonist of Bedia’s two pieces — including a site-specific installation — was Babalú-Ayé, a West African deity that figures prominently in Cuban spiritual life and lore. Other artists represented in the show included Ariel Cabrera, Rocío García, Aimee Garcia, Geandy Pavon, Sandra Ramos, Carlos Quintana, Carlos Montes de Oca, Rafael Domenech and Alejandro Figueredo.
SECCA marked another kind of milestone in January, with its hiring of a new exhibitions curator, Wendy Earle. Earle previously spent five years as curator of collections at the Museum of the Southwest in Midland, Texas, but her job at SECCA is her first to focus exclusively on contemporary art. Earle did her undergraduate work at the University of Michigan and received a master’s degree in art history from the University of Texas at Austin. She went to work in Midland in 2012 after serving year-long curatorial internships at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Dallas Museum of Art respectively. She arrived at SECCA in time to oversee the installation of “Cubans,” and the Holley exhibition is her first curatorial project for SECCA.
And in September, SECCA’s top administrator, Executive Director Gordon Peterson, retired after serving in that position since April 2015. SECCA is currently seeking a replacement.
In Greensboro, the Weatherspoon Art Museum was the site of two particularly strong group exhibitions. “Baggage Claims,” organized by the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida, was on view at the Weatherspoon in the winter and early spring. It included works by 18 artists, all relevant to the increasingly mobile societies that make up our world. This timely, provocative exhibition highlighted dilemmas faced by refugees and other immigrant populations.
And this fall the Weatherspoon presented a group exhibition devoted to works inspired by fairy tales and pertinent to a range of contemporary issues. In “Dread & Delight: Fairy Tales in an Anxious World,” the Weatherspoon’s exhibitions curator Emily Stamey brought together thematically related pieces by 21 artists, all made since the early 1960s. Each piece referenced one of seven fairy tales reprinted in the accompanying catalog.
Represented in the show were a number of widely known artists — John Baldessari, David Hockney, Kerry James Marshall, Tom Otterness, Alison Saar, Cindy Sherman, Kiki Smith and Carrie Mae Weems — along with lesser-known figures. Their works used fairy tales including “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” “Rapunzel,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Hansel and Gretel” to comment on issues such as child predation and standards of female beauty.
Another outstanding exhibition in Greensboro this year was GreenHill’s “Beauty of the Beast,” a visual tribute to wild and domestic animals, on view in the spring and early summer. Rather than an examination of cultural attitudes toward animals, this show was largely a celebration, emphasizing the experience of looking at animals and being in their presence. Highlights included paintings by Rebecca Fagg, Jan Lukens, Marc Ouelette, Jack Stratton and Isaac Talley; drawings by Angela Lombardi and Ippy Patterson; prints by Curtis Bartone and Heather D. Freeman; and sculptures by Cara Bevan, David Caldwell, Carol Gentithes, Bryant Holsenbeck, A. Dumay Gorham III, Roy Nydorf and Michael Van Hout.
Finally — and sadly — this year witnessed the death of one of Winston-Salem’s most prolific artists and lively characters, Sam McMillan. An enterprising jack-of-all-trades, McMillan was employed at various times as a farmer, machinist, tobacco-warehouse worker, bartender, chauffeur, security guard and groundskeeper before he reinvented himself as a versatile folk artist around 1990.
His scenes of animals, people and landscapes were fancifully painted on tables, chairs, desks, lampshades, clothing and other secondhand objects in a style that was loose and rudimentary, almost to the point of being childlike. He also painted some of his stock images on the front windows of his shop, and created an installation of whimsically painted found objects in the fenced-in side yard. Given his location on a heavily traveled stretch of Northwest Boulevard, the place attracted lots of attention, including collectors and art enthusiasts from far and wide.
McMillan was in his early 90s when he died on Aug. 22 after spending much of the previous year in an assisted-living facility.