Killer machines to Duchamp: the year's best art shows

From a dishwasher full of dildos to a mummy found festering in a Wynwood warehouse to a show celebrating Miami's criminal soul to torture implements designed to mutilate genitals at the Freedom Tower to a pair of epic clinics on great painting, 2010 marked an unforgettable year in art.

It was also brimming with new galleries. An alternative movie house opened in Wynwood. And the art scene morphed into a never fading party anchored by enough offerings to tickle or pickle any art connoisseur's curiosity.

And the unimaginable happened. In an area once known for drawing revelers with free booze, places like Cafeina now charge $12 for cocktails during in-house art shows next to dozens of galleries nearby that give hooch away.

So knock one back and remember 2010. Here are some of my choices for the most interesting shows:

The year began with a stunning survey of Chilean master Roberto Matta at Gary Nader's capacious Wynwood joint. It featured more than 50 of the modernist's canvases including works from the Thirties such as his Psychological Morphology series. It seamlessly represented every decade of Matta's production through the Nineties.

Spring ushered in a jolting dose of murder and mayhem with a pair of blood-curdling shows at HistoryMiami and the Freedom Tower. One, "Crime Miami," was a hard-boiled parade of evidence chronicling a multitude of the Magic City's most notorious miscreants. Photographs, artifacts, and documents from the institution's archives were supplemented by a series of interactive exhibits where visitors tested their sleuthing skills and examined blood spatter patterns under the light of a crime.

There were political assassins such as Giuseppe Zangara, serial killers such as Ted Bundy, infamous gangsters such as Al Capone, high-profile child kidnappers, and violent exile groups such as Alpha 66 and Omega 7.

All in all, it was a barrel of laughs that could only be upstaged by "Instruments of Torture Through the Ages" upwind at the Freedom Tower. Culled from private collections, it included apparatuses for crucifixion, hanging, disembowelment, impalement, burning at the stake, dismemberment, drawing and quartering, flaying, and boiling in oil. They were all originals dating from the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries and once employed by the powerful to brutally control the masses.

In May, the Bass Museum revealed a recently discovered treasure from its holdings that had been moldering in a musty Wynwood warehouse for decades. The mummified Egyptian craftsman dating back to the 25th or 26th Dynasty (808-518 B.C.) was found inside a polychrome wood inner sarcophagus.

After a good feather dusting, the spiffed up mummy went on view as part of a newly inaugurated Egyptian Gallery at the Bass, which also features a modest collection of rare artifacts in the permanent display that marks the only space of its kind in Florida. The ongoing exhibit also showcases the Bass mummy's outer sarcophagus, a child's sarcophagus, and several stellar examples of Egyptian statuary, Canopic jars, stela fragments, and pottery.

This summer at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, everyday objects were recast in a darkly humorous way. "Claire Fontaine: Economies" featured sculpture, painting, neon, video, and text created from 2006 to the present and included several new pieces executed specifically for the show, some inspired by Miami. The scene stealer was the Dildo Washer, a commonplace white kitchen appliance filled with jet-black plastic penises; it illustrated that at first blush, perception is not always as black-and-white as one might wish.

The challenging exhibit marked the first comprehensive U.S. museum appearance for Fontaine, a Paris-based collective artist. It channeled the spirit of Marcel Duchamp inside MoCA's halls.

At Frost Museum of Art, octogenarian painter Arnold Mesches closed out the year with "Selections From Anomie 1492-2006." It featured 15 large-format canvases and ripped the scabs off ancient and recent dreams of empire, world war, political skullduggery, and contemporary society in the grip of moral decay. Dark, brooding landscapes, often operatic and Grand Guignol, referenced everything from the discovery of America, the Cold War, and the first Gulf War to witchcraft in the White House.

My favorite was Anomie 1980: Nancy Reagan's Dream, a painting roughly the size of a garage door that read like a downward-spiraling autopsy of the former first lady's aspirations to govern the nation by supernatural force. The work made clear that she was a skull-cracker of the first order.

These shows were an intoxicating reminder that provocative exhibits and heady art remain on tap year round, long after the Basel hangover has evaporated. They make me hopeful when looking ahead to a 2011 sure to provide surprises and new art that no one can predict.

 
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