Orange County's Best Art of 2016 was Frequently Woman-Made or -Curated

This year has been rough on women.

Abortion rights continue to be stymied by the GOP. Rapists get their sentences reduced because male judges feel sorry for them. The first female Democratic nominee for president of the United States is hounded and ridiculed. The Pussy Grabber, despite openly degrading women's looks and bragging about sexually assaulting them, wins the election. On the flipside, there were some highlights: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million. Conservative women such as Megyn Kelly and Jennifer Pierotti Lim openly challenged Donald Trump. Anti-ERA leader Phyllis Schlafley passed into the great beyond. Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.

Fifty-one percent of visual artists in the U.S. are women, but they don't have that same parity in gallery representation, with male artists still receiving more exhibitions. The good news is that my home county is supportive enough of women artists that my Top 10 best exhibitions in Orange County in 2016 is dominated by their work. I saw more art this year than any previously, and the best work was from artists (and a majority of curators) who happened to be women. I believe this indicates a potential power shift, and if we have hope and remain vigilant, it will be a sign of continued things to come.

In order:

“Jessica Chastain,” UC Irvine University Gallery. Artist: Maura Brewer; curator: Juli Carson. A remarkable intellectual and visual takedown of Hollywood's neglectful treatment of women, focused on the films of Jessica Chastain.

“Found,” Irvine Fine Arts Center. Artist: Debbie Carlson; curator Yevgeniya Mikhailik. Large, complex and lovely installation pieces, open to a host of different interpretations, that pushed the boundaries between conceptual art and assemblage.

“Seen and Unseen: Photographs by Imogen Cunningham,” Bowers Museum. Curator: Celina Lunsford. Bohemian feminist and maverick Cunningham broke a lot of glass ceilings with her work. Her black-and-white images are on display through Feb. 26, so you still have time to see this distillation of the beginning, middle and end of that stellar career.

“Aya Kakeda: Other Worlds,” RAWsalt Gallery. Curators: Suzanne Walsh and Carla Tesak Arzente. Japanese émigré Kakeda's wonderful sculptures and surreal, colorful paintings feel like a protective embrace of the kawaii, the extraordinary and the child-like.

“Marilyn Minter: Pretty/Dirty,” Orange County Museum of Art. Curators: Elissa Auther and Bill Arning. Bold and brave badass deconstruction of beauty, porn and food, as well as the monolithic business empires built up around maintaining the status quo in each. Disturbing, gritty and in-yer-face.

“Valerie's Family Secrets,” Max Bloom's Café Noir. Artist: Richard Day Gore; curator: Bax Baxter. Like a game of Clue on canvas, the exhibition teased us with bits and pieces of imagery and information that resulted in a compelling narrative tragedy; its protagonist a woman, the show was deeply empathetic and more than a little horrifying.

“Anthology: Mike Stilkey,” Great Park Gallery. Curators: Megan Clarke and Kevin Staniec. Stilkey's magical manhandling of stacks of old books, turning them into unique painted sculptures and done with a hilarious sense of humor, was a joy in every way possible.

“Observations, ” Long Beach City College. Curator: Trevor Norris. Norris brilliantly matched up artists, sometimes within different mediums, to create portraits of each other, including father and son, best friends, and mentors and students. The result—an opportunity to view how we're seen through the eyes of those we're close to—was a revelation.

“Future Recollections,” Jamie Brooks Fine Art. Curator: Jamie Brooks. The stunning variety of figurative artists on display, with Rebecca Campbell's unnerving paintings a standout, couldn't prevent the gallery from closing its doors recently, and it's a damn shame.

“Memento Mori: Skulls and Bones in Art,” Huntington Beach Art Center. Curator: Phil Roberts. All things boney and cranial, curated with taste and elegance, including an entire wall of biomorphic creepy-crawly sculptures by innovative local artist Laurie Hassold.

Jennifer Dozier's Work In Progress, at Irvine Fine Arts Center through Jan. 21, 2017, hasn't left me since I saw it several weeks ago. Its delicate tableau of wax-covered, knotted and twisted sheets resembled a canvas sculpted from marble. Mesmerizing and exquisite.

The transcendent Like MARK by Kerri Sabine-Wolf, in Coastline Art Gallery's show of the same name, gave us the founder of Facebook lost in his cellphone, a kaleidoscope of butterflies swarming about his head.

Anything Averi Endow paints, especially her work in Laguna College of Art + Design's “Emerging Masters 2016” show at Laguna Art Museum.

Last, but not least, a handful of pieces at Artists Republic in Laguna Beach, under the eye of curator Torrey Cook: In “Pageant of the Vandals,” it was an actual Banksy rat cut from the walls of a San Francisco building, plus Lucy Sparrow's plushie weapons of death and destruction. Laura Berger's minimalist female-centric paintings on wood and terra cotta sculptures in the gallery's Softer World show feel like the best sign-off possible to 2016: Her images of a loving, multi-ethnic sisterhood are kind reminders of a world with far more tender potential than the one we're facing after Jan. 20, 2017.

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