If you read me with any regularity, you know that I want ideas when I walk away from a gallery. I admire a beautiful image, but I'm a sucker for the subversive political narrative: Give me a reflection of the world outside the canvas. If I don't believe the artist hanging on the wall is trying to communicate something other than just the desire to make money, I'm bored and even actively hostile. To quote the late novelist David Foster Wallace talking about TV, it's time to realize that those "images on a screen given to us by people who do not love us but want our money [is] fine in low doses, but if it's the basic main staple of your diet, you're gonna die."
Since I plan on living forever, why would I bother to help myself to yet another eyeful of brain death when I can, instead, go for something deeper? The work cited below is far from encyclopedic—I didn't see as much as I wanted to, which is something I'll rectify this year as I start visiting more artists in their studios—but it was so very, very good at requiring you to give back and participate with it that I couldn't help but fall in love. I'm not going to spend too much time repeating the things I did in the reviews. You can go back and read those if you're hungry for more detailed descriptions of the work—and I can use the page hits—but here's why I think these 10 shows were the best art that I saw in 2015:
1. "Alien She"
At the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA). Curators: Astria Suparak and Ceci Moss.
& 2. "XX Redux: Revisiting a feminist art collective"
At the Guggenheim Gallery. Curator: Nancy Buchanan.
This one-two punch from a pair of different art venues gave voice to women artists influenced by Riot Grrrl culture and the feminist movement of the 1960s. Thoughtful, well-curated and fun, both shows were something of an epiphany for me: Not only did they open my eyes to how women artists were getting shafted in mainstream art venues, but they also gave me a new appreciation for work by artists that I had previously dismissed.
3. "Unfinished Conversation: Reconstructing the Invisible"
At Grand Central Art Station. Curator: John Spiak.
Aida Šehovic and Leonard Correa's astringent, no-frills eulogy for lives lost in civil wars, including those on our local streets, with a special emphasis on asking whether an entire country can suffer from PTSD.
4. "R. Luke Dubois—Now"
At OCMA. Curator: Matthew McLendon.
Almost autistic in focus, this laser-sharp exhibition exposes our repetitive isolation in the electronic age, as we consume pornography and other media, worship pop stars, and live our lives without privacy. Imaginatively illustrated through the clever use of computer algorithms, the result was something cool, unemotional and striking, unforgettable to both the eyes and the mind. Unlike most of the shows listed here, there's still time to see it: It runs through Feb. 18, 2016.
5. "The Canyon Project: Artivism"
At Laguna Art Museum. Curator: Mike McGee.
The most politically astute artistic duo in Orange County's history, BC Space's Jerry Burchfield and Mark Chamberlain, get a retrospective of sorts, with this archeological exhibition of their 30-year attempt to save Laguna Canyon. This is running through Jan. 17, 2016, so you don't have any reason to miss the celebration.
6. "Korda: Revolutionary Photographer"
At the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA).
The museum's smallest gallery hosted this intimate showing of historic propaganda photos from the Cuban Revolution, starring Che and Fidel, just as the U.S. began normalizing relations with the country after decades of hostility.
7. "Adams, Curtis and Weston: Photographers of the American West"
At the Bowers Museum.
As an artistic refutation of the excesses of Manifest Destiny, this exhibition of three of America's finest photographers—and their romantic, radically different visions of the West—was a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with their work all in one setting, reminding us simultaneously what we've lost and what we still have.
8. "Nude Survey One"
At Jamie Brooks Fine Art Gallery. Curator: Eric Minh Swenson.
Swenson's assembled talent delivered knockout work after knockout work—in a variety of mediums—on the nude, mostly female form, and it did something that shows of this sort rarely do: Instead of slyly winking at the work as potential wank material, it reveled in aesthetics and the strength of its girl power.
9. "Whirligigs: The Art of Peter Gelker"
At the Begovich Gallery. Curator: Lynn Gamwell.
Santa Ana psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Gelker is perfect at the concise image as statement, as well as something of a genius at gadgetry; his left-wing politics and confrontational attitude about mortality lend a delightfully dark edge to the psychological hot plate of sexual panic in his handmade work.
10. "Heroes and Villains: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross"
At Fullerton Museum Center. Curator: Jesse Kowalski.
Walking through this fantastic retrospective of artist Alex Ross' finely detailed portraits of superheroes was an overload of fanboy heaven, with the overwhelming question being "Why the hell has no one thought of this before?"
Dave Barton has written for the OC Weekly for over twenty years, the last eight as their lead art critic. He has interviewed artists from punk rock photographer Edward Colver to monologist Mike Daisey, playwright Joe Penhall to culture jammer Ron English.