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Samurai Armor, Modernist Manicures, Bombing Memorials—Best Art of 2013

"Samurai! Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection" at the Museum of Fine Arts. (© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

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From Samurai armor and visionary videos to nail painting and the spontaneous memorials to the Marathon Bombings, these 15 exhibitions were the best art I saw here in 2013. They show the sort of ideas, moxie, visions and wicked humor that percolate through the region—and that I’d love to see more of.

Jake Fried | Vimeo.com | Jan. 5, ongoing

Last January, the visionary Boston animator uploaded his new video “The Deep End” to Viemo.com. In it, faces appear in moonscapes and rooms, eyes radiate rays, airplanes form patterns, snakes slither, trees sprout, tears flow. It’s all set to a soundtrack of electronic tones, dripping water and breathing. Fried’s videos get under your skin and hum with hypnotic energy. They’re part anxiety dream freakout, part feeling-everything-in-the-universe bliss-out.

Nick Cave's Soundsuit exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Nick Cave’s Soundsuit exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Nick Cave | Peabody Essex Museum, Salem | March to May

This small show of just three of the Chicagoan’s “Soundsuits” was so enticing it left you craving more. Their title refers to the noise these costumes/sculptures might make if they danced about, shaking their armor of buttons, porcelain birds, and crocheted bags. They’re dazzling mutant offspring of disco, Bigfoot, Teletubbies, African and Caribbean carnival costumes, troll dolls, flea markets, Wookiees, and cheerleader pompons.

Anne Rearick's photo "Untitled (Valley D'Aspe)." (Anne Rearick)

Anne Rearick’s photo “Untitled (Valley D’Aspe).” (Anne Rearick)

Anne Rearick | Flatrocks Gallery, Gloucester | March

The skills to do slice-of-life documentary photography have been lost over the past generation as these sorts of photos, which had been a pinnacle of the art, have been supplanted by posed, deadpan shots. But Gloucester’s Rearick is one of the few photographers still capable of classic, on-the-ground, in-the-moment pictures. What makes her really stand out is the empathy and warmth her images express toward her subjects—in this case Basques living in rural France. Her ongoing work in South Africa is even more astonishing.

Victoria Shen recreates a Hans Hofmann painting with nail polish. (Greg Cook)

Victoria Shen recreates a Hans Hofmann painting with nail polish. (Greg Cook)

Victoria Shen | Howard Art Project, Boston | March

Last winter, Shen offered to paint miniature copies of abstract paintings by star mid-20th century artists—Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and so on—on your nails. For free. These “Modernist Manicures,” as the Somerville artist calls them, were delightful paintings in their own right. And funny. But the project also asked pointed questions about race (what makes you think you’re superior to Asian nail ladies?) and feminism (why are the artists in the history books still mostly boys?). Don’t miss it when Shen offers “Modernist Manicures” at Boston’s Gardner Museum on Jan. 16.

"Samurai! Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection" at the Museum of Fine Arts. (© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

“Samurai! Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection” at the Museum of Fine Arts. (© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

“Samurai!” | Museum of Fine Arts, Boston | April to August

This grand survey of “Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection” of gear worn by the warrior classes of 16th to 19th century Japan impressed. In particular, displays of marching soldiers and charging horsemen dramatically brought the old, exquisite pieces to life. It was the highlight of a stellar year from the Museum of Fine Arts that included its stately exploration of “John Singer Sargent Watercolors,” through Jan. 20, and its bracingly contemporary “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World,” through Jan. 12.

A spontaneous memorial to victims of the Boston Marathon Bombings along Boylston Street. (Greg Cook)

A spontaneous memorial to victims of the Boston Marathon Bombings along Boylston Street. (Greg Cook)

Marathon Bombing Memorials | Boston’s Back Bay | April to June

They first sprouted around the sites of the April 15 bombings on Boylston Street—crosses and flowers, handwritten cards and teddy bears. These spontaneous, temporary Marathon Bombing Memorials, later reassembled at Copley Square and in June stored to be preserved in city archives, became heartbreaking open-air community shrines where we gathered to express our grief, our tenacity, and our love.

Artist Barry McGee (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Artist Barry McGee (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Barry McGee | Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston | April to September

A full-blown retrospective of the San Francisco graffiti star turned gallery artist who was one of the pioneers of the folksy, hand-made Mission School style that emerged from the Bay Area in the 1990s. Organized by the University of California’s Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, it spanned McGee’s early sad sack graffiti cartoons to his later eye-popping geometric Day-Glo abstract patterns. It was cool show. Its heart was a rusty shed/shrine filled with folksy paintings of ladies and tree and shoes by his first wife, the artist Margaret Kilgallen, who died of breast cancer at age 33 just weeks after giving birth to their daughter in 2001.

Sally Curcio "Miami Beach," 2009. (Courtesy of the artist)

Sally Curcio “Miami Beach,” 2009. (Courtesy of the artist)

Sally Curcio | Harmon Gallery, Wellfleet | Summer

The Northampton artist’s “Bubbles” turn foam and flocking and colorful beads into miniature worlds—a snowy North Pole, isolated islands in a turquoise sea, skyscrapers rising along Miami Beach, the reservoir in New York’s Central Park. Sealed under plastic domes, they’re sunny escapes sheltered from gloomy reality.

Ruben Arroco of Lowell, who carves watermelon into fabulous floral designs, hands out fruit at the 2013 Lowell Folk Fest. (Greg Cook)

Ruben Arroco of Lowell, who carves watermelon into fabulous floral designs, hands out fruit at the 2013 Lowell Folk Fest. (Greg Cook)

Ruben Arroco | Lowell Folk Festival, Lowell | July 27 and 28

The Philippine native first learned to carve fruit from fellow Filipinos while working in a hotel restaurant in Bermuda. But to say he carves fruit gives little idea of the amazing creations that the Lowell resident now fashions with his knives. With dazzling handcraft that takes advantage of the colors of the fruit, he turns watermelons into surprising flowers, birds, baby carriages, and child portraits.

Visitors peek into the Mµseum. (Greg Cook)

Visitors peek into the Mµseum. (Greg Cook)

Mµseum | 72 1/2 Union Square, Somerville | Opened Aug. 15, ongoing
“Thank you for this incredibly puny contribution to Somerville,” Somerville Arts Council Program Manager Rachel Strutt joked at the ribbon cutting for the Mµseum in August. Somerville duo Judith Klausner and Steve Pomeroy shoehorned this dollhouse sized gallery—which we nicknamed the Smallest Museum in the World—into a little alleyway between two businesses in Somerville’s Union Square. Despite its diminutive size, it offers exhibitions of real (little) art, and is always generously open free to passersby. “The idea,” Klausner said,” is to create more instances of wonder in the urban landscape.” They sure did.

Pat Falco's installation "Just Happy To Be Here" at Montserrat College of Art in August 2013. (Pat Falco)

Pat Falco’s installation “Just Happy To Be Here” at Montserrat College of Art in August 2013. (Pat Falco)

Pat Falco | Montserrat College of Art Schlosberg Alumni Gallery, Beverly | August

The Boston artist mixes endearingly crude cartooning and heart-on-his-sleeve philosophical jokes. He writes, “If it ain’t broke don’t break it.” A photo shows a tombstone chalked with the word “Oops.” Below a photo of the whole earth, he’s scribbled, “My favorite picture of us.” Part wise, part wiseass, Falco finds meaning plumbing the nature of art and love and life.

Hundreds gathered on the lawn of South Boston’s Castle Island Park in August 2013 for a screening and lantern walk organized by Medicine Wheel to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream" speech. (Greg Cook)

Hundreds gathered on the lawn of South Boston’s Castle Island Park in August 2013 for a screening and lantern walk organized by Medicine Wheel to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech. (Greg Cook)

“Beacon to the Dream” | Castle Island Park, Boston | Aug. 29

Hundreds gathered at Castle Island Park one night in late August to watch as Michael Dowling’s Medicine Wheel Productions projected footage onto the wall of Fort Independence of Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago that very day. The location was significant—South Boston, where white Irish-Americans violently opposed attempts to desegregate Boston public schools by busing students across town in the 1970s. And then the fog rolled in. The light of the projector as well as hundreds of lanterns, which participants carried in a procession around Pleasure Bay, glowed like ghosts in the mist.

Bruce Myren’s photo at “N 40° 00’ 00” W 104° 00’ 00” Hoyt, Colorado,” 2008. (Courtesy of Myren.)

Bruce Myren’s photo at “N 40° 00’ 00” W 104° 00’ 00” Hoyt, Colorado,” 2008. (Courtesy of Myren.)

Bruce Myren | Gallery Kayafas, Boston | September

After 14 years crisscrossing the country, at the end of last year, Cambridge photographer Bruce Myren completed his project to photograph all the intersections of each longitudinal line and the 40th line of latitude as it crosses the United States. The resulting 50 photo triptychs were a cross-section portrait of the country, every 53 miles. When he showed the entire set at Gallery Kayafa this fall, walking around the rooms, you could make the extraordinary journey with him from a house perched on New Jersey dunes looking over the Atlantic, across miles of farms and plains and mountains and forests, to a sandy California beach facing the Pacific. It was an epic accomplishment. The takeaway for us was how open and (relatively) undeveloped much of America remains.

Ben Sloat's painting "Swell (New Dawn Fades)." (Ben Sloat)

Ben Sloat’s painting “Swell (New Dawn Fades).” (Ben Sloat)

Ben Sloat | Steven Zevitas Gallery, Boston | September

Sloat is a chameleon of an artist. Over the past decade, his shows have included Michael Jackson depicted in sculptures and faux stained glass windows; sculptures made from stiffened shopping bags; poetry written by collecting old record sleeves; and installations in which birds seem to crash into glass doors. In the Bostonian’s September show, he turned to painting with two canvases in particular standing out. “Swell (New Dawn Fades)” was based on an image of a ship painted with World War I dazzle camouflage riding on a digital visualization of pulsar signals. In other words, it was a weird striped geometric lump floating on a field of rippling lines that brought to mind the iconic image of wave patterns of a pulsar used on the cover of Joy Division’s 1979 album “Unknown Pleasures.” Sloat then photographed his painting, inverted it digitally, and repainted it with the resulting glitches as “Swell (Midnight Rises).” His inspiration was how technology modulates our experience of life. The results were strange and alluring and catchy painting.

Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons's 1998 installation "Spoken Softly with Mama." (Courtesy)

Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons’s 1998 installation “Spoken Softly with Mama.” (Courtesy)

Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons | Tufts University Art Gallery, Medford | September to December

In this long overdue local showcase, the Cuban-raised, Brookline-based artist made shrines from sugar, spears, wooden stools, ironing boards, glass irons, trivets, embroidered fabrics, photos of female ancestors, and projections of a performance. Entering these spaces was like walking through dream cemeteries or tall grass that by alchemy and ritual spoke of ancient lineages, of the legacies of slavery, of the strong women in the artist’s own family who have held everything together and kept it growing.