George Vasey's Top Exhibitions of 2017

By ​George Vasey

Turner Prize curator and writer George Vasey selects his favourite exhibitions from the past year.

Being asked for my favourite 5 shows in the UK this year throws me into a mild panic as I frantically look through my notebooks and Instagram account to remind myself of what I’ve seen (and missed). From Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern to the touring exhibition The Place is Here, this year has seen a timely appraisal of the achievements of Black artists on both sides of the Atlantic over the last fifty years. These exhibitions could easily have made my end of the year list but felt somewhat obvious and much has already been written on them, so I’ve left them off my list. Other exhibitions that have made an impact on me include; Beat, Stuart Middleton’s solo exhibition as excavation at the ICA, and Dead Sea Deaf Sea by the consistently fantastic Matt Stokes at Workplace, London. Also deserving of a mention is the amount of great moving image work I’ve seen with impressive solo shows from artists such as Alice Theobald, Marianna Simnett, Kathryn Elkin, and Maeve Brennan. I think it has been a blockbuster year of incredible museum shows so my shortlist reflects this.

America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s

Royal Academy

Sat 25 February – Sun 4 June 2017

Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930. The Art Institute of Chicago. Friends of American Art Collection.

A superlative showing of work from Depression-era America that brought together differing artistic approaches to a moment of social and political upheaval post Wall Street Crash. The show felt like an experience and an education including many artists I’d never heard of alongside exceptional work by Grant Wood, Edward Hopper and Georgia O'Keeffe among others. While works such as Charles Green Shaw’s painting, Wrigley’s, 1937, presented an image of Modernist utopianism, Philip Guston’s Bombardment, 1937 foretells of the darkness that would consume much of the world in the subsequent decade. The exhibition was so good I even bought the catalogue. 

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Dreamers Awake

White Cube Bermondsey

Wed 28 June – Sun 17 September 2017

Dreamers Awake, installation view 27 June – 17 September 2017. © the artist. Photo © White Cube (George Darrell).

Sometimes group shows are great because they change our perception of a certain topic, presenting unexpected materials or shifting the format of an exhibition in some way. Other times, group shows are fantastic because they bring together loads of great work. Curated by Susanna Greeves, Dreamers Awake brought together a group of international and intergenerational female artists tackling the body from a feminist and surrealist position. This was a show to get lost in, including work by Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Eileen Agar and Gabriella Boyd, Siobhan Hapaska and Donna Huddleston among a host of others. I could go on. But I can’t. 

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Martin Puryear

Parasol Unit

Mon 18 September – Wed 6 December 2017

Martin Puryear, installation view at Parasol unit, London, 2017. Photo: Benjamin Westoby. Courtesy Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art.

The American artist Martin Puryear’s first solo exhibition in London (he had a significant exhibition at BALTIC, Gateshead in 2003) at Parasol Unit was revelatory. Presenting work from the last 40 years, the exhibition included an impressive range of sculpture that showcased the artist’s playful Post-Minimalism. Puryear makes monumentalism look homely, funny, pliable and approachable. In works such as Big Phrygian, 2010-14 the artist carves cedar wood and stains it blood red, making reference to the red soft caps worn by 18th century French revolutionaries. Like all of Puryear’s best work, it makes heaviness look light as a feather.

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Absent Friends

Howard Hodgkin

Thu 23 March – Tue 18 June 2017

Howard Hodgkin, Grantchester Road, 1975. Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (Wilson Loan 2006) © Howard Hodgkin.

Howard Hodgkin died in March and Absent Friends was a fitting epitaph. Bringing together portraits by the artist from the Sixties through to a painting direct from the artist’s studio. Hodgkin continually made paintings that point to those most nebulous of things; emotions and feelings. While the NPG’s galleries can feel quite awkward, the experience of seeing this work en masse reminded me of the sheer exuberance and nuance of Hodgkin’s paintings. His earnestness is divisive among artists I talk to but I’ve always loved him. Is he too sentimental? Who cares, when he’s this good at colour.

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Höhepunkte: Two Climaxes

Renate Bertlmann

Richard Saltoun

Fri 2 December 2016 – Fri 27 January 2017

Renate Bertlmann, Bru(s)tkasten (Breast incubator), 1984. ©Renate Bertlmann. Courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery.

Technically this exhibition opened in 2016 but ran through much of January so, I think, just about qualifies for one of my favourite shows of 2017. Bertlmann’s work has also recently been exhibited in Feminist Avant-Garde at the Photographer’s Gallery and The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern. Her practice is far reaching, working since the Seventies across photography, performance, film and sculpture. She makes images that stay with you; a life size neon-pink wheelchair, a photograph of balloon like condoms touching each other. She can elicit moments of intimacy and aggression from the barest of materials. Her work tackles subjects such as patriarchy and disability with sensitivity and wit — expect to see much of this artist in the coming years.

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​George Vasey is a writer and curator based in Newcastle.

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