Visual arts 2015: Race and fashion loomed large in 2015

Spurred by events from Ferguson, Mo., to Charleston, S.C., discussions of race were on the front burner in the media and at American dinner tables in 2015. Atlanta museums and galleries reflected that desire to examine and reflect in solo shows from Michi Meko’s poetic take on his Southern heritage at Alan Avery Art Company to Sheila Pree-Bright’s “1960 Now” exhibit linking black activism of the civil rights era and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The 2015 winner of the Hudgens Center for the Arts $50,000 Hudgens Prize, Bethany Collins, brought a conceptual spin to race in her prize-winning work. And the High Museum featured renowned photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks whose color photographs charted the troubled history of racism in the American South in the powerful “Segregation Story” exhibition.

From the heavy to the light, fashion was another theme in 2015 exhibitions, beginning with the opening of SCAD Atlanta’s 10,000 square foot SCAD FASH museum with a glamorous tribute to Oscar de la Renta. The High Museum of Art took a leap of its own, launching its first ever fashion exhibition with a genuine winner, centered on maverick Dutch designer Iris van Herpen whose clothes are as boundary-testing in how we think about fashion, as they are stunning.

Some additional high points and favorites in 2015:

“El Gallo.” Talented Atlanta artist Ann-Marie Manker exorcised personal demons in this impassioned solo show at Whitespace Gallery that took a malevolent, battle-ready rooster as its mascot in a show centered on male violence.

“Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion.” The High presented an excellent survey of the technology-informed, hyper-inventive designs of avant-garde Dutch designer Iris van Herpen.

“Habsburg Splendor.” The High’s stunning exhibition of the Austrian royal family’s major bling got it right on every front, astounding with the objects on hand but also delivering a thoughtful through line that showed Europe’s 1 percent, propping up its own righteousness to rule based on the magnificent objects it possessed.

“Alchemy.” Absurdly beautiful, Christian Bradley West’s rendition of vintage photographs in pencil at Marcia Wood Gallery captured the pathos and longing that these personal relics can dredge up, and amplified their emotion pull.

“Larry Jens Anderson: A Retrospective.” The longtime Atlanta artist got his well-deserved due in this heart-wrenching treatise at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia on what it is to grow up gay in America. Family, loss, yearning, love and regret swirled around these sculptures, videos and paintings that examined one life — small town boy turned visual artist Anderson — but really talked about the human condition.

“Gordon Parks: Segregation Story.” A mind-bending portrait of an America from the not very distant past that managed to look like some alien planet, these gorgeous color images of the segregation-era South at the High were haunting, beautiful and soul-stirring and the perfect occasion for audiences to take stock of the painful legacy of the past still informing our present.

“Here to Go.” It’s not easy to pull together a group show with this much quality work, but husband and wife Georgia State professors Pam Longobardi and Craig Dongoski pulled it off at Mint Gallery with a bounty of high-caliber work from emerging artists. From Mary Stuart Hall’s homemade music box to Stacy Rexrode’s winking recreation of Dutch Delft pottery using permanent marker and plastic plates, the assembled work was smart, well-executed and pinged around in your brain for sometime after.

Bruce Davidson: “In Color” and “The Brooklyn Gang.” This deeply satisfying show paired color and black-and-white work from this renowned chronicler of American life at Jackson Fine Art. Davidson’s grimy, gritty portraits of New York subways in the early ‘80s used color photography to uniquely seedy effect. And his black-and-white images of Brooklyn greasers and their bleached blonde dames in the ‘50s brought a sad glamour to these lovely, struggling teenagers.

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