Top 5 of 2020

This is my third year of the Artangled project, and my third end-of-year roundup. I’ll stick to the 2018 and 2019 format, listing the five art exhibitions I enjoyed most this year. Previously, I’ve also called out a couple of shows I didn’t enjoy. But for 2020, there’s only one candidate for my festive lump of coal: the global pandemic itself, one of whose side effects was to shutter London’s art galleries for months on end.

As recorded in those annual round-ups, I saw 256 exhibitions in 2018, and 221 in 2019. This year, the total’s unsurprisingly way down - to 84. I didn’t see any gallery shows at all in the long first lockdown from March to June, took another pause for lockdown two in November, and stopped again this week, with cases exploding once more. While I still posted weekly throughout both previous lockdowns - about memorable works in permanent collections, then about memorable shows I didn’t cover the first time I saw them - I started writing this post and realised I can’t face doing this again for lockdown three.

So, no more Artangled for a while, after this annual round-up. I’m planning to restart this project when this pandemic has abated, and the city has reopened. Hopefully the next post will be made with the vaccine coursing through my veins. And will be made before too long.

Until then, here are my five favourites of my least favourite year. And there can only be one show to talk about first…

Gillian Wearing: Lockdown (Maureen Paley, London)

installation view

One rainy day in Bethnal Green, I saw the exhibition that best summed up my 2020 mood. Wearing’s a very fine painter, and she bound her self-portraits with a spellbinding attitude of quiet, watchful despair. She caught the moment brilliantly.

Léon Spilliaert (Royal Academy, London)

installation view

A classic RA show, concentrating an underrated and underseen artistic vision into a few gallery rooms. I was mesmerised by Spilliaert’s extraordinary series of mad-eyed self portraits and hallucinatory nocturnal streetscapes, all painted under the weight of his insomnia.

Sigmar Polke: Objects Real and Imagined (Michael Werner, London)

installation view

A recreation of one of the German arch-japester’s best artistic jokes, this wood-and-potato construction took over one of the city’s loveliest gallery spaces earlier in the year. Humble, weird and totally memorable.

Coco Capitán: Naïvy (Maximillian William, London)

installation view

This fine artist also pays the bills as a fashion photographer. But I was so impressed by the coherence and control of this multi-media show, based around a humble sailor suit. I’d join her navy any time.

Paul Cézanne: Drawings - Tess Jaray: Roundels (Karsten Schubert, London)

installation view

Finally, a reminder that despite all the darkness this year, there were moments of transcendent light. I spent a magical sunlit half hour in this tiny upstairs gallery, where Jaray’s mathematical abstractions met the stunning warmth and humanity of a Cézanne sketch of his sleeping son.

Thinking about that exhibition now reminds me of the frequent joy of gallery-going, finding the unexpected and the beautiful: that magic combination of viewing great work in an inspiring place.

I just can’t wait to experience it again. And, when I do, I’ll write about it.