No one who has experienced the spectacular show spread over the floors and through the grounds of the North Carolina Museum of Art could doubt that top honors for the best show of the year would go to Defying Gravity: Contemporary Art and Flight. The grand poetry of its panoramas, its delightful ironies and whimsies, the sweep of its imagery that ranges from peaceful movement through the skies to violence done to blasted earth, its depictions of the great hopes and equally great disappointments brought by the invention of powered flight, and ultimately, the power of the art and artists chosen for the exhibition, all make this not only the premier exhibition of the year, but the most ambitious ever produced by the museum. In paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos and drawings, Defying Gravity is a kind of mental picture of just how far and various the sense of flight has ingrained itself into our culture and our ways of thinking about our world and ourselves. (The show runs through Mar. 7, 2004.)

Juried shows are notoriously uneven. Thus it came as a delightful surprise this year to discover more than one juried show with few weaknesses and enormous strengths and variety.

Most surprising was the venerable Durham Art Guild annual. The Guild’s walls and floors were crowded with 111 pieces in all, a greater number than I have seen in the recent past, and with a far greater variety. I was pleased to discover that more than one piece required a second look, and a second thought. Al Frega’s “American” was composed of what he termed “industrial relics”–two rusty drinking fountains and a sign urging factory employees to take pride in their work; presumably there was a slight glint of malice in the description of them as “relics.” Scott Eagle’s acrylic and charcoal “The Death of Modern” was a hilarious take on Picasso’s screaming women of the ’30s and of “Guernica”: The women scream at the sky as they are carted off by a grinning self-satisfied horse. (Show runs through Dec. 31.)

Yet another pleasant surprise awaited me at the annual N.C. Photographer’s Show at Meredith College–a huge collection of 122 images with scarcely an uninteresting piece in the lot. With the variety of material, from the haunting light boxes of Hong-An Truong to the absurd hippos of John Rosenthal, much of the credit for the show’s impact goes to Ann Roth, director of galleries at the college, who managed to arrange the work so that it made sense. One wall, for example, held on the left Laura Jernigan’s surreal and hilarious “Bin’s Gone,” with an image of Osama peering out of a flying saucer window, and edged gradually to the hand tinted mysteries of Alison Overton’s “Ancient Forest I” on the right.

Despite its overblown title, Forecast: New Art for a New Era, the three-person biennial juried show at Artspace was a striking demonstration of the ease with which digital art can co-exist with varieties of sculpture and painting to produce a gem of a show. In her photoshop collages, Wendy Savage sets vaguely humanoid forms in oranges, browns and yellows afloat on darkness, forms edged or spiked by fish and animal spines. Anya Belkina’s tall, narrow acrylic and charcoal canvases are bleak commentaries on our foibles: An immense pile of shopping carts is labeled “Blossom of Falsehood.” Ever the experimenter, Paris Alexander showed a group of superb carvings and wrapped figures intended, as he puts it, to suggest “the poetry of isolation and introspection.” (Show closes Jan. 10, 2004)

The Dream World of Minnie Evans at North Carolina Central University’s Art Museum reintroduced the Triangle to one of the genuinely unique outsider or visionary artists of our time. Though the museum at NCCU is too small for a full scale retrospective, it did provide a wall of early efforts and ended with several late pieces that took us close to Evans’ death in 1987. Between them came the work she is best known for: Biblically induced figures and faces surrounded and imbedded in baroque and complex curls within curls of leaves, blossoms, butterflies and floating angels in brilliancies of yellows, reds, greens and purples.

A once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the work of the legendary photographer W. Eugene Smith came this year at the Center for Documentary Studies with Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project. A brilliant if eccentric photojournalist who produced an extraordinary and famous series of photoessays for Life magazine, Smith later roamed the streets, alleyways and avenues of Pittsburgh, intending to turn the entire smoky city, with all its warts and glories, into a vast composition that he thought would mirror mid-century America. He shot upwards of 17,000 negatives, but the enormous task was never completed. What he did complete, and what curator Sam Stephenson selected for the exhibition at CDS, was mind-boggling. (Stephenson’s excellent catalogue and study of the photographer, titled as the show was, has recently been released in a paperback edition published by Norton.)

Maud Gatewood, one of the grand dames of North Carolina art is not likely to leave her easel, but she has announced that her December show at Somerhill was her last solo. That in itself would make the show worthy of note. Since her superb paintings slapping at fanatics of all stripes and exhibiting her despair over man’s capacity to ape the lemming, she has mostly concentrated on landscapes drawn from her travels, though they are far more concerned with the art and act of painting than with representation. At Somerhill several pieces verged on the surreal in their brightness, point of view, and almost magical sense of contrast. “The Gobi from a Ger” takes us from a bright interior and through a yellow brilliance of a door to an emptiness outside. “Ominous View,” Gatewood’s comment on Iraq, creates a raw sense of unease.

In my opinion, the best traveling show to come through the Triangle in recent memory was the impressive and at times shattering collection, The Pulitzer Prize Photographs: Capture the Moment, which filled much of the first floor of North Carolina State University’s D. H. Hill Library with 125 images ranging from 1942 to 2003. It included, of course, such iconic images as the famous flag raising on Iwo Jima and the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, but also such poignant images as Babe Ruth’s last appearance at Yankee Stadium and a family’s joyous greeting of a returning Viet-Nam veteran. The violence, futility, joy and irony that are captured in this show reveal as nothing else can, why photography often determines how we view the world.

My special award reserved for the artist with the chutzpah to radically change course, moving from a most popular approach to a series of experiments, goes to Bob Rankin. His colorful acrylic abstracts are to be seen everywhere, but at Glance Gallery last spring, he toned down his palette, toyed with matters of perception and explored the ways art and nonart materials may coexist in work sparked by recent travels in the West.

And finally, a trophy for Andrea Gomez, one of the few painters in the area who, while working with the elements of landscape–land, water, sky–is not terrified by ideas. Her show at the Raleigh Contemporary Gallery, Divine Milieu, was linked, she said, to words and concepts floated by the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, who saw man as evolving toward a state of ultimate spiritual awareness and being. For Gomez, the world, like man, is forever in motion, forever changing form and color. One’s eye could scarcely rest as it moved through her work’s churning clouds of deep reds, purples, blues, and greens, emerging at times in pale evanescent regions of quiet in deep space. EndBlock