These are the Twin Cities artists of the year

Aza Abe

Aza Abe courtesy of the artist

Aza Abe

For artist Aza Abe (née Erdrich), 2016 was a year of firsts. She became a mother and launched her inaugural solo show, “Synthesis,” at All My Relations gallery in Minneapolis.

“I’ve always wanted to be an artist. Ever since I was a kid, it was the only thing that I really wanted to do,” says Abe, who has created in mediums as diverse as comic art, beading, still life drawings, paintings, and book covers.

An orderly artist, Abe plans her paintings, chooses colors, then fills them in by grids. Symmetry is one continuous thread in her oeuvre; indigenous aesthetics, which she says come naturally to her as an Ojibwe woman, are another. Flowers, feathers, wildlife, and nature are frequently incorporated into designs that burst with celebratory colors that evoke the patterns of star quilts.

Abe was thrilled when approached by All My Relations gallery about doing a solo show. She was six months pregnant when “Synthesis” opened in March; it closed just a few weeks before she gave birth. “It was a really special time in my life to bring my work out there,” she says. The hardest part wasn’t the preparation for the show, but the relinquishing of her art. “There were certain pieces, especially the beaded pieces, that took a long time to make. It’s an intimate and meditative process. Selling them was hard.”

Abe has found it challenging to balance motherhood and art, but she’s motivated by her mother, author Louise Erdrich, who raised a house full of children while prolifically writing books. Though she hasn’t been painting much lately, Abe does sketch her son while he sleeps.

Given this change in her personal life, as well as the current political climate, she anticipates that the focus of her work will evolve. “It’s really inspiring having created this life, and it’s a hard time, thinking about what’s going on in the country right now with our upcoming leadership,” says Abe, who recently spent time at the Standing Rock protest site among the water protectors. “I’ve always been drawn toward the beautiful, and to symmetry, and to color, but I want the meaning [of my art] to mature as I do.” —Erica Rivera

Maria Bamford

How many people do you know who can tackle the stigma associated with mental illness, manage the pressure of being a comedy superstar, and still find time to hang out in Duluth every summer?

The answer is one, because there is only one Maria Bamford.

Bamford, whose career spans nearly three decades, has been a comedy heavyweight for years. In 2016, however, she cemented her reputation as a timeless performer who continues to get funnier, smarter, and all-around better as she goes. Her semi-autobiographical Netflix show, Lady Dynamite, received rave reviews from both fans and critics for its unflinching approach to mental illness (more specifically, Bamford’s personal journey in managing her psychiatric condition). It not only approached these topics with the type of silly, surreal presentation that long-time fans would expect, but did so in a way that was funny and unique, giving newbies the chance to discover her for the very first time. The show has already been picked up for a second season in 2017, allowing her the chance to grow and expand her story in a voice all her own.

In addition, she put out a new comedy album in 2016, the fifth of her career, and continued to tour the country performing live onstage, including two very sold-out shows this past summer at the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis.

While she continues to slay late-night television appearances and huge rooms all over the country, she makes it a priority to head up to Duluth each summer, both to perform (Bamford says she still has anxiety about performing close to where she grew up for fear of disappointing people), and to maintain her reputation as a true-to-the-core Minnesotan. —Patrick Strait

Jaime Carrera

When it comes to losing beloved artists, this year has been monumentally awful. Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and Gene Wilder are just a few of the people we’ll mourn. For our local community, the hits kept coming as well. We wanted to give a special mention to performance artist Jaime Carrera, who was taken from the world when a brutal case of pneumonia triggered an undiagnosed heart condition. Carrera had some interesting projects planned for this year, and had he lived, we are sure they would have been fantastic.

If you ever saw Carrera perform, you know how special he was. A choreographer, performance artist, dancer, punk musician, and photographer, he had an infectious charm and a willingness to try almost anything. Sometimes that meant dressing up in a loincloth and getting ketchup squirted all over him, sometimes it led to organizing an evening featuring aerobic moves from the 1980s, and sometimes it entailed exhibiting a photography collection of his cats. He gave exactly zero shits about what anybody thought, which meant you could never quite pinpoint what he was going to do next.

Carrera emigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was 17. He lived in Kansas and Chicago before moving to Minneapolis in the early 2000s. He identified as gay, and married his partner, Nick Wirtz, at the beginning of 2016. His layered identities figured their way into his work, but not always in obvious ways. Carrera was always acting as an outsider. Uninterested in falling in line with trends, he was always looking to go in the other direction, finding new, unexpected ways to create art.

It saddens us that we didn’t get to see Carrera do one of his outrageous performance art pieces with Caitlin Karolczak at Art-A-Whirl this year (Karolczak did create a tribute with Michael Cimino in Carrera’s memory). It’s also a travesty that he wasn’t able to realize his solo piece, which explored his experience navigating a complicated gender identity as a young person, at the Red Eye. There are so many wonderful things he might have made for us, things we’ll never get to see. Instead, we must rely on and celebrate our memory of him. —Sheila Regan


(William Clark)

Sarah Rasmussen

When Sarah Rasmussen took the helm at the Jungle Theater, she inherited a strong, cherished organization. Over the course of a quarter-century, founder Bain Boehlke built the Jungle from a storefront startup into a local powerhouse known for showcasing detailed productions and fine acting on its intimate stage. Still, while Jungle productions were often called “top-notch,” they were rarely called “innovative.” It was clear there was room for growth.

With the February opening of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Rasmussen showed just what that growth might look like. The all-female cast performed against a bright pink backdrop, with the audience spilling onto the stage and the actors returning the favor by striding out into the house. The performers’ sense of joy was contagious, and the production heralded a promising new era at the Lyn-Lake institution.

The rest of Rasmussen’s inaugural season saw the theater going from strength to strength. Constellations had Anna Sundberg and Ron Menzel performing a fractal love story on Kate Sutton-Johnson’s ethereal set. Le Switch was a poignant and hilarious meditation on same-sex marriage, the product of a newly forged partnership with the Playwrights’ Center. Bars and Measures explored social justice through jazz, and The Oldest Boy wowed audiences with its reverent and emotionally honest journey through Tibetan Buddhism.

As if that wasn’t enough, Rasmussen also directed a sweet Sense and Sensibility at the Guthrie, using a fresh Kate Hamill script she’d previously put onstage in Dallas. The production was evidence of the warm and welcome friendship between Rasmussen and the Guthrie’s new leader Joseph Haj — another example of Rasmussen’s knack for building bridges.

With the transition from Boehlke to Rasmussen, the Jungle found someone who can preserve the organization’s considerable strengths while also opening new territory: new scripts, new performers, new sensibilities. What’s true of any individual show Rasmussen directs was also true of the entire first season she curated: Nothing was pro forma; every choice was made with thoughtful deliberation and an encompassing sense of fun.

The Jungle’s 2017 season looks equally intriguing: a Pulitzer-winning Nilo Cruz play (Anna in the Tropics), a Texas ghost story (Lone Star Spirits), a dark-comedy/rock musical (Fly By Night), a voyage through cyberspace (The Nether), and a Pride and Prejudice sequel of sorts (Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley). Under Rasmussen’s dynamic leadership, it seems likely the Jungle will continue to house several of each year’s most-anticipated productions for a long time to come. —Jay Gabler

Mike Lester

Mike Lester is both one of the funniest and most terrifying comedians in the Twin Cities. His baby face may make him appear harmless (despite the fact that he’s been a comedy club regular since 2009, Lester is only 24 years old), but his dark, twisted sense of humor and serial killer-like delivery have allowed him to sneak up on unassuming audiences like a comedic Michael Myers.

Whether he’s talking about washing the elderly as a senior caregiver, or punishing his parents for raising him wrong, Lester is the one comedian who has similarities to both Anthony Jeselnik and Harland Williams — which is basically the comedy equivalent of mixing chocolate with toothpaste. The only difference is that he gets you to enjoy the taste and keep asking for more.

This past year has seen Lester take the leap to breakout player on the local scene, regularly serving as a feature performer at Acme Comedy Co. and Rick Bronson’s House of Comedy while continuing to produce the ROSA comedy showcase at Dulono’s Pizza in south Minneapolis with Ben Katzner. Lester and comedian Robert Baril produce a weekly sketch series, Lestaril, where he shows off his acting and character-work while tapping into the same sociopathic onstage persona that has made him a must-see talent for hardcore comedy fans and casual observers alike.

Despite the tone of his comedy, what makes Lester such an incredible artist is the fact that you can tell he’s legitimately having fun onstage — a talent that can’t be taught and many comedians sadly lack. As of late, Lester has begun to branch out and infiltrate the West Coast, so chances are he’s either going to become comedy’s next big thing, or the murder rate in Los Angeles is about to skyrocket. Probably both. Either way, he’ll continue to be a refreshingly unique voice in an increasingly competitive local comedy landscape. —Patrick Strait

(Photo: Matthew Ayers)

Boy Kisses

Individually, the four core members of Boy Kisses Comedy — Turner Barrowman, Collin Klug, Robert Fones, and Drew Janda — are phenomenally talented. They’re standups, writers, sketch performers, internet personalities, musicians, and filmmakers. Together, they have formed the single hottest comedy group in Minnesota, if not the entire Midwest.

Over the past two years, their weekly comedy showcase at Universe Games in Uptown has gone from an underground comedy haunt to one of the consistently best places to see comedy. Each week, the Boys plan their show around a new theme; role-playing games, Mother’s Day, and MTV Cribs have all served as backdrops for their clever, unique sense of humor. Each event features live sketches, videos, songs, and, of course, standup.

As the rotating lineup of comedians varies from week to week (outside of the foursome), talent from both the local scene as well as national acts have graced the small stage, with names ranging from Twin Cities heavy-hitters like Andy Erikson and Patrick Susmilch to national headliners like Janine Brito and Emily Galati.

Aside from their antics onstage, the crew members crank out weekly online sketches that can be described as smart, strange, and hilarious. While some sketch groups start out hot and eventually peter out, Boy Kisses has only continued to get stronger. A major highlight this year was when one of their sketches hit it big and was featured on Comedy Central’s viral video holy land, Tosh.0, demonstrating that the Boys have what it takes to bring their kisses to the masses.

Whether an endless supply of bananas appearing in Robert Fones’ pocket will skyrocket the guys to their own primetime TV spot is yet to be seen, but if you haven’t popped into Universe Games on a Sunday night or killed a few minutes watching their stuff online, you’re missing out on one of the coolest things happening in Minnesota comedy. —Patrick Strait

Laurie Van Wieren

How does a small woman wearing glasses and moving mostly in silence on a bare stage keep an audience riveted for nearly an hour?

In her Temporary Action Theory, recently performed at the Southern Theater, Laurie Van Wieren showed exactly how 40 years of experience and a whole lot of theatrical savvy add up to an evening of gutsy, sophisticated play. Sampling new vaudeville, postmodern gestural flurries, primeval howls, and Dada absurdism, Van Wieren improvised her way through events that included striding the catwalk above us while mumbling incoherent asides, pulling a rope out of a brick wall with her teeth, and shuffling off to Buffalo. At once bold, hesitant, bemused, and droll, she mined the sublime in the ridiculous.

Far more than an accomplished performer, Van Wieren is an entrepreneur who for decades has brought innovative dance and performance work by herself and others to public spaces and alternative venues. Over the years, she has taken deep dives into spectacle and performance art. In the 1980s and ’90s, she formed and led a company called the B-Specifics, and produced a wide range of work, including a cabaret-style homage to the German Dada and feminist artist Hannah Höch at Walker Art Center and a site-specific piece on Lake of the Isles that incorporated fireworks, gold medal skaters, and a hockey team.

For several years, she has spearheaded inventive formats that allow artists to get a critical response to their work. As curator and director of programming at the Ritz Theater, she created Monday Live Arts, a monthly series where artists of all stripes could come and experiment within a 15-by-15-foot square, surrounded by an engaged and ready-for-anything audience. Her ongoing monthly 9x22 Dance/Lab at the Bryant-Lake Bowl gives audiences a peek at works-in-progress, as Van Wieren fields critical responses with witty aplomb. This year, she co-curated Radical Recess, part of a public arts project sponsored by the Hennepin Theater Trust, which put lunchtime dance breaks in downtown public spaces like the Mayo Clinic Square and City Center Atrium.

A retrospective in 2010 proved that Van Wieren’s expansive, experimental, and highly entertaining oeuvre was well worth a look back. Her recent performance heralds an era as subversive and unpredictable as this remarkably resilient artist. —Linda Shapiro




Liza Sylvestre

Holding two contrary impulses in gorgeously visceral balance — that of the finest, most rigorously controlled line and that of effusive, rich, yet ethereal color — lies at the heart of Liza Sylvestre’s paintings. And while “heart” may be the most quotidian of descriptors, lungs, liver, uterus, eye, ear, and even the minute level of corpuscle spring to mind when facing the artist’s sensuously arresting works.

Sylvestre drew new attention with “Meridians” at Public Functionary a year ago. In the exhibition of small- and large-scale works, a demure sense of physicality was contained with a breathtaking sense of evisceration. Fine lines in washes of light pinks, oranges, and blues conjured tissue, veins, and twists of fascia muscle as fine as hair (like those within the ear). Those colors swirled and trickled amid bolder blotches of blood red, black red, and the purples of a deep-set passion. It was difficult not to see the work as a kinetic expression of congenital and carnal femaleness, tempered by a sensibility just this side of reticent. Anyone new to Sylvestre’s work was gob-smacked and irretrievably drawn to it.

Then, with her Art(ists) on the Verge Fellowship at the Soap Factory, Sylvestre generated a multimedia piece that literally brought visitors into her attenuated world as an artist with a disability: deafness. Since the age of six, Sylvestre has been losing her hearing. In 2006, she received a cochlear implant. At the Soap Factory, her project, _ommuni_a_ion, invited participants to endure communication as she does via drawings of American Sign Language, a video of people talking in a seemingly non-human language, and by listening to her through a barrier similar to what she experiences.

With two scheduled exhibitions here in 2017 (at SooVac and the Phillips in Hudson), Sylvestre will continue to make her visual voice heard. Look and listen. —Camille LeFevre

Lars Lerin

Lars Lerin enjoys rock-star status in Nordic countries, as he’s known for his TV appearances, over 50 books, and his atmospheric, massively scaled, gorgeously rendered watercolors. With the opening of “The Watercolor Worlds of Lars Lerin” at the American Swedish Institute last January, not only Twin Cities Nordywhos but anyone with an aesthetic sensibility couldn’t help but revel in the Swedish painter’s remarkable worlds.

The show, Lerin’s first American exhibition in 30 years, was displayed through the Swedish Institute’s two buildings: one lovingly known as “The Castle,” the other a sleek, modern, and decidedly Nordic expansion.

Lerin’s Björkskog/Birch Forest, which spans several five-foot-wide sheets of paper, captures with a wet-on-wet technique the subtle range of grays, browns, blacks, and whites that settle into a northern wood’s atmosphere, rendering the rangy bark of the trees in exquisite detail. Standing in front of the work, one could find her mind wandering deep in its snowdrifts, fog, and the tree trunks’ peeling layers of color and texture.

The 40 monumental works in the exhibition included a 15-foot panorama of a bookcase, a color-coded collection of seemingly all the world’s knowledge, with volumes cast as gray blurs evolving black, browns, and shades of whites, grays, and gold — all with a level of detail that allows a close observer to read the writing on the spines.

And the birds; so many birds. There were multicolored songbirds and glossy black crows, taxidermied and on tiny perches, awash in color and light, their display cases painted with the depth of shadow against fictitious windows or walls.

Lerin’s work is embedded with a sense of drama and infused with melancholia. Still, there’s nothing macabre, maudlin, or even self-serving here. Like the empty chairs he paints in undemonstrative hues, some with a pearlescent quality and with the simplest of flourishes, his hand and mind are here for all to see.

Now that’s the definition of a Nordic rock star. —Camille LeFevre



Junauda Petrus

Whether she’s suspended from aerial silks, bringing puppets to life, sharing her soulful writing, or marching for social justice, Junauda Petrus’ creative spirit shines through.

Lately, the multitalented artist seems to be everywhere. One minute she’s hard at work creating an homage to Prince and black excellence at the MayDay Parade; the next she’s taking the stage at Pillsbury House, In the Heart of the Beast, or Icehouse; and the next she is teaching youth about arts, resistance, and queerness at Mia.

Of her many accomplishments this year, Petrus’ work on the play Queen stands out as a highlight. The piece was inspired in part by a 2015 poem she wrote, titled Could we please give the police departments to the grandmothers? The poem, especially embraced by those in the Black Lives Matter movement, went viral. When Alison Heimstead, director of performance programs at In the Heart of the Beast, came across it, she connected Petrus to renowned puppet artist Erik Ehn.

Together, they wrote Queen. Petrus played the Grandmother — in puppet form — for its premiere run. A trained aerial artist, Petrus imbues every synapse, every bone, and every muscle with focus while onstage. When she transferred that intensity to a puppet in Queen, she made her character come alive with mournful grace.

Petrus’ talents as an artist, organizer, activist, and educator frequently intermingle. That was especially apparent in her work with HOBT’s MayDay Parade, where she not only created art herself, but utilized her leadership and teaching skills. The section of the parade Petrus worked on used art to make the case for black reparations, to celebrate blackness and queerness, and to honor Prince, as well as Kirk Washington, a local artist who recently died. This fall, she worked with students at Mia to help them harness their creative spirit in the aid of radical thought and transformation. Her giving nature shines through her art, taking many forms as a means to change the world. —Sheila Regan

Leslie Barlow

Painter Leslie Barlow uses colors playfully. Despite being rooted in realism, her palette crosses the spectrum, imbuing an abstract quality to works that depict real people and real situations. Barlow’s Other/Identity series takes a nuanced, often extremely personal approach when tackling issues of race, marginalization, and other sociopolitical forces.

For example, in Of Other Paths (Heterotopia), 48, the artist paints herself at an intersection. There’s a sign that reads “One Way,” and the stoplight is yellow. Barlow, who identifies as multiracial, wavers at a crossroads where identity is perceived as not something absolute or finite, but rather a fluid place of in-betweens.

That sensitive reflection on her own identity continues in Two Grandmas, a work that references Frida Kahlo’s painting featuring two different versions of herself sitting side by side. In Barlow’s piece, her grandmothers — women of two different races — are seated side by side. They are smiling, perhaps a little awkwardly. Together, they speak to the complicated relationships and histories that make up Barlow’s own identity.

In January 19th, 2015, which was featured in the excellent “Reframe Minnesota: Art Beyond a Single Story” at All My Relations Gallery, Barlow brings to life a scene from a 2015 Black Lives Matter protest. By including a sign marking the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which has been blurred out, the painting subtly dismantles the complacency of living in a white supremacy society. Above, a helicopter hovers over the group of protesters, one of whom holds up a fist.

Barlow came out of the gate running after graduating from MCAD last spring. In 2016, she was part of the 3x5 residency at the Soap Factory, was featured in solo exhibitions at Flow Art Space and the Cowles Student Gallery at Whitworth University, and participated in group shows at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, MCAD, and All My Relations. She also won a commission with the Minnesota Vikings to paint portraits of players, and received a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant to work on a series of paintings on the 50-year anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, a landmark court case prohibiting bans on interracial marriage. We can’t wait to see her finished work on the series next year. —Sheila Regan