“in visual arts, 2013 was an active year”

“Deliverance,” a 2007 painting by Llyn Foulkes made with mixed mediums. It was on view at the Hammer Museum, Feb. 3-May 19.

In the visual arts, 2013 was an active year.

A couple years removed from the Great Recession, Southern California museums and art institutions once again mounted ambitious exhibitions. Many artists, including James Turrell, Llyn Foulkes, Tony DeLap, Richard Artschwager, Richard Jackson, Hans Richter, Urs Fischer, John Divola and G. Ray Kirciu, enjoyed extensive, career-spanning retrospectives, some at multiple locations.

While these shows were important and, for the most part, worth seeing, the powers that be in the art world seemed to be bypassing women and artists of color. Perhaps their time for big shows is coming in the not-so-distant future.

When assessing the best art exhibitions of the year, I look for two criteria: a show that recalibrates or challenges our perception and expectations of a given medium; and an exhibit that makes us see something new about the world or about ourselves.

Here are my top 10 art exhibitions of 2013. The first is my favorite of the year; the rest are in chronological order.

“James Turrell: A Retrospective” (May 26-April 6): The Los Angeles County Museum of Art organized and is still presenting an outstanding exhibition featuring Light and Space artist Turrell, who studied and taught at UC Irvine. The exhibit – spread across LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum and the Resnick Pavilion – includes groundbreaking light-based works and chambers that verge on spiritual experiences. “Breathing Light” (2013), a “ganzfield” made specifically for this retrospective, is an elevated room infused with soothing, changing colors. And “Light Reignfall” (2011) is a perceptual cell filled with colors, sound and strobe lights that’s truly a trip. (It’s completely sold out, last time I checked.)

Turrell wants viewers to change the way they see, and actually “see themselves see.” For the most part in this amazing retrospective, the artist succeeds.

“Szukalski: Drawings” (Feb. 2-March 7): Cal State Fullerton’s Begovich Gallery offered a rare look at 108 drawings by Stanislav Szukalski, a Polish artist who moved to Chicago and then the San Fernando Valley. His elaborate creations are mythic, imaginative, colorful – and a little crazy. His drawings should be studied and treasured, but I can’t say the same for his nutty, pseudo-scientific theory of Zermatism.

“Llyn Foulkes” (Feb 3-May 19): Museums and curators say Foulkes is one of the most under-recognized artists of his generation. But it’s just not true anymore. This extensive retrospective at the Hammer Museum ranged from cartoons and drawings created in the 1950s to recent, three-dimensional paintings. Some of his works required an entire room to view them. Foulkes isn’t afraid to poke fun at the sacred cows of U.S. culture – Disney, the American Dream and superheroes. We, as art fans, cultural observers and free-thinking individuals – are the better for his edgy efforts.

“Richard Jackson: Ain’t Painting a Pain” (Feb. 17-May 5): Los Angeles-based artist Jackson is considered one of the more radical U.S. artists of the past 40 years. It’s because of what he does with paint: he flings it, shoots it in pellet guns, shoots it out of mule rears, and smears it on gallery walls, using the canvas as a brush. This retrospective at the Orange County Museum of Art stretched the medium of paint and, happily, took us along for the fascinating ride.

“Paper Works” (June 1-July 7): This group show at the City of Brea Art Gallery showcased paper as a flexible, experimental and malleable material. It was a boundary-pushing exhibit that provided historical background on the medium and demonstrated that paper can be shaped into clever origami, and so much more.

“Gods & Gifts: Vatican Ethnological Collection” (Sept. 29-Feb. 9): The Bowers Museum scored a coup with this exhibition, the largest selection of works ever to leave Vatican City. Despite their Catholic ownership, the works in this show reveal a remarkable range of religions and spiritual practices. Highlights include a thankga given to the Pope by the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, a hand tool from South Africa that’s 2 million years old, and a ritual crown from 19th century Korea made of horsehair, silk, paper and gold powder.

“Abelardo Morell: The Universe Next Door” (Oct. 1-Jan. 5): Cuban American photographer Morell is recognized for taking an ancient process, the camera obscura, and making it contemporary, daring and unexpected. This show of 84 images showcases Morell’s techniques, his development over time and his talent for mixing art, science, philosophy and religion.

‘Adam Silverman: Clay and Space’ (Oct. 27-Jan. 19): The Laguna Art Museum is the spot for Silverman’s first solo museum exhibition, and it’s a winner. Inspired by other great ceramic artists, Silverman has created organic, colorful and textured pottery, and even had a hand in designing the exhibit space. The former clothing executive has helped elevate pottery to the next level of art.

‘Frank Romero’ (Nov. 7-Dec. 31): Through the end of the year, the Muckenthaler Cultural Center is presenting a five-decade retrospective of Romero, an influential, L.A.-based Chicano artist. This show features paintings of cars, freeways, Southern California life, human figures, hearts, cacti and still lifes, and also includes a print of his most famous work, the mural “Going to the Olympics” (originally 1984). If you have time, it’s a must-see.

‘Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic” (Nov. 24-July 27): This tasteful LACMA exhibit makes the case that Alexander Calder was deeply involved in important abstract movements from the 1930s to ’70s. Designed by über-architect Frank Gehry, it’s a beautiful, pleasing show, one that captures the elegance, sense of play and humor, and sophistication of the artist’s ideas and achievements.