The art world can feel a little overwhelming. There was a great TED talk I watched recently about reasons people don’t get contemporary art. As someone who is just starting to get into the subject, I identified with everything said. There are pieces of art that feel just so outside my understanding or even enjoyment. Nevertheless, artists are the prophets of their time, drawing our attention to aspects of life we might not see otherwise. For this reason, I thought I’d share five contemporary artists whom you may or may not have heard of.
Ai Weiwei is arguably the most famous artist alive. Remember the Bird’s Nest from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing? Ai was one of the primary designers. His artistic career has spanned everything from painting ancient Han dynasty vases with the Coca Cola logo to covering the side of a German building with 14,000 life vests in reference to the refugee crisis. Living in communist China, his art is heavily censored, and he has been arrested on multiple occasions for speaking out against the government. He is also stupidly active on Twitter and Instagram, which makes him fun to follow and which he considers a part of his art. If you are interested in topics of social justice, the lives of people living under oppression, or just getting to know another culture, I would recommend his documentary on Netflix: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. It’s five years old but totally worth the watch. Also, Ai is currently working on a piece called Good Fences Make Good Neighbors, which will consist in building hundreds of fencelike sculptures around New York City in response to President Trump’s proposed travel ban and wall between Mexico and the U.S.
Marina Abramović is a performance artist who has brought performance art more into the mainstream. Her most recent work (and the work of hers I like the most) is titled The Artist is Present. It was a piece of performance art where she sat at a desk across from museum patrons looking at them without speaking for as long as the patron decided to sit for. Responses from those across from Abramović ranged from slightly bored smiles to bouts of weeping. As someone interested in spiritual disciplines that mostly consist of attention, silence, solitude, and the like, and as someone very aware of the way our digital culture has the potential to diminish our ability to attend to anything worthwhile—I am deeply drawn to Abramović’s work. You can read a review of The Artist is Present, here, or watch a TED talk Abramović gave after the exhibit, here.
Kerry James Marshall
Kerry James Marshall is a new love for me. He is a painter who depicts the world, both internal and external, of African Americans in the U.S. The primary focus of his entire art career has been to create beautiful works of art that represent the black individuals who are so rarely found in fine-art paintings. In many of his works, the figures stand center stage like queens or kings of their environment, looking calmly from the canvas directly at the viewer in a way which seems to say, “I exist, and I am lovely.” Since this type of body is so rare both in classical and contemporary works of art, Marshall’s paintings are, in a way, similarly about presence—about being able to see what goes largely unseen. Artsy has a great article on him for those who want to learn more, and if you live in the L.A. area, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is holding a 35-year retrospective of Marshall until early July.
Okay, I know this isn’t technically an artist, so it’s kind of cheating, but the concept is really fascinating to me. Vaguely defined, you could say that internet art is anything that uses the digital world or its tools or programs in a way that’s fundamental to making a piece of art. I first heard about the concept in a video essay, here. If I had to pick a favorite internet artist, it would probably be Petra Cortright, but I’m obliged to admit that that’s because I’ve enjoyed so few others. I think my interest in internet art comes from the fact that the internet has redefined almost everything about our modern day lives. Seeing its influence on the art world can help us see its influence on us too.
I first heard about Dustin Yellin through another TED talk. His art is part sculpture, part collage, and part chaos of detail. His work Psychogeographies is particularly interesting to me. The work uses insane amounts of detailed clippings to create human figures suspended in layers of clear glass. It’s a kind of meditation on the insane amounts of things that come together to make up our personhood. He too lives in L.A., so there are frequent occasions to see his work in person.
Trevor grew up in a small desert town in Southern California and graduated from Vanguard University in 2013. He moved to Portland, Oregon in 2014 where he currently lives with his beautiful wife, Ashlee, and enjoys of reading, writing, city-life, hiking, and investing in close friendships. Trevor is passionate about bringing the Church to the world and crossing the great divide between Christians and non-Christians that usually leaves both sides scratching their heads. He currently works at a small, Portland-based Christian university named Multnomah University as a Social Media and PR Specialist. He has spent some time in a couple different seminaries but is now getting his master's of English at Portland State University.