It took more than market momentum or critical acclaim to have a breakout year in 2015. As reflected by Eric N. Mack, Simon Denny, and Mira Dancy in the film above, tragedies like Charlie Hebdo and big shifts from Black Lives Matter to the legalization of gay marriage, have drawn artists to place renewed consideration into making work that resonates with not just the art world but the wider world, too. Here, we survey 15 of the most exciting practices this year, by artists who made great strides to cement themselves as part of the growing canon of contemporary art.
Portrait of Eric N. Mack in his New York studio by Alex John Beck for Artsy.
Detail views of Eric N. Mack’s New York studio by Alex John Beck for Artsy.
Twenty-eight-year-old Mack recently relocated his studio from a room within the Studio Museum in Harlem, which he occupied as part of a yearlong residency, to a sprawling space in the Bronx, scattered with paint, peg boards, packing blankets, umbrellas, and other sundry objects, all fodder for his visceral sculptures and wall-hangings. These tactile abstractions—which can resemble post-apocalyptic forts or patchwork throws—allude to the body, clothing, shelter, and the protective power of community. This fall, Mack mounted a solo show at L.A.’s Moran Bondaroff (formerly OHWOW) and installed work at MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York.” Curators and collectors alike have taken note. “Eric’s work playfully embraces and celebrates different modes of expression (art, fashion, design, architecture) and materials (fabric, paint, paper), while still retaining a coherent and consistent vision,” explained collector Bernard Lumpkin, who is one of New York’s preeminent patrons of art made by African-American artists. “His work is simultaneously familiar yet strange, old yet new, personal and universal.”
Like her fellow New Yorkers, artist-cum-alchemist Yi embraces germs. Following five years turning perishable substances (powdered milk, live snails) and, more recently, bacteria, into sculptures and installations, the conceptual artist made leaps and bounds this year. After her 2014–15 residency at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she worked with biologists to grow bacteria swabbed from 100 women in the art world (including artist Juliana Huxtable and gallerist Rachel Uffner), Yi debuted her cultures in a solo exhibition at Chelsea space The Kitchen in March.
But with June came the highlight of her year: Yi’s solo exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel, “7,070,430K of Digital Spit,” an olfactory and sensory experience featuring the artist-made fragrance of “forgetting.” According to Elena Filipovic, director of the museum and the show’s curator, Yi’s choice of media—deep-fried flowers, bacteria, and ultrasound gel among them—is more than a sum of ingredients. It’s what they turn into when combined that matters: “charged, sensual things,” she says. “Sexy, covetable, fragile, entropic, smelly, ugly, and sublime at once.”
“At a moment when so many artists are looking to the so-called post-digital,” Filipovic continues, “Yi manages to reflect on our contemporary condition and how we are transformed by digital technologies without forgetting that, as beings, we live and love and die—and rot along the way.”
Portrait of Yves Scherer by Gesi Schilling for Artsy.
The actress Emma Watson made a big splash in the art world in 2015—and not as the latest celebrity collector. Statues of the Harry Potter-star-cum-feminist-activist were seen worldwide, the work of post-internet art’s fastest rising star, Scherer. “Closer,” his debut solo show at Berlin’s Guido W. Baudach, closed 10 days into the new year and launched Scherer on to exhibitions at Carl Kostyal in London, Salon Kennedy in Frankfurt, Exo Exo in Paris, and the Swiss Institute (SI) in New York. The mermaid Emma that anchored the SI show went on to Galerie Guido W. Baudach’s Art Basel in Miami Beach booth, another Emma statue having been included in the Parcours section of Art Basel’s hometown show during the summer (during which he also won the Swiss Art Award).
But the 28-year-old artist’s output ranges far beyond various likenesses of Watson. “Scherer is a fascinating artist exploring how contemporary desire and fantasy manifests in relation to celebrities in today’s climate of observation and publicity,” says SI director Simon Castets of the artist. Prolific across media, he creates paintings that include imitations of Monet’s “Waterlilies,” process-based abstraction, and cartoony figuration. His videos—and Watson sculptures—reference the fictitious relationships between internet denizens and social media-friendly celebrities. And his Tatami-mat wall sculptures plumb the precarious real-world relationships that all this virtual closeness leaves behind.
The 29-year-old’s current Whitney Museum solo show plunges viewers into a kaleidoscopic swirl of outer space- and EDM-inspired footage, layered with the transcendent modulations of Aretha Franklin and the booming voice of a former astronaut. It makes for a hypnotizing meditation on the anxiety and anticipation that accompany innovation, a shape-shifting through-line in Rose’s video-based installations. In addition to winning the Frieze Artist Award, 2015 saw Rose receive solo exhibitions at the Castello di Rivoli and Serpentine Sackler Gallery. In the latter, Rose presented two videos that explored human perception through gauzy shots of modernist architecture (Philip Johnson’s Glass House), apocalyptic hail storms, and history-laden landscapes. “Her intricately layered and beautifully constructed films and soundscapes probe humanity’s changing relationship with the natural world,” explains Serpentine’s director Julia Peyton-Jones of her initial attraction to Rose’s work. “They demand repeated views and continue to play in your head long after you leave.” In 2016, Rose’s videos are poised to loop through viewers’ heads the world over, with the artist’s solo exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum and a group show at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet slated for the coming months.
Self portrait of Sara Cwynar in New Haven, Connecticut studio. Image courtesy of the artist.
Cwynar scours eBay and junk stores for found vintage imagery and kitsch (like lo-fi gold watches or photographs of Brigitte Bardot) that she reworks in her studio in New Haven, CT. And she’s earned significant art-world recognition doing so, well before her Yale photography MFA graduation will roll around in 2016. Once a Literature major, Cwynar ultimately chose images over words and today—through scanning, re-photographing, and collaging—she creates tableaux and sculptural photographs from materials ranging from deconstructed darkroom manuals to a reproduction of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).
“The work is reaching out into the future of the media at a time when our dependency on it has never been bigger,” says legendary sculptor and photographer Thomas Demand, who is including Cwynar’s work in an exhibition he’s curating at Fondazione Prada in Milan in March, 2016. This show will continue Cwynar’s streak of institutional recognition, following a breakout year in 2015. (She was a standout of MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York” and “Under Construction,” the group show that traveled from Amsterdam’s Foam Photography Museum to Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works in March). But of equal measure is her presence in galleries with edgy and respected programs; she shows with Foxy Production and Cooper Cole, and in September, her seductive images of presidential busts (a series of Avon cologne bottles, scored on eBay) brought New Yorkers upstate for her solo exhibition at the popular Hudson outpost of Zach Feuer and Joel Mesler, Retrospective Gallery.
Portrait of Simon Denny within “Simon Denny: Products for Organising” at Serpentine Sackler Gallery by Kate Berry for Artsy.
Denny is fast becoming internationally celebrated for his fascination with modes of communication within society’s gatekeeper organizations: the National Security Agency (NSA), Apple, and British intelligence organization Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). His displays shine a light on key historical moments in new-media history through conceptual art installations that incorporate product design. This year saw him represent New Zealand at the Venice Biennale (mining the visual culture of the NSA), enjoy his first significant U.S. museum show at MoMA PS1 in New York (transforming the space into an absurdist tech trade show), and install a highly praised solo show at London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery (exploring corporate and government use of hacking).
“Simon Denny is relatively young, but he has been really booming over the past couple of years,” says Serpentine curator Amira Gad. Denny’s 2014 show “New Management” at Portikus, Frankfurt, explored the business practices of technology giant Samsung; the show “really brought him forward,” Gad explains. “We decided to take the investigations he’d done for Venice a step further.”
At just 28 years old, Ghanaian Mahama was the youngest artist included in this year’s Venice Biennale. Far from playing the role of timid newcomer, he mounted Out of Bounds (2015), a thin path around the Arsenale flanked by two towering walls lined with sewn-together jute sacks—objects emblematic of the unseen labor involved in transporting goods (cocoa, coal, and even charcoal) throughout the world. Part of Mahama’s “Occupation” series, the work was one of the most ambitious in “All the World’s Futures” and underscored the artist’s commitment to addressing issues of capital and labor through objects characterized by their tattered and bruised materiality.
Though art has long engaged with systems of commerce, Mahama offers his critiques from a welcome perspective—that is, from a country and continent that are deeply entwined in the global economy but whose voices are frequently ignored. Along with the Biennale, fairs including the expanding 1:54 (which added a New York edition this year) and the forthcoming edition of the Armory Show are paying increased attention to artists hailing from Africa and the Diaspora.
Portrait of Mira Dancy in her New York studio by Emily Johnston for Artsy.
Detail views of Mira Dancy’s New York studio by Emily Johnston for Artsy.
You’ve likely spotted one of Dancy’s languid, muscular female nudes around the art world this year. In myriad forms, including murals, drawings in neon, paintings, and shower curtains, Dancy’s nudes have cropped up at Frieze, FIAC, Art Basel in Miami Beach (in Artsy Projects: Nautilus), L.A.’s Night Gallery, and across from feminist pioneer Mary Beth Edelson at MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York,” the renowned bellwether of emerging talent, in 2015 alone. “Mira Dancy’s work packs a lot of punch!,” Mia Locks, one of the exhibition’s curators told Artsy. “Her bright and bold imagery is full of women with tremendous attitude and psychological power, and I’m particularly taken with the conflicted positions her figures occupy. They feel simultaneously exposed and empowered, beautiful but also distorted or unhinged.”
The echoes of Matisse in her work have not gone unnoticed; Dancy’s infectious lines, patterns, and free-flowing forms that often exist outside of the picture frame, convey a certain joie de vivre. But, at a time when work by overlooked female artists from the ’60s and ’70s is being increasingly unearthed and revisited, Dancy’s nudes are of a particularly feminist bent, a history she embraces fully. “I do love Matisse,” Dancy told Artsy in October. “Kirchner has also been very important for me. But what I’m trying to focus on is a different relationship. It’s more this reversal. Being a woman looking at painting from a more haunted position.” Locks adds, “It’s a complicated world for young feminists today and I think Mira’s work is really sensitive to those issues and energies in a way that resonates for a lot of people.”
Portrait of Sanya Kantarovsky by Alessio Boni. Image courtesy of the artist.
Cartoons, devotional Tibetan painting, and Russian literature are among the inspirations for Kantarovsky, the 33-year-old artist beloved for his sinewy, seemingly playful subjects (think whimsical composers conducting for an audience of none), which are often embedded with dark, socio-political commentary. Kantarovsky’s stellar year has included group exhibitions with Gavin Brown’s enterprise, White Cube, a commission for the Ljubljana Biennial, and solo shows at Marc Foxx and London’s Studio Voltaire—the latter marking his first major exhibition in the U.K. and largest commission to date. And in a quick sashay from artist to curator, he brought together the work of fellow artists in a summer exhibition at Tanya Leighton Gallery, where he’ll have a solo in February 2016.
But his pièce de résistance was Happy Soul (2014), the artist’s first-ever animation, screened at Art Basel in Basel’s Unlimited sector, in which a single canvas painted with a lone, nude, blushing figure becomes the backdrop for projected animations and the sound of acapella Motown tunes. “I had the pleasure to work with him, and I discovered that his practice is manifold,” notes the exhibition’s curator, Gianni Jetzer, who, after meeting Kantarovsky at a performance festival and discovering his paintings on Google, was delighted to discover the multifaceted depths of his practice. “The result is mesmerizing and it makes you want to see more,” he adds. And we certainly plan to.
Guan Xiao, 4S Prequel, 2015. Photo by Zhang Hong, courtesy of Antenna Space.
Artist Guan crafts mysteries for a digital age—not that one should approach her cryptic, mixed-media work with a metaphorical magnifying glass in hand, looking to discover a singular meaning. The ability of her practice to provoke enthralling questions has helped make this something of a banner year for Guan. Following solo presentations at Antenna Space (both in the gallery and at Frieze London, where Anita Zabludowicz bought her entire showing), as well as a double presentation with Katja Novitskova at Art Basel in Hong Kong, 2015 culminated in a nomination for the prestigious Hugo Boss Asia Art award. Next year looks bright, too, with Guan set to receive a solo show at London’s ICA—her first in the U.K.
“Guan Xiao has this unique quality to her work, she references the past but communicates a forward-thinking notion, it almost feels spiritual,” says Adrian Cheng, founder of the K11 Art Foundation and a collector of Guan’s work. This sentiment is echoed by Antenna Space director Simon Wang, who notes that Guan’s works “study the internal equivalence between the object and the subject, the old and the new, and the self and the other in a viewpoint that appears to be counterintuitive.” Just one example of this is The Documentary: Geocentric Puncture (2012), which made an appearance at this year’s New Museum Triennial. It features artifacts like a miniature Easter Island head, as well as webcams, gesturing hands, camera tripods, and handmade columns, all positioned against brightly patterned backdrops. Her cross-temporal technique echoes the all-encompassing archive of the internet from which she often sources the digital images and videos found in her art. Unraveling these connections, and finding new ones, lends her work a nearly inexhaustible depth.
Portrait of Juliana Huxtable by Alex John Beck for Artsy.
A figurehead of a millennial, internet-savvy generation whose search for gender and identity nonconformism took them online, multimedia artist, DJ, poet, and member of queer artist collective House of Ladosha, Huxtable made her name in the downtown Manhattan nightlife scene, co-founding SHOCK VALUE, a weekly club night. Since then, she has caught the attention of several fashion labels and has become something of an icon for the LGBTQ community. The year 2015 has seen her rapidly grow her already-devout following, as well as bringing her widespread art-world recognition, most notably with her inclusion in the New Museum Triennial, of which she was dubbed “the star.” The post-internet-heavy exhibition featured Huxtable’s own self-portraits (featuring the artist in head-to-toe body paint and set against surrealist Teletubby landscapes in shades of pastel) and Frank Benson’s 3D-printed sculptural rendering of her nude body, cast in a futuristic, metallic sheen. Performa and MoMA also teamed up later this past year to commission a performance from Huxtable, a characteristically genre-defying, spoken-word journey through history and the slippery archive of the internet.
Portrait of Lucas Arruda in his São Paulo studio by Beto Riginik for Artsy.
Detail views of Lucas Arruda’s São Paulo studio by Beto Riginik for Artsy.
Brazilian artist Arruda’s abstract paintings have long transfixed the São Paulo art scene. Since 2009, when he held his first solo exhibition in the city, the artist has inspired a rapid collector base. (His waiting list was at one point rumored to be 100 names long.) Arruda had a strong 2015, curating a show at Herald St, London and receiving solo exhibitions at Lulu in Mexico City, and PIVÔ in São Paulo, among other highlights.
His compositions are as much lightscapes as landscapes; the artist forgoes scale for subtlety, exploring the luminous cadences of beaches, forests, and sunsets in relatively diminutive works that sometimes harken back to Whistler and Monet. They are frequently untitled, however, and his exhibitions often share the name “Deserto-Modelo,” evidence of the artist’s attempt to unanchor his art from any discernible place or context. One untitled work characteristically depicts a beach composed of criss-crossing brushstrokes, as if pulled this way and that by a wind felt only within the canvas.
Installation view of Math Bass, Off the Clock, at MoMA PS1, 2015. Math Bass, Newz!, 2015. Both courtesy of the artist and Overduin & Co., Los Angeles.
Long before May 2015, when her solo show at MoMA PS1 coincided judiciously with Frieze New York, Bass was producing works—from videos to concrete casts of blue jeans—that embody the artist’s enigmatic vocabulary. “One of the most compelling aspects of Math’s work is the tension it evokes between directness and illegibility, how it reminds us about the power and the pleasure in that vacillation or irresolution,” remarks former MoMA PS1 curator Mia Locks. Tapping into a universal preoccupation with understanding art, Bass’s works prompt audiences to oggle and linger, aching to decipher. In 2012, for example, a year out from finishing her MFA at UCLA, the artist debuted an incantatory performance at the Hammer Museum’s inaugural “Made in L.A.” biennial, where she, plus nine other performers, sang and traversed a sculptural obstacle course, ultimately climbing a ladder and hurling a potted plant at the floor.
For the last three years, Bass has been honing her “Newz!” paintings: beigy canvases filled with crisp graphic motifs (snappy alligators, sharp zig-zags, cigarettes) that playfully pick apart classic optical-illusion drawings, and which sometimes resemble smiling clowns from afar. These, in addition to singular sculptures—sleek, bendy sheets of steel resembling gymnasts or minimal playground equipment—were shown at L.A.’s Overduin & Co. in 2014 and spurred the string of shows that Bass saw in 2015, including a three-person exhibition at Chapter NY and the Sanya Kantarovsky-curated summer show at Tanya Leighton.
Portrait of Jon Rafman by Gesi Schilling for Artsy.
Left: Jon Rafman, Altar, 2015. Photo courtesy of Feuer/Mesler. Right: Installation view of Jon Rafman at Zabludowicz Collection, London, 2015. Photo by Thierry Bal, courtesy of Zabludowicz Collection.
Two thousand fifteen has arguably been Rafman’s year. The 34-year-old Canadian artist, long revered for his Google Street View screengrabs (circa 2009–ongoing), has explored darker themes in his latest videos and installations—and the art world has taken notice. In May, Rafman, alongside Keren Cytter, inaugurated Feuer/Mesler’s Lower East Side gallery with his new series depicting computer workstations in disarray, amongst backdrops of appropriated landscape paintings. In June, he opened his first solo museum exhibition in Canada at Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal. The real coup, though, was his most significant solo exhibition to date in the U.K. at the Zabludowicz Collection—an uncontested highlight of Frieze Week, for which he turned the collection into a participatory playground, complete with an Oculus Rift centerpiece.
“What’s fascinating about Rafman’s work is the way he uses the very familiar visual language of the internet, social media, and computer games to create immersive narratives that reveal the anxieties and desires of contemporary life,” says Maitreyi Maheshwari, program director at Zabludowicz Collection and curator of the exhibition, which also offered up a waterbed, ball pit, massage chair, and filing cabinets streaming video games in first-person shooter. Maheshwari adds, “Playful, melancholy, and at times shocking, his works re-sensitize us to the everyday violence of images and reflect the fictions of memory and identity that we construct as we increasingly slip between screen worlds and the real world.”
Portrait of Julius von Bismark in the White Desert of New Mexico courtesy of the artist.
He’s been responsible for a smiley face hovering over Lake Constance, a flock of rainbow-painted pigeons taking flight in Venice, and a car crash at the centerpoint of Germany. In 2015, von Bismarck made his biggest splash yet, getting picked up by Marlborough Chelsea for a May solo show and setting himself up on a concrete flying saucer at the entrance of Art Basel in Basel’s Unlimited section. Egocentric system (2015), as the piece is called, saw von Bismarck spin at harrowing speed whether sitting, working at a desk, or napping on a nearby bed, for a significant duration of the fair. (It plays on the inner ear’s vestibular system, which insulates us from the motion of a system when it remains constant—for von Bismarck in Basel, the saucer, for the rest of us always, Earth.)
A star of Olafur Eliasson’s Institute for Spatial Experiments in Berlin, von Bismarck has been a staple in the German capital for the past several years. “Von Bismarck’s work destabilizes our existing image of the world by making very minimal interventions,” said Ellen Blumenstein, chief curator of Berlin’s KW Institute of Contemporary Art of the key driver behind the artist’s rise. Aside from those previously listed, high-profile installations, his work—shown by Alexander Levy since 2012—often manifests itself in photographic form, whether documenting that car crash, a fake tree imperceptibly placed in an unknown forest, or natural landscapes that he’s literally painted over. “He doesn’t show the viewer something new but rather casts what we already know in a completely new light,” added Blumenstein of the photographs. “His images expose the way in which photographs condense a particular concept of the world at a particular point in time and space rather than capture an inalterable reality.”