10 Artists Who Defied Classification in 2015

The Art Genome Project
Dec 26, 2015 5:00AM

“Whatever is not normative is many.” Poet Eileen Myles’s reflection on how transgender people problematize linguistic categorization (does one employ “he,” “she,” or the plural, gender-neutral “they?”) is an apt metaphor for the challenges posed by things that resist classification. Categorization, in other words, seeks a norm, actively thwarting the many, which is why things that defy it can be so intriguing, so multifarious.

In 2015, The Art Genome Project researched and annotated over 7,400 artists, and along the way we encountered a great many who were difficult to categorize. A note on this process: We typically assign each artist about 25 categories (or, as we call them internally, “genes,” hence “The Art Genome Project”). Oftentimes, the more complex an artist’s work, the more categories must be added. Categorization can be seen as a reductive science, especially if you believe that good art operates on many levels, but good categorization can provide jumping-off points and connections that are additive. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida described the process by which language acquires meaning as “différance”—words “defer” the task of their own defining to other related words; their meaning is not innate or even all that specific, but rather results from the particular hole they fill in a constellation of related ideas. It’s this process of making meaning by juxtaposition—creating a constellation of related artistic ideas—that can make the experience of browsing via The Art Genome Project so powerful.

Here, though, we focus on 10 artists for whom the connections in The Art Genome Project are just too many or varied to be useful (“All models are wrong, but sometimes they are useful,” the statistician George Box once said). From the thousands of artists we encountered this last year, we devised a short list of the 40 most difficult to categorize, and from there we voted on the top 10. This list does represent some editorializing, as we wanted to cover a wide geographic distribution and important trends in art in 2015, but these are by-and-large the 10 most difficult artist genomes we completed in 2015.

It’s easy to forget the intense focus on craftsmanship that drives twin wunderkind designers Simon and Nikolai Haas, given how lighthearted and humorous their creations can be. The self-described “obsessive” duo’s combination of studio craft knowledge and unconventional, luxurious materials—such as Icelandic sheep pelts and highly polished brass—led us to wonder if we could connect their work to Jeff Koons’s richly made animal sculptures that pun on popular culture (most famously his metallic Balloon Dog). Many artists take animals as subject matter, but in order to capture the use of animal-like forms, this year we introduced a category for zoomorphism, which connects Koons and the Haas Brothers. This concept addresses the whimsical, even grotesque quality in much of the designers’ furniture and ceramics, titled with such pop-culture nods as Meryl Sheep Settee.

Museum Crossing, 2013
Taymour Grahne

Lebanese artist Lamia Joreige has said, “I don’t think we can—or need to—always separate documentary from fiction.” Her work centers on the fluid boundary between fact and fiction, which she explores in film, camera-less photography, sculpture, and performance projects often centered on the complex life of her “main character,” Beirut itself, her birthplace and home. Records for Uncertain Times, for example, takes as its subject the destruction and loss experienced in the aftermath of the Lebanese wars. Many of her projects challenge us to understand the unconventional role she plays. As researcher, ethnographer, and archivist (see our related category for art about collecting and modes of display), Joreige uses personal narrative, documentation and public record, and even imagined future histories, to draw attention to what is not talked about, the otherwise invisible traces war leaves on people and places.

Given the popularity of abstract painting over the past few years, it may come as a surprise to see one of the most interesting critiques of its hallowed status coming from a performance, video, and installation artist: Korakrit Arunanondchai. His series “Painting with History in a Room Filled with People with Funny Names” is a self-conscious travesty of the myth of the genius male painter, enthralled with his own creative virility. For his 2014 performance at MoMA PS1 (Part 2 of the series), the artist sang a Thai pop song shirtless while slathering paint with his hands on a large canvas at the back of the stage. But what really makes Arunanondchai’s work difficult to categorize is not its critique of the gendered mythos of abstract painting, but rather the broad host of references, influences, and moods he combines in his work.

Arunanondchai goes beyond questions of gesture and the body or art’s social embeddedness to author a mash-up of global popular culture all his own

In Part 3 of the series, a film, we encounter long shots of wistful, hazy landscapes, followed by what seems to be a parody of a Bangkok travel video set to rap music, and a scene of young people in denim dancing clumsily. References to recent art history abound in Arunanondchai’s work. We see echoes of Gutai artist Kazuo Shiraga’s performative painting, or Yves Klein’s Anthropometries; and in his interactive artwork at Frieze this year (he presented massage chairs throughout the fair, covered in his signature bleached denim), we see a nod to the relational aesthetics of his teacher, Rirkrit Tiravanija. But Arunanondchai goes beyond questions of gesture and the body or art’s social embeddedness to author a mash-up of global popular culture all his own, one that includes music, textiles, personal histories, large-scale installation, and more.

The Censored Internet, 2014
Carroll / Fletcher
Glowing Edges_7. 10, 2014
Carroll / Fletcher

The year 2015 was a big one for the Berlin-based Dutch artist Constant Dullaart, who won Rhizome’s Prix Net Art this year. Dullaart uses performance, video, websites, and even Kickstarter campaigns to examine the visual tropes that pervade our lives in the internet era. Series such as “Jennifer in Paradise”—visual love letters to the first Adobe Photoshop picture—and his “startup” project DullTech go far beyond appropriation as it’s traditionally defined, making his work particularly difficult to categorize. DullTech is a media player supposedly designed to facilitate the seamless presentation of video art. But, according to the project’s website, it is also a performative artwork. If his work can be said to contain a common thread, it would be to find what is human in seemingly authorless, anonymous touchstones of digital culture, like bouncing screensavers, the now-ubiquitous digital manipulation of images, and the factory workers in China who produce the devices we can’t live without. He does it all with a healthy dose of humor, and a surprising level of comfort with both critiquing and participating in the forces lurking in the background of our digital lives.

Nanawax, 2009
Ayoyo, 2013

A throughline in much contemporary African art is the reworking of found materials, Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s bottle-cap reliefs being the most famous example. Art historian Joanna Grabski has pointed out the assumption that this is a “highly inventive solution to the dearth of art supplies in Africa.” Beninese artist Romuald Hazoumè reconfigures the petrol cans used by the young contraband-carrying motorcyclists who transport illegal fuel (known as “Kpayo”) from Nigeria to Benin, resulting in a compelling critique of exploitative black markets in his home country. Hazoumè’s practice brought up a tricky distinction for us: Could we call Hazoumè a contemporary DIY artist for his interest in alternative, self-made economies?

Historically, for Western artists, a focus on the hand-made or on recycled materials comes from a freedom of choice to opt out of the mainstream economy, as opposed to a need to make do with the resources and materials available. Hazoumè’s appropriated jerry cans aren’t a reflection of the pro-art, anti-consumerist sentiments of contemporary DIY culture in the U.S., but they are a response to scarcity of resources. Categorizing Hazoumè led us to expand the application of this gene (which perhaps had been inadvertently used to describe only Western artists) so we could make connections between his work and Swoon’s “Junk Rafts,” for example, or Chinese artist Xu Bing’s “Cigarette Tiger Rugs.”

© Eckhaus Latta. Spring/Summer 2015 (Left) and Spring/Summer 2013 (Right)

The fashion label Eckhaus Latta follows in a line of fashion designers who have been able to bridge the art-fashion gap (notable predecessors include the conceptual store Bless, in Berlin, or the renowned British/Turkish Cypriot designer Hussein Chalayan, who recently dissolved garments on the runway). Founded by Zoe Latta and Mike Eckhaus in 2011 in Brooklyn, the label has since collaborated with artists like Bjarne Melgaard and friend Alex Da Corte and exhibited at Gavin Brown’s enterprise, and, more recently, at MoMA PS1 as part of the pulse-taking quinquennial exhibition “Greater New York.

Latta and Eckhaus met in art school at the Rhode Island School of Design (Latta studied textiles while Eckhaus focused on coursework in sculpture). Their fine arts training reveals itself in the label’s many nods to Dada, the early 20th-century absurdist art movement. They’ve strewn their catwalks with real lettuce, they’ve created clothes out of plastic and rope, and they painted a model green from head to toe. In 2013 the duo produced a $200 limited-edition Steve Jobs sweatshirt; created with cheap iron-on transfer photographs of the recently deceased former Apple CEO and made to look “like a collage in someone’s bedroom,” the garment was intended to explore “how we mourn someone who’s changed the American landscape so much.”  

Should they be considered an artist’s collective or a traditional fashion label?

With their thrift store aesthetic, DIY ethos, and rejection of standard beauty in favor of inclusiveness (their diverse coterie of models includes the awkward, the blemished, and the old), they might seem a cliché of their Williamsburg pedigree. In fact, this was the easiest aspect of their work for us to categorize (contemporary DIYreused/recycleduse of common materialscultural commentary). But what we really struggled with—and what is arguably most interesting about their practice—was defining the limits of their expansive activities. Should they be considered an artist’s collective or a traditional fashion label? Would we include their highly stylized, snapshot aesthetic photography and promotional videos, many created in collaboration with the German filmmaker Alexa Karolinski, as part of their “practice”? And, lastly, are their shows really runway shows, or performance art

Vulnicura, 2015
"Björk" at Museum of Modern Art, New York (2015)
"Björk" at Museum of Modern Art, New York (2015)

There have long been crossover musician-artist acts: Bob Dylan and John Mellencamp make paintings, Patti Smith was a poet and artist before she was an iconic musician, and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, a practicing artist, hung out with artists like Dan Graham in downtown New York’s art scene in the 1980s. More recently, acts like Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, or Kanye West have been re-branding themselves as artists (or, in Kanye’s case, “the new Warhol.”) So what makes Björk any different? Unlike these performers, Björk was offered a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this year for her accomplishments as a musician, singer, and composer.

The show’s universally negative reviews notwithstanding, it posed interesting challenges to our categorization framework. Should the installation commissioned by MoMA be considered sound art? And how do we capture the angst and the odd sensuality of the Icelandic singer’s music videos, her manic mood in “Human Behavior,” directed by Michel Gondry, in which she smiles through tears in a scary, childlike dreamscape, pursued by a plodding Teddy Bear before being blasted into outer space? (faux naïf? unsettling?) And then there’s the bio-futurist aesthetic of her more recent “Vulnicura” video, which opens with what looks like a talking vulva, followed by the artist dancing in a black latex suit with feather-like plastic adornments, while a sort of biomorphic aura cloud swirls around her.

How do we capture the angst and the odd sensuality of the Icelandic singer’s music videos?

In the end, we were happy calling her a contemporary Surrealist with an interest in the bodytechnologyimaginary creatures (among others), and a category we call “self as subject”—artists who build on the sensibility of 1970s Body Art to probe the question, “What is a self?” As a sort of post-human Golem in “Hunter,” a swan at the Academy Awards, and her own multitude in an “Army of Me,” a 1995 song from the album Post, Björk is an existential, cross-species chameleon who makes Homo sapiens seem to be the evolutionary glitch.

With her online mini-series Touching the Art, Casey Jane Ellison is responsible for the “art world’s only talk show.” The series is also innovative for its rotating roster of all-female panelists, which have included Catherine Opie and Juliana Huxtable. A self-proclaimed and practicing stand-up comic, Ellison’s deadpan L.A. girl-inflected delivery cuts across the elitism of the art world. Of the same ilk as Jayson Musson’s “Art Thoughtz,” for which he assumed the persona of Hennesy Youngman, Ellison takes on longstanding debates (“What is art? Who cares? Why?”), of-the-moment critical concerns (“Why is everything so po-mo?”) and surprisingly basic and informative questions for the general public ( “What the F*ckennial? Like what is it?”). Through each episode, Ellison serves up a litany of off-beat one liners (“I get turned on by swivel chairs” or “My parents actually pay for this show”) just to remind you that Casey Jane Ellison is a persona, one the artist has been playing out through stand-up comedy, video, holographic photography, web series, and digital animations for the past couple of years.

Ellison’s It’s So Important To Seem Wonderful (2015), a video of a bald robotic avatar performing one of her stand-up routines, was included in the New Museum’s Triennial this year. Like a lot of stand up comedians, Ellison’s humor combines extreme self-deprecation and astute social commentary. The work is a paradox: She makes herself vulnerable by publicly airing her own insecurities, but her avatar insulates her against any judgment. Ellison’s interest in assumed personas and character formation builds on a long legacy of performance artists like Adrian Piper, who have played out alter egos in their work. But whereas we might describe performance art as generally real-time, audience-minded, and body-focused, Ellison is part of a roster of young artists creating a different type of performance art that is displaced, virtual, and requires no in-person audience, reflecting our virtual lives.

Bazaar Teens and Dustin Yellin

© SPRING/BREAK Art Show, Photo by Tory Williams Photography. 

The installation and performance by the collective Bazaar Teens, curated by Dustin Yellin for the alternative SPRING/BREAK art show in New York, was perhaps the most talked-about event of the spring 2015 art fair season. The group took over multiple rooms in Moynihan Station, a sprawling former post office and the nomadic art fair’s location this year, turning it into a nightmarish office hellscape complete with old office equipment and fiberglass tiles dangling from the ceiling. The premise behind this corporate mayhem was the fictional “Tree-Tech” company, whose services range from the concrete (tree removal, Japanese beetle control) to the existential (alumni banter, currency removal, and “Tom Sawyer syndrome”). The level of detail required to maintain this fiction is impressive; the group designed a corporate logo, sales pitch, and promotional brochure, which meticulously aped the language of corporate marketing.

But what really attracted the attention of the press was a series of paintings the group made by shredding $10,000 they received from an anonymous donor. The resulting 8 paintings were each priced at $10,000. While most reviewers interpreted this action as a snarky jab at the market (as one blogger put it, “The Art World’s So Boring We’re Just Shredding Money Now”), the fact that the group intended to donate all proceeds to arts scholarships injects an element of Robin Hood-esque heroism.

© SPRING/BREAK Art Show, Photo by Tory Williams Photography. 

Economic critiques of the art world rarely contain such equal parts absurdity and altruism, making this work particularly difficult to categorize. We were hard-pressed to understand not only its sensibility, but also its themes. Is the work about the environment, corporate culture, reuse and recycling? There is a certain irony in “up-cycling” wads of cash, especially since many artists use this technique to political ends (see e.g. Romuald Hazoumè, discussed above). We saw elements of kitsch, but we also couldn’t tell if the work was a parody. In the end, even the artists’ own comments did little to help us specify the installation, and this seems to be their intention. Asked to explain Tree-Tech, Yellin stated in an interview that it was about “the removal of specificity...We make non-specific...Trees are non-specific ideas.”

Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2013
Altman Siegel
Overhead of NSA, 2013
Metro Pictures

American artist Trevor Paglen may have more in common with whistleblower Edward Snowden or journalist Glenn Greenwald than he does with other contemporary artists. How do you categorize an artist who works like an investigative journalist and data scientist? In his own words, Paglen’s artistic project is to create “new metaphors” for the “invisible war”—the weaponization of space, the militarization of the internet, mass surveillance, and counterintelligence efforts by U.S. and foreign governments over the past 15 years, most of which remain classified. In 2015 we know the surveillance state is paradoxically as present as it is invisible, and in his past two solo shows at Metro Pictures, Paglen has gone to impressive lengths—technically and through exhaustive research—to make it visible for us. He built a telescopic lens to capture U.S. intelligence from 30 miles away; he modeled the orbits of unclaimed government satellites from TLE files sourced from amateur astronomers; and trained to scuba dive in order to take underwater images of fiber-optic communications cables tapped by the U.S. government. Paglen himself is at the technical cutting-edge of both photographic and software technology, making his process almost impossible to do justice to in our framework.

Paglen’s artistic project is to create “new metaphors” for the “invisible war”—the weaponization of space, the militarization of the internet, mass surveillance, and counterintelligence.

The sensation of standing in Paglen’s Code Names of The Surveillance State (2014), an immersive looping video projection of over 4,000 NSA and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) surveillance program code names, is alarming. It was tricky enough to capture the extent of Paglen’s research and the diversity of his installation materials (photographs, orbit charts, projections, diagrams, annotated maps). But even more challenging was addressing the ideas in his work so central to contemporary political discourse, but for which we have yet to create categories: voyeurism, anonymity, public versus private, geopolitics, and citizenship. Like the aftermath of Julian Assange’s Wikileaks or the Snowden leaks, Paglen puts the viewer in a similarly uncomfortable position of implied responsibility while drawing attention to the extent of our complacency. The stakes of Paglen’s work are something we couldn’t account for: He confirms the presence of a thriving surveillance state by essentially documenting it for us, but doesn’t provide instructions for what we should do with that knowledge.

Genoming is an art and not a science, and we constantly integrate feedback from our audience, partners, and artists. If you have any feedback, suggestions for new categories, or ideas on any of the above artists, email us at [email protected].

The Art Genome Project