What does it take to officially break into the canon? Consult the latest accomplishments of these 10 members of The Artsy Vanguard—a new, annual list of the 50 most influential talents shaping the future of contemporary art practice. Each of these artists has recently reached a crucial tipping point in their career, whether by landing a major commission, a survey at a globally recognized museum, or a national pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Lena Henke by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.
Though she’s now a city-dweller, Lena Henke was raised on a horse farm. A collection of her sculptures included in the group show “Between the Waters,” now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, somehow intertwine those two strands of her biography. The show includes Dead Horse Bay (2016), a bronze cast of a supine horse’s head out of which springs a fantastical version of the Manhattan skyline—exploring the controversial developer Robert Moses’s impact on the life of the city—and an additional series of pink wooden pedestals on which rest ceramic sculptures in the shape of horse hooves.
Henke’s aesthetic is restless, and we shouldn’t typecast her as simply an equine fanatic. For a 2017 show at Antenna Space in Shanghai, she exhibited minimalist pieces that resembled mud-covered industrial grating. That same year, she placed an enigmatic sculpture—composed of metal, fencing, and sand—in the entryway of the influential Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt.
Henke has always been adventurous—and she’s broken the rules, when necessary. (The artist has been known to organize guerrilla-style exhibitions in nail salons and under highway overpasses.) “Rather than attempt to provide unequivocal theoretical answers, Henke actually works through every stage of the process and tests things out IRL,” says Fabrice Stroun, who curated Henke’s solo exhibition currently on view at Kunsthalle Zurich. “In that sense, her work is truly experimental.”
Up next for Henke is a May solo show with tastemaking Viennese gallery Emanuel Layr, which has represented her since 2016. The artist was also recently picked up by Bortolami, following a group show at the New York gallery last November, and will have her debut solo show there in January 2019.
Nina Chanel Abney’s work samples from a wide swathe of pop culture, remixing everything from cartoons to Henri Matisse. The simplicity of her compositions—which sizzle with a vibrant palette and energy that harkens back to Stuart Davis—is at odds with the complexity of her concerns, which have recently included police violence against people of color in the U.S. “Abney creates paintings with Pop colors but deep tensions,” notes Hugo Vitrani, who curated the artist’s current Palais de Tokyo exhibition. He paraphrases the artist herself, who often says that her paintings are “easy to swallow, but hard to digest.”
Abney has been eagerly treading sensitive ground for over a decade. Her large-scale diptych Class of 2007 (2007) reimagined her fellow MFA classmates at Parsons as dark-skinned prison inmates, and herself as a blonde, blue-eyed prison guard. Dealers and collectors took notice of the provocation, and in 2008, the piece was included in the Rubell Family Collection’s “30 Americans” exhibition. The exhibition continues to travel around the U.S.—currently at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio until May 6th, it will later head to the Tucson Museum of Art and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia—and includes work by heavy-hitters Kerry James Marshall, David Hammons, and Kara Walker, among others.
Since then, Abney has continued apace, with inclusions in landmark group shows such as “Flatlands” at the Whitney in 2016 and “No Man’s Land” at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami in 2015, which was then hosted at the National Museum of Women in the Arts from 2016 to 2017. Last year found her opening a high-profile pair of solo shows in New York that were on view concurrently at Jack Shainman Gallery (where she recently joined the roster) and at Mary Boone. And despite being in her mid-thirties, the artist has already earned a retrospective, which debuted at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in February 2017. That show is now on view at the Chicago Cultural Center through May 6th, and will travel to both the California African American Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles this September.
Haroon Mirza is a multimedia artist known for the kinetic sculptures and immersive installations that he creates by hacking various technologies. For A C I D G E S T (2017), a recent commission for the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), the artist created a multi-sensory environment: a darkened room in which flashing, colored lights were programmed to correspond to specific sound frequencies. Each element in the piece was obliquely derived from the letters in the work’s title—a play on “acid test,” evoking Ken Kesey’s 1960s experiments with LSD—creating an electronic poem of sound and light.
“Haroon’s work has an amazing ability to change the way we understand space, architecture, sound, and even time,” says Diana Nawi, a former associate curator at PAMM who curated Mirza’s commission.“He’s had a steady and strong response over the last few years, and that has increasingly engendered critical opportunities to produce really ambitious and experimental work.”
Enthusiastic interest in Mirza’s work is evidenced by his multiple 2017 solo shows, which are now making the rounds at institutions in Europe and the Americas. His commission for London’s Zabludowicz Collection, which combined sonic compositions, appropriated video, and existing works from the collection, will be shown at Madai in São Paulo; and the PAMM commission is traveling to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in September. Through May 13th, three of his installations are also on view in the unique environs of the Nikolaj Kunsthal in Copenhagen, Denmark—an exhibition space inside a converted 13th-century church.
Another project on the horizon moves Mirza’s sensitive explorations of audiovisual environments outdoors: a circle of black marble megaliths in Marfa (a sort of Stonehenge in the Texan desert) that produces patterns of sound and light. The piece, commissioned by Ballroom Marfa, opened during the full moon on April 29th, after which it will remain at the site for five years.
Amy Sherald by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.
Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint the moment that an artist’s career shifts from emerging to established, from under-the-radar to household name. This was not the case for Amy Sherald, whose official portrait commission of former first lady Michelle Obama made her an instant celebrity, with her work spotlighted on the front page of the New York Times. “The Obama portrait sent Amy’s career into the stratosphere,” said Lisa Melandri, the director of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, where Sherald’s solo exhibition opens this May. Since the portrait’s unveiling in February, Sherald joined the ranks at blue-chip gallery Hauser & Wirth, where she rubs shoulders with art world notables including Jenny Holzer, Rashid Johnson, and Mark Bradford (she had previously been represented by Chicago’s Monique Meloche). She’ll have her debut outing with the gallery in New York in 2019.
In 2016, Sherald was included in the group exhibition “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today,” which debuted at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and traveled to museums around the U.S., the result of a national portrait competition in which Sherald took first place. The following year, she was included in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s influential “Fictions” show alongside emerging artists like Matthew Angelo Harrison and Christina Quarles; and “Color People,” a group show at Rental Gallery curated by Rashid Johnson.
For the last decade, Sherald’s paintings have followed a very consistent formal structure: portraits of African Americans, with one (or sometimes two) figures against a flat, monochromatic background. With the exception of Mrs. Obama, her subjects are anonymous, and their expressions are guarded—as if, despite being on display, they’ve chosen to hold some part of themselves back. “Her subjects are so exactly depicted that you could recognize them on the street,” says Melandri. “You wonder who they might be, what they do, where they are going, what they are thinking—their personhood.”
Marguerite Humeau’s installations are seductive yet discomforting, deftly mingling ancient beliefs and modern science. Her recent exhibition at Tate Britain was an immersive installation meant to evoke Cleopatra and the Egyptian pantheon, comprising large-scale polystyrene sculptures, an audio track of whispering voices, and tubes that circulated snake venom throughout the room.
“Marguerite’s work appeals to our fascination with design’s hugely expanding horizons,” says Nadim Samman, who co-curated an early solo exhibition of Humeau’s work at Import Projects in Berlin in 2014. “Her work dramatizes, in spectacular fashion, how genetic, molecular, and information engineering intersect with myth.”
Humeau, who holds a master’s degree in design interactions from the Royal College of Art, approaches her projects the way a designer might: intense research, consultation with experts, and an eye to the latest production technology. Her 2011 thesis project—which involved using rapid prototyping to reconstruct the vocal cords of extinct species, then using them to record an opera—was acquired by MoMA that same year.
The last few years have been especially significant for the artist; in addition to her outing at the Tate, there were solo shows at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and the Schinkel Pavillon in Berlin. In 2017, Humeau won the Zurich Art Prize, a prestigious Swiss award that includes $80,000 to fund an exhibition at the Museum Haus Konstruktiv in Zurich, and an additional $20,000 in prize money. This year, she’s poised to make a big impression on the other side of the pond, when her first solo institutional exhibition in New York, at the New Museum, opens in September.
In Hiwa K’s video Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) (2017), the artist balances a sculpture he assembled from found objects—a stick and motorbike mirrors of varying sizes—on his nose. In this manner he traverses the landscape, navigating by the fractured reflections he sees above him, and retracing the path of his exile from Iraq (the artist was forced to flee the country on foot in 2003 just ahead of the Second Gulf War).
“Hiwa K’s work is informed by his history as a refugee, but also the fact that he has been based in Germany for 20 years,” says Martin Germann, who curated the current exhibition of the artist’s work at S.M.A.K. in Ghent. “It mirrors global wishes and desires, struggles with morality and rules, and the simple truth that we are undeniably living in one world.” His installation When We Were Exhaling Images (2017) was a standout at last year’s Documenta 14, whose focus on global migration provided an apt context in which Hiwa K presented his work. Set on Kassel’s Friedrichsplatz, the installation saw office and living spaces that might otherwise find themselves in an Ikea catalog crammed within clay sewer pipes.
The artist has been building momentum in Europe in recent years, with solo shows at Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art and the De Appel Arts Centre in Amsterdam (both in 2017). For Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 Venice Biennale “All the World’s Futures,” Hiwa K melted down metal war-waste found on the ground in Iraq and used it to produce a large bell, which, when installed, was framed by a two-channel video demonstrating its creation. Hiwa K’s current exhibition at S.M.A.K. also turns an eye to process. Instead of making totally new work, the artist used his existing oeuvre as raw material which he revisited, edited, and rewrote. An upcoming solo show at the New Museum, his first in the U.S., is sure to expand his audience further still.
Naama Tsabar by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy.
Naama Tsabar is a former punk musician, so it’s no surprise that her work fuses the disciplines of visual art and musical performance. “A very important component of Tsabar’s work is the sensual,” says Thomas Rom, a board member of the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, where Tsabar is currently part of a group show through May 26th. “She tries to penetrate the borders between art and observer, creating a new field for perception and engagement.”
Participation, rather than passive viewing, is central to the experience. At MARTE Contemporary in El Salvador, the artist’s monumental installation Propagation (Opus 3) (2015) used speakers, amplifiers, and piano strings (among other audio equipment) to turn the very architecture of the museum into an instrument. Visitors could literally play the space by plucking its strings.
Tsabar’s performances, like one at her recent solo show at New York’s Paul Kasmin Gallery, involve activating her minimalist felt-and-wire sculptures as if they were bass guitars. A 2016 exhibition at Spinello Projects in Miami featured a performer singing into a tight, triangular configuration of microphones. After the opening, the mics remained live for the remainder of the exhibition, available for any visitor who wished to lend her voice.
For ambitious projects staged as part of Art Basel in Miami Beach’s “Public” program in 2016 and for Prospect New Orleans 4 in 2017, Tsabar invited large groups of female-identifying and non-binary musicians to perform scores that blended various musical genres—turning the performers into a social sculpture in their own right. Tsabar’s current solo show at Kunsthaus Baselland runs through July 16th and features three previous bodies of work, as well as an original performance created for the show in collaboration with local musicians.
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s mixed-media paintings are marvels of nuance, drama, and care. The artist’s recent solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum presented a series of pastel, pencil, and charcoal portraits—although perhaps, in this case, “portraits” is a misnomer. The figures depicted were fictional members of two invented Nigerian aristocratic families, based not on individual sitters, but on amalgams of the artist’s own family and friends.
It’s a vision that is both aspirational and empowering. “Representing an imaginary world in which racial oppression, colonialism, and slavery do not exist, the artist makes a strong statement about prejudice and discrimination,” notes Silvia Barisione, curator at the The Wolfsonian museum in Miami, who describes the artist’s approach as “magical realism.” Her subjects possess an effortless confidence and poise that makes her something of an heir to Barkley L. Hendricks; indeed, Odutola was included in “Legacy of the Cool,” a group homage to the late artist staged earlier this year at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
Ojih Odutola’s showcase at the Whitney signalled a moment that is pivotal to any artist’s career—a first solo museum show in New York. (Her work’s 2015 cameo on the popular show Empire also didn’t hurt her visibility.) Another upcoming exhibition, this one at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia, through September, presents new drawings that continue the artist’s exploration of the same rich and hopeful fictions.
At the 2017 Venice Biennale’s Hong Kong Pavilion, sound artist and composer Samson Young filled a space outfitted like a ’70s living room with melodies both eerie and familiar. His re-recordings of charity singles, including ’80s earworms like “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “We Are the World,” explored the songs’ affective power, as well as the neoliberal assumptions embedded in their creation and their use as heartstring-tugging fundraising tools.
“Samson’s practice builds on his interest in sound and music and the implications of the sociopolitical context around it,” says curator Ying Kwok, who organized the Venice exhibition (“Songs for Disaster Relief”), which is now on view in an expanded form at the M+ Pavilion in Hong Kong. Kwok has been impressed by Young’s “vast amounts of research, which draws on seemingly unrelated past and current events,” leading to nuanced works that “people from different backgrounds and cultures can all relate to in their own ways.”
The artist—who holds a doctorate in music composition from Princeton University—thrives when given a space to fully execute his ambitious ideas, as he did at the 2017 Manchester International Festival, where he presented an ambitious five-part live radio drama with musical accompaniment. Titled One of Two Stories, or Both (Field Bagatelles), the work explored Chinese migration; an accompanying exhibition at the city’s Centre for Contemporary Chinese Art further unpacked those themes via an immersive multimedia installation.
For an upcoming Guggenheim commission as part of the group show “One Hand Clapping,” opening May 4th, he’ll continue to expand the possibilities of the aural—with an immersive installation filled with the sounds of imaginary instruments.
What are the possibilities for representing black identity in virtual space? Can technology be used to combat oppression and surveillance? These are the sorts of questions that engage Sondra Perry, a new media and performance artist whose work upends the notion that the digital realm is neutral territory.
The artist’s current solo exhibition at London’s Serpentine Galleries, “Typhoon coming on,” is her first in Europe (she’s also the youngest artist to be given a solo outing in the institution’s history). It takes J.M.W. Turner’s painting Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) (1840) as a framing device. Perry transforms Turner’s lurid and raging sea into Typhoon coming on (2018), an animated video projection that covers the walls of the gallery from floor to ceiling, situating the viewer at the center of the hellish scene: a slave trader throwing human beings overboard in order to collect insurance money. Perry doesn’t allow her viewers to remain passive spectators. To properly view Wet and Wavy – Typhoon coming on for a Three-Monitor Workstation (2016), one of four works in the exhibition, it’s necessary to manually operate a rowing machine facing the three screens.
For the artist’s breakout 2016 exhibition “Resident Evil” at The Kitchen in New York, the walls were painted chroma-key blue—a color that references a technique for creating digital composite images (akin to a green screen) as well as the infamous “blue screen of death” (an error screen that appears on Windows computers following a system crash). Perry followed this show with her first solo exhibition at her New York gallery Bridget Donahue in early 2018, as well as a spate of notable group shows, from “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” at the New Museum in September 2017 to “Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today,” currently at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.
Bolstered by support from institutions including the Seattle Art Museum—which currently hosts a solo show of her work, and awarded her the Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Prize—Perry continues to challenge, intrigue, and provoke.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Diana Nawi is currently an associate curator at PAMM. Ms. Nawi was formerly an associate curator at PAMM.
Portraits photographed in New York City at Milk Studios. Header image: Portrait of Amy Sherald by Daniel Dorsa for Artsy. Produced with support from Sister Productions.