Trends to Watch in 2021: Return to Nature

This January, Artsy is launching a series of three features to spotlight the trends we’re watching in 2021. Using our internal data, each of these features reflects a theme we saw emerge during the end of 2020 that we expect to take hold across the contemporary art world in the year ahead. This week, we share the first installment, “Return to Nature.”
Amid the ceaseless anxieties of 2020, people around the world found solace in nature, escaping the daily barrage of uncertainty to ground themselves in something more evergreen. That impulse, whether yearning for the freedom symbolized by the great outdoors or discovering refuge in the world of flora and fauna, can be seen in new works by contemporary artists. This return to nature is one of the biggest artistic shifts we’ve witnessed emerge from the tumultuous unpredictability of 2020.
The artists here are making works that range from aquatic tapestries and abstracted landscape paintings to lush drawings and vegetal ceramics. Their works are prime examples of what we expect to be a growing trend in 2021.

B. 1981, Vitória, Brazil. Lives and works in São Paulo.

Brazilian artist Marina Perez Simão channels the natural world into her work by translating her memories and experiences into emotional abstracted landscapes. Simão’s paintings are evocative and surreal, merging interior and exterior spaces and conveying undefinable worlds bursting with color. In fall 2020, nine of her most recent works were exhibited alongside sculptures by fellow Brazilian artist at Pace’s East Hampton gallery.

B. 1978, Washington, D.C. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

Annie Lapin’s landscapes are elusive, offering only fragments or fleeting moments of representation, resulting in disorienting effects. Shadowy forms are presented like disruptive glitches in otherwise pristine landscapes full of –esque skies and verdant treetops. These ambiguous, collage-like dreamscapes perfectly capture the uncertainty of life during COVID-19, where time and space have often felt patchworked and impossible to pin down.

B. 1986, Suixi, China. Lives and works in Beijing.

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Inspired by the vibrant palettes of and , Chinese artist Lei Qi paints lush, tropical scenes that draw contrasts between the natural and artificial worlds. Often, the figures in his works are barely rendered. Compared to the meticulous detail with which the surrounding palm trees, ocean, and jungles are painted, the artist’s solitary figures seem to be disappearing from the canvas, suggesting the ephemerality of human existence.

B. 1979, Johannesburg. Lives and works in Cape Town.

Sparse in color, Michael Taylor’s paintings have a quick, expressionistic energy; a single swipe of his brush might represent a distant rainstorm or cloud. Taylor’s recent beachscapes, dominated by rich, moody shades of blue, evoke a more serene, melancholic tone compared to his prior landscapes, which were filled with frenetic marks and often underscored by fluorescent flashes of pink and orange.

B. 1992, London. Lives and works in London.

Spanning drawing, textile, and embroidery, Charlotte Edey’s practice incorporates symbols from nature to create visual myths exploring identity and spirituality as a womxn of color. Evocative of ’s rich symbolic universe and ’s curving, desert-inspired compositions, these surreal works weave together histories of women gleaning spiritual inspiration from nature.

B. 1973, Louisiana. Lives and works in Florence, Massachusetts.

John McAllister’s electrifying botanical paintings radiate with color. A former night guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he was inspired by artists like , , and ; he fell in love with the “frivolity, hedonism, and pleasure” in their landscapes and still lifes, as he told Architectural Digest. As a result, McAllister’s vibrant, otherworldly palettes are unabashed in their celebration of the senses, making otherwise quaint scenes defy spatial logic, with colors jostling for attention and challenging the flat plane of the canvas.

B. 1974, Chemnitz, Germany. Lives and works in Los Angeles.

Describing his works as a combination of “sunshine and noir,” Friedrich Kunath creates paintings that contrast the sublime beauty of nature with stark text. Reflecting on the pandemic, one of Kunath’s most recent compositions, We Used to Have Parties (2020), looks longingly out at a sunset from an apartment window, the titular phrase written out like a whisper. In another work, the phrase “I Am O.K. By Myself” is scrawled across the sky above a scenic mountainscape.

B. 1989, Pakistan. Lives and works in Dubai.

Pakistani artist Maha Ahmed draws inspiration from traditional Persian and Mughal manuscripts and classical Japanese painting techniques. She creates intricate, densely patterned landscapes, in which she often camouflages mythical creatures, which appear unexpectedly as the viewer’s eye meanders her rich compositions. Undulating, amorphous clouds, rivers, and boulders create a poetic, meditative rhythm throughout her work.

B. 1992, Toronto. Lives and works in New York.

Stephanie Temma Hier’s playful works celebrate fish, vegetables, grains, flowers, and fruit, and seek to remind us of the natural, earthly origins of the things we consume. She creates whimsical, ceramic frames that transform her paintings of seafood, lemons, delicata squash, and bok choy into fantastical, often humorous sculptures. A painting of cauliflower bushels is turned alien by a broccoli frame in one piece, while in another, ceramic fried eggs formally echo a painted field of daisies creating a confused sensory experience. These works were recently exhibited in solo shows at Shanghai’s Gallery Vacancy and Toronto’s Franz Kaka, and a group show at New York’s Arsenal Contemporary.

B. 1991, Taiwan. Lives and works in London, Taipei, and Shanghai.

Su Yu-Xin’s waterscapes reflect on the fluidity of perception and the impossibility of trying to capture a moment in time. The Taiwanese artist depicts transitory, in-between moments in bodies of water, clouds, and aerial landscapes. In one series, Su paints the ocean onto wooden boards that are warped on one end to form a wave, playfully exploring literal and metaphorical representation.
Shannon Lee is Artsy’s Associate Editor.
Header and thumbnail image: Annie Lapin, “Three Versions Play,” 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Miles McEnery Gallery.
About the Series
Artsy is kicking off 2021 with a series of three features spotlighting the trends we expect to take hold across the contemporary art world in the year ahead. We selected these trends by analyzing our internal data and identifying themes that emerged during the end of 2020. “Return to Nature,” “Craft Figuration,” and “Colored Pencil Revival” reflect the circumstances under which artists were working in 2020, and the artistic impulses they’re acting upon in 2021.