Off the top of your head, you can probably name some of the most famous European, Medieval, and ancient artists. Names like Van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci, and Protogenes conjure up images of religion, grand coronation, and historical feats. They marked their craft with sophisticated and mastered but clear and obvious messages.
But when the 19th century ushered in, the fame of medieval taste trickled down. In a deliberate timescale, gone are the days of masterful paintings where portrait and historical figures cramped the four sides of the canvas. Contemporary artists – today’s Da Vinci and Gogh – produce forms of art where subjects hide in the shadows of the material and the message lurks between the spaces. Some, with technological advancements, make their work stunning and otherworldly.
Although their works are taste-exclusive, meaning not all find them likable, their craft is meant to push the boundaries of art and challenge the restrictions of the status quo.
In this article, we name some of today’s most important visual contemporary artists. Their work is reinventing the medium of art while touching universal themes that are difficult to explain but easy enough to understand.
The good news is that we can experience their work through their social media accounts. So if you’re interested in the behind-the-scenes of their creations or don’t have enough time and money to visit some of their paid exhibitions, then give their socials some love.
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1. Chiharo Shiota
Chiharu Shiota is a Japanese artist. Her webbed-like installation art has earned her the nickname “human spider.” Her main material: yarns and threads in red, black, and white color.
From Japan, Chiharu moved to Berlin during the historic fall of Berlin. At that time, many people moved from East Berlin to West Berlin, leaving their houses and belongings behind. Chiharu took this opportunity to work on his first installation, “Room of Memory” and “Father Memory,” which both explore the topic of displacement.
Since then, she has produced more installations, paintings, sculptures, and performances.
Her signature image is full of yarn: yarns surrounding boats, yarns connecting shoes, yarns interwoven around beds, and many more.
According to Chiharu, her art revolves around universal themes like death, birth, and sickness. Her most famous pieces – “Dialogue from DNA,” “Accumulation – Searching for the Destination,” “In Silence,” and “Uncertain Journey” – involve multiple sentimental objects like suitcases, keys, windows, and shoes. They represent life, lost and forgotten, and suspended in a weave of yarn.
The universality of her craft is what makes it appealing to a large audience. That’s why her shows and exhibitions are blockbusters for art aficionados and ordinary people. Her visitors often spend several hours taking pictures and getting engrossed in the art. She says that although her art is mind-boggling to see online, it’s meant to be experienced.
Fond of sci-fi films? Love the exquisite beauty of the expansive universe? So do I. That’s why it’s a blessing to stumble upon the work of Melodysheep on Youtube and Instagram.
John D. Boswell is behind this hugely successful channel. His short CGI films explore the vastness of the celestial world. And with the help of eargasmic musical scores and expert voiceovers, his videos have accumulated millions of views.
Boswell’s contemporary take on the universe – how it came to being and how its future will be relative to our existence – is a wonderful inspirational resource. Every time you finish watching his videos, you’ll see yourself asking the meaning of life.
3. Yayoi Kusama
Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese installation artist and painter. Even at the age of 92, she still pushes the boundaries of contemporary art. She has received several awards in her decades-long career: Premium Imperiale, Asahi Prize, and Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Many art critics consider her as the most important figure in the world of avant-garde.
Yayoi Kusama was born in a conservative family in Nagano, Japan. In her early years, she was a prolific painter. However, her parents had disapproved of her painting and wanted her to wed a wealthy businessman instead. But because Yayoi had always wanted to become an artist, she left Japan to follow her dreams in the center of art at that time – New York.
There she was heavily involved in contemporary art. She painted repetitive semicircles covering the whole canvas. To make money, she later would sell those paintings for 200 dollars. Those art pieces will later be known as the “Infinity Nets,” one of her most expensive works of art, racking up millions of dollars.
Upon the success of these paintings, she branched out to performing that tackled sex and liberation. Such is the time when her most famous theme – polka dots – emerged. She has created so many kinds of art pieces from then on, including her most notable creations – pumpkins, phallic chairs, and mirror rooms.
Now, despite being old and voluntarily living in a psychiatric hospital, Yayoi Kusama is still more prolific and busier than ever. She almost always paints 24/7, from morning till dusk. In addition, her army of international staff still holds exhibits under her name around the globe.
Kusama is the highest-selling living female artist of today. Her retrospective tour “Yayoi Kusama: Infinite Obsession” attracted the biggest global audience than any art in 2015. There’s no doubt that she will forever be remembered as someone who followed her dreams despite many roadblocks and ultimately became a leading figure in contemporary art.
4. Ai Wei Wei
Ai Weiwei is a Chinese-born contemporary artist and activist who expresses his ideologies through film, painting, installation, and sculpture. He is the son of the most well-known poet and activist in China. In college, he enrolled in a film academy. Then he later moved to New York to escape his country’s restrictions.
In New York, he was a prolific photographer. But after a while, he went back to China to care for his dying father. From then, his most well-known pieces of art took form. He has mobilized groups of people around the globe to establish his activism-laden exhibits.
His notable projects include “So Sorry” (mosaic of the backpacks of dead children in Sichuan Earthquake), “Straight” (bundle of straightened steels from the ruined buildings in Sichuan), “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn” (famous photos of dropping an ancient urn symbolizing China’s disregard to antique culture), thousands of sunflower-seed designed ceramics, and many many other works of art.
Throughout the years, even during his detention in China, Ai Weiwei has been a voice for the voiceless. For him, art is only the channel to address a powerful message.
5. Anselm Kiefer
Anselm Kiefer is a well-known German painter and sculptor. His work depicts the dark and despondent themes of war and death. Materials such as straw, ash, clay, lead, and shellac embellish his large canvasses and larger-than-human installation pieces.
Anselm grew up in Germany after the death of World War 2. His projects speak of the depressing facets of war. It’s evident in his exhibits in White Cube’s “Walhalla” and many other parts of the globe. His recent work in the United States, commissioned by the Rockefeller Institute, has received worldwide recognition. Anselm has received numerous accolades – Premium Imperiale, Wolf Prize, and the Carnegie Prize.
Anselm’s neo-expressionist abstract paintings are laden with thick paints, old clothes, threads, hays, papers, books, etc. His subjects explore the reverie and the mythical, depicted with dark constructions and black illusions. Although abstract, his pieces are quite vivid and evocative, and most people can relate to their universal themes.
It’s silly to think that some people dislike modern contemporary art. Sure, some modern art pieces suck. But it also goes for the same underrepresented and, often, mocked art of the medieval period. Look at them now, celebrated, prized, and historical.
The good thing about contemporary art is that they speak the very thing that people nowadays experience. It can be death, life, sickness, diseases, awe, and wonder. If an art revolves around these universal themes, who cannot admire them?
So if you want to follow in these artists’ footsteps, it’s vital to start exploring now: dive into your dreams, past experiences, mentorship, etc. Then build up your brand, craft your logo, your font designs, color palettes, niche, fictional tales, and more.
Over to you, what pieces of contemporary art have you admired recently? Share in the comments.
Guest author: Marvin Espino is a writer from the Philippines. A marketing specialist from DesignCrowd and BrandCrowd, he has written several pieces on branding, marketing, and design. When not working, Marvin hoards well-written short pieces of writing. He’s also an avid fan of baking and singing.