Modern or contemporary art can come in all shapes and forms. Nowadays, it’s not just found on canvases and sculptures but on handbags, wallets, purses, and clothing. American artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat are some examples of artists whose works have also become fashion statements. According to the Museum of Modern Art’s site, before the 19th century, only wealthy people and institutions like the church could afford art. So, artists were very limited in what they could create. However, during the age of secularization, the Industrial Revolution, and Sigmund Freud’s theories about the unconscious, artists began to explore themselves, and that was when modern art was born, according to the site.
What do contemporary themes, the Chinese neo-realist movement and broad brush strokes have in common? They all are characteristics of artist Xiaodong Liu. According to Lisson Gallery, an art gallery dedicated to showcasing contemporary and international artists, Liu is a Chinese artist known for his colorful large-size oil paintings of the environment, people, the Chinese economy and global issues.
Liu often paints portraits of people live, or “en plein air,” while taking heavy consideration of the environment. His artwork often depicts people from all over the world, according to a profile about Liu on the art website Ocula. One of his most famous pieces is titled “Out of Beichuan” (2010). The background of the piece shows the outskirts of Sichuan province in ruins after a deadly earthquake in 2008. The foreground of his piece shows skinny dogs near several women sitting on a bicycle cart.
Another contemporary artist that is known for large-scale oil paintings is the British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. According to an article titled, “An Introduction to Lynette Yiadom-Boakye,” Yiadom-Boakye paintings mostly depict Black men and women and have a timelessness quality, focusing on the person and their facial expression in the portrait. She says all of her portraits are from her imagination or people in magazines, according to the article.
Yiadom-Boakye always leaves mystery in her artwork and invites viewers to give their own interpretations of her art, according to her newest exhibition titled “Lynette Yiadom-Boakye Fly in League with the Night,” which features her artwork since 2003. One of her most famous paintings is in her League with the Night gallery. The painting pictures a close-up portrait of a Black man on an abstract green background. Around the subject’s neck is a cream-colored neck ruffle. According to a video titled “Lynette Yiadom-Boakye Fly in League with the Night,” there is no explanation for the neck ruffle, which is open for the viewer’s interpretation.
Arghavan Khosravi depicts growing up in Iran through a blend of contemporary, political and cultural elements. Her paintings are inspired by surrealism and include visual illusions, people, monuments, human rights and Iranian textiles, according to Residency Unlimited, a non-profit organization that focuses on spreading contemporary art. In 2015, Khosravi traveled to the U.S. to pursue her master’s in painting but later was unable to return to Iran due to the Muslim travel ban, according to The New Yorker.
Khosravi’s frustration led her to start painting on Iranian textiles creating some of her most famous paintings. In 2020 she released an exhibition titled “This Shall Also Pass,” displaying both human and women’s rights. Her gallery pictures several different women on different panels. Each panel has a different theme about women’s empowerment. For example, one panel showed a woman with glass breaking in front of her face and arms tied up, symbolizing women’s right to freedom of expression. Other themes of her paintings include how women have evolved and how they serve as a symbol of power by fighting against censorship, according to a site titled, “Arghavan Khosravi at Stems Gallery.”
It is impossible to talk about all contemporary artists, but a show that can tell you a little more about contemporary art can be found at art21.org.
It is inspiring to hear how different artists express themselves in contemporary art. While researching about these artists, I came across this quote from contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei which resonates with what contemporary art is at its core.
“Expressing oneself is a part of being human,” Ai Weiwei said. “To be deprived of a voice is to be told you are not a participant in society; ultimately it is a denial of humanity.”