17 Artists Who Persevered in 2020

The Editors | December 2, 2020 | Feature culture

In a year of digital viewing rooms and streamed events, the cultural conversation continues to thrive online. Here are the visionaries who are shaping the discourse of the day.

PHIL Ken McFarlane art

Ken McFarlane, “Erik II” photographed for ongoing series From the Root to the Fruit: Black Fathers and their Children

Ken McFarlane

PHIL Ken McFarlane art

Ken McFarlane, “Jean-Jacques, Samarah and Yemaya” photographed for ongoing series From the Root to the Fruit: Black Fathers and their Children

“My work is about highlighting the good and wonderful things that happen in my community,” says Philadelphia artist, activist and photographer Ken McFarlane. His ongoing documentary series, From the Root to the Fruit: Portraits of Black Fathers and their Children, was prominently featured at the Barnes Foundation over Father’s Day weekend last June—but not in the galleries. In a first at the Barnes, 23 images were projected onto the museum’s exterior for an outdoor photo exhibition. His stirring, often reverential portraits explore ideas of self-representation and community and celebrate his West Philly neighborhood—one family at a time. McFarlane says the most gratifying aspect of the collab wasn’t the widespread recognition, but that many of those same families came to see themselves in larger-than-life form. He notes that From the Root to the Fruit is currently on view at Traction Company, all thanks to an outpouring of support. “The story to be told,” he says, “is that the community lifted me up and carried me to the Barnes. They saw something in my work that I didn’t and appreciated it to the point that they didn’t want the exhibit to go. It’s one of the sweetest things I’ve experienced as an artist.”

Christopher Martin

Christopher Martin portrait

Contemporary artist Christopher Martin, whose Aspen Gallery showcases the work of notable artists like Steve Wrubel, Paul Bloch and Ysabel LeMay

While contemporary artist Christopher Martin is renowned for the technique of painting in reverse, or verre églomisé, his career trajectory has been one of constant progression. More than a decade ago, he also began using metallic prints to create an exquisite series of more than 250 photographs. Major commissions have included “Velocity,” a massive painting in the lounge of the Circuit of the Americas Formula One track in Austin. Martin’s other coup: showcasing brilliant contemporary artists in his eponymous galleries in Aspen, Dallas and Santa Fe. “I love all of the artists we work with. I would say the ones who make the Aspen Gallery curation are some of my favorites—Steve Wrubel, Paul Bloch, Ysabel LeMay and Isabelle Van Zeijl,” says Martin. “All of these artists approach their respective works in such a diverse way, yet they form a very harmonious experience when they all come together.”

Sheila Pree Bright

Sheila Pree Bright portrait

Sheila Pree Bright, “Self Portrait”

Atlanta-based photographer Sheila Pree Bright’s #1960NOW: Photographs of Civil Rights Activists and Black Lives Matter Protests was published over two years ago, but the body of work is more relevant than ever. “My interest started with the death of Trayvon Martin,” she says. And after meeting with unknown civil rights leaders of the ’60s, Bright set out to capture moments of civil unrest.

Sheila Pree Bright artwork

Sheila Pree Bright, “Invisible Empire #1” (2019)

Now, as the first Atlanta-based artist to be commissioned for the High Museum of Art’s Picturing the South series—in its 25th year—she sets out to provoke conversation and change. “We need to elevate how we see and read imagery. … We are living in a visual age, in which images have become the central medium for representing and interrogating all aspects of human experience,” she says. “I want to challenge myself as an image-maker through the lens of Afro-Futurism: What does liberation look like?”


An Urban Conversation Artwork

SEN-1, “An Urban Conversation” (oil-based spray paint and inks on canvas)

Kristine Feeks Hammond, co-director of Boston’s Galerie d’Orsay, says she’s recognized seminal moments over the past few years when it became clear graffiti and hip-hop culture had hit the mainstream. “When iconic jeweler Tiffany & Co. featured cans of spray paint as a backdrop for its jewelry in the windows down the street from our gallery, I knew doors and minds were opening,” she says. One of the masters of the medium, SEN-1 (George Morillo), is represented by the gallery. The artist, who was both a witness to and an active participant in the emergence of the New York City street-art movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s, has become a legend for influencing the city’s graffiti style. Martha S. Folsom, Galerie d’Orsay co-director, says she met SEN-1 in her gallery a few years ago. “We had an immediate connection, and I was overwhelmed by his story and authenticity,” she says. “I could see his struggle laid out right there on the canvas. His paintings touch on the complex layering of the American experience and reverence for cultural history in the most compelling way. It’s telling that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is featuring Basquiat as its blockbuster show for 2020. With the world waking up to issues of racial injustice and diversity, this is only the beginning of a very important time in art history. We’re proud of what SEN-1 adds to that conversation. We’re encouraging our collectors to listen.”

Jessica Ingle

Jessica Ingle artwork photo

Work from artist Jean Roelke featured at the 2019 Texas Vignette Art Fair

Promote, support and connect women in the arts scene of Texas. These are the founding pillars and mission statement of Texas Vignette, a Dallas-based art fair. Realizing there was a huge need to create a forum for women to broaden exposure and make showcasing works on a grand scale more accessible, Jessica Ingle founded the fair in 2017, and it has been wildly successful since day one. “I noticed the tendency for collectors, curators and even gallerists to overlook locally based artists, especially women and female-identifying artists,” she says. “There’s a serious lack of opportunities for Texas artists to exhibit in their own state, and opportunities for women are even fewer and farther between. In response to these ever-growing disparities, a group of brilliant women and I formed Texas Vignette. Our board consists of women working throughout the art scene as artists, curators, writers, and as leaders in development, membership and education at museums.” In response to COVID-19, Texas Vignette wanted to ensure the mission continued to charge on. In response, it recently unveiled a new grants initiative program. This February, Texas Vignette will offer five grants at $2,000 each, with a goal to raise $25,000.

Dont Fret

Dont Fret artwork in Chicago

Chicago street artist Dont Fret pays tribute to locals both well-known and obscure with his latest large-scale effort, The People in Your Neighborhood, featuring 55 portraits along the Riverwalk’s westernmost point.

2020 has put a crimp in the plans of countless Chicago creatives—but not Windy City street artist Dont Fret (@dontfretart). With the city as his canvas, the self-described “vaguely anonymous human from Chicago” has, if anything, been more prolific during this topsy-turvy time. Case in point: The People in Your Neighborhood, his just-unveiled large-scale art installation on the Chicago Riverwalk. Created in partnership with the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and located at the Riverwalk’s westernmost point, the sprawling work features 55 portraits of Chicagoans from all walks of life—from Howard Brown Health Dr. Abbey Baus to notorious club kid JoJo Baby—all depicted in his signature cheeky style. “My inspiration for the project started as simply as most of my projects do: location, location, location,” says the artist, whose new book, Dont Fret: Life Thus Far (Schiffer Publishing), is now available for purchase. “The People in Your Neighborhood is installed on a fence bordering Chicago’s Lower Wacker Drive, which my great-grandfather helped dig as a boy before he was a postman on the West Side for 40-plus years,” he says. “I was a bike messenger in college and had to learn Lower Wacker like the back of my hand. I would ‘catch tags’ down there a lot after work when I was starting to take art seriously. So I have a bit of a relationship with the location, not to mention it’s a beautiful piece of Chicago. While I chose the majority of the people I painted for the project, I also got to ‘meet’—through friends and through the curators—a bunch of Chicagoans whose stories I wasn’t aware of. It was a well-needed reminder in these difficult times of the amazing diversity, resolve and perseverance of the people who make our fair ‘City by the Lake’ hustle. I hope the work serves as a catalyst for locals to discover a neighbor they didn’t know about and then support a business, a social cause or just make a connection with someone new.”

Sandro Kereselidze & Tatiana Pastukhova

Sandro and Tatiana portrait

Sandro Kereselidze and Tatiana Pastukhova have introduced thousands of patrons to the world of digital art and immersive experiences via Artechouse in Miami, New York City and Washington, D.C.

In the dreamscape world created by Sandro Kereselidze and Tatiana Pastukhova, the human form not only experiences art, but also becomes part of its magic. Immersion is the goal at Artechouse, Washington, D.C.’s celebrated digital-art gallery that now has outposts in Miami and New York. Since the D.C. gallery opened five years ago, founders Kereselidze and Pastukhova have continued to showcase the groundbreaking work of pioneering digital artists like Thomas Blanchard, Sakura Yume and Julius Horsthuis. This winter, look for Intangible Forms, a laser-art exhibition by Shohei Fujimoto. “For summer 2021, we’re working with the Society of Neuroscience to bring the first experience of the human neuron to the public through an interactive and immersive digital exhibition,” says Kereselidze. “We’re excited for this collaboration at the intersection of art, science and technology.”

Kori Newkirk

Kori Newark portrait

Kori Newkirk’s art is an ever-evolving approach to painting, sculptural installation and photography.

As Orange County Museum of Art gears up to open its new home at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in 2021, the beloved institution held its annual gala in October virtually and honored virtuoso Kori Newkirk. The mixed-media artist began his formal foray into the arts at University of California, Irvine, where he received his MFA, and has since become an integral part of Southern California’s artistic landscape. “It is an honor to recognize Kori Newkirk, one of the most compelling artists working today,” says OCMA interim Director Sarah Jesse. “His work is an integral part of our collection and has been included in six OCMA exhibitions over the last 15 years. The beauty of his work beguiles while at the same time advances powerful social commentaries on race, gender and identity that are particularly resonant today. As we embark on our last gala before transitioning to our future home at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, this is an especially important time for the museum.”

David Graeve

David Graeve Rice model

“Rice Model” on display in Houston

“My approach is often looking for avenues of the unexpected engagement with the viewer and community,” says sculptor David Graeve. “I do this through setting up visual and conceptual architecture that allows for unknown outcomes to inform possible interpretations with an innovative, well-crafted application of material and execution to create original works that expand the visual language.”David Graeve Title Social unrest

“Social Unrest” on display in Houston

David Graeve public proposals

“Public Proposals” on display in Houston

The Houston-based artist—whose work is on display through mid-December at Flatland Gallery (@flatlandgalleryhtx) as part of The Golden Cage exhibition, as well as a public installation at Hardy & Nance Studios—constantly strives to evoke the idea and intention behind his work to share with his audience. “I try to comprehend the ideological reasons for the work: what lies behind it, what constitutes its social and formal innovation, its functional requirements and conceptual outcomes,” shares Graeve. “I start at this level, where I have the excuse of artisan experimentation, and end when idea, concept and intention are brought into conversation.”

Titus Kaphar

Titus Kaphar artwork

Titus Kaphar, “Analogous Colors” (2020, oil on canvas), 66 inches by 60 inches

“I believe there is beauty in hearing the voices of people who haven’t been heard,” explains Kalamazoo, Mich.-born and New Haven, Conn.-based artist Titus Kaphar. “That’s a complex idea because the things that must be said are not always lovely. But somehow, if they are reflective of the truth, I think, fundamentally, that makes them beautiful.” Through his work as a painter, sculptor, filmmaker and installation artist, the Rappaport Prize and MacArthur Fellowship recipient seeks to emancipate history from the past to more clearly understand its impact on the present.Titus Kaphar artwork

Titus Kaphar, “Twins” (2020, oil on canvas), 83 ¾ inches by 68 inches

Through the mediums of tar, glass and rusted nails mixed with traditional oil painting—and techniques such as cutting, shredding, stitching, binding and erasing—Kaphar revolutionizes canonical works of art to invent new narratives. His latest exhibition, From a Tropical Space, at Gagosian in New York (on view at its Chelsea gallery through Dec. 19) presents a haunting narrative of Black motherhood—with the collective fear and trauma of the disappearance of children painfully represented through the physical excision of their images from the canvases themselves. “There’s the aesthetic beauty of the work that, in some cases, functions as more of a Trojan horse,” he explains. “It allows one to open their hearts to difficult conversations.” The artist also helped establish NXTHVN, a new national arts model to empower artists and curators of color through education and access by connecting students from local high schools, early-career artists and creative professionals with the resources and networks vital to their success. “It’s only through creativity and imagination that we will redefine the future,” Kaphar says.

Made in L.A. 2020

Made in L.A. 2020

An Ann Greene Kelly sculpture stands before paintings by Umar Rashid.

As a city constantly in flux, Los Angeles is notoriously difficult to define. But every two years, the Hammer Museum attempts to take the City of Angels’ pulse with Made in L.A., a biennial exhibition focused on emerging local artists. For the fifth iteration of the show—Made in L.A. 2020: a version—co-curators Lauren Mackler and Myriam Ben Salah, and the Hammer’s assistant curator of performance, Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi, collaborated to select 30 participants whose diverse works will be displayed at both the Hammer and The Huntington. “There’s this attempt to encapsulate Los Angeles every two years without ever managing to,” says Mackler of the challenging assignment. “It’s a moving target.” Consisting of a wide variety of works in a range of mediums, including performances that can be viewed virtually, three distinct threads emerged from the exhibition: entertainment, horror and the fourth wall. “Not just entertainment, as in the entertainment industry because we’re in Los Angeles, but also entertainment and ‘entertaining’ because they have a tense relationship to art,” Mackler explains of the first thread. With the second, the curators considered not only what elicits horror, but the odd attraction to it. “Why do we look at or wrestle with things that may cause fear or anxiety?” Onyewuenyi asks. “Horror, historically, has been a vehicle for a political analogy,” adds Mackler. “We saw the way different artists were utilizing it as a vehicle for contemporary concerns.” In addition to exploring the idea of the fourth wall, many artists ended up contending with archives. “There were a lot of negotiations that ended up having to happen between an artist and an archive and a way of presenting the archive and reconsidering an archive,” says Mackler, who names works by Mario Ayala, Monica Majoli and Sabrina Tarasoff as examples. Although the pandemic is affecting the exhibition in a major way (it is delayed until the city deems it safe for museums to open), having more time to explore the work has led to a deeper appreciation. “There’s the space for so many conversations,” says Mackler. Onyewuenyi agrees: “I was really drawn to this idea of a biennial in slow motion.”

Jiab Prachakul

Jiab Prachakul 3 Brothers

Jiab Prachakul, “Three Brothers” (2020, acrylic on canvas), 63 inches by 71 inches by 1.8 inches

For self-taught painter Jiab Prachakul, making art goes way beyond creative expression alone. Presenting images from her own life—friends, family, her surroundings and more—helps the Thailand-born artist take a closer look at her identity as an Asian woman living far from home. “I unfold my insecurities as an Asian person living abroad, what’s left in me from my homeland and my adopted identity,” she explains.Jiab Prachakul Naked artwork

Jiab Prachakul, “Naked” (2020, acrylic on canvas), 66 inches by 55 inches. “The paintings I make give me a ground to stand on,” says Prachakul of expressing herself by illustrating the people in her world.

“[Painting people I know] helps me deal with my living reality as an Asian diaspora. It helps me feel included and able to create a comfortable scenario for myself to fit in my adapted society.” Prachakul, who recently won the prestigious 2020 BP Portrait Award for her painting “Night Talk” and whose work appeared on the cover of Vogue Thailand in September, will have her first U.S. solo show, 14 Years, at San Francisco’s Friends Indeed gallery Jan. 22 to March 5. “I believe that being an artist is like being a film director,” she says. “To have a good film you really need a great crew, who help bring out the vision of the director. As artists, we need a good gallery that helps us build a strong foundation to speak about our subject matter.” In fact, along with books, memories and people, film is a huge inspiration for the artist. “I like to think of my painting as a still movie,” Prachakul says, explaining that her contemporary figurative work aims to capture a moment in time. “I think artwork nowadays is serving a purpose to communicate about certain topics we might all think and feel similarly about, even if we don’t come from the same background.”

Arlene Shechet

Arlene Shechet Portrait

Arlene Shechet at her Woodstock, N.Y., studio. The artist’s solo exhibition at Pace Gallery in Palo Alto, Calif., opens in February.

“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t thinking about art or creating things,” says Arlene Shechet. The multidisciplinary sculptor—whose work can be found at distinguished institutions across the globe including Centre Pompidou in Paris, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and more—is currently putting the finishing touches on her first solo show at Pace Gallery in Palo Alto, Calif. Set to open this February, Together: Pacific Time will feature colorful large-scale sculptural works that play off pieces seen at recent shows in Manhattan and East Hampton, N.Y. “Seeing people move and gesture—their body language, colors and the music of life, both created and found” are a few things that inspire Shechet as her creative approach evolves from piece to piece. “It’s never the same process twice, and, actually, in many cases, there is no clear start,” she explains, noting she’s staying busy working on projects for the Stuart Collection at University of California, San Diego; an installation at the Harvard Art Museums; and a curated installation at The Drawing Center in New York, in addition to prepping for the Palo Alto show. “I’m always playing, listening and looking,” Shechet says. “I guess my starting place is just paying attention to what’s in front of me: a hunk of wood, a lump of clay, a construction site full of steel beams, a bird in the sky.”

Larger Than Memory

Larger Than Memory artwork

Meryl McMaster, “What Will I Say to the Sky and Earth II” (2019, chromogenic print mounted to aluminum composite panel), 40 inches by 60 inches

As the largest exhibition of current art in Heard Museum’s 90-year history, Larger Than Memory: Contemporary Art from Indigenous North America (through Jan. 3) features more than 40 works by 22 artists from the United States and Canada. Curated by Diana Pardue and Erin Joyce, the expansive exhibit in Phoenix shines a light on work produced in the 21st century from talents like Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, a longtime Heard Museum collaborator; Cannupa Hanska Luger, 2019’s Burke Prize honoree and 2020’s Creative Capital Award winner; plus multidisciplinary artist Jeffrey Gibson, a 2019 MacArthur Fellow. “Larger Than Memory comes at a pivotal time in the global contemporary art world,” says David Roche, Heard Museum Dickey Family director and CEO. “The exhibition recognizes and presents artists working at the top of their field, across a variety of mediums—artists who are engaging with critical dialogues that touch all of our lives. The Heard is honored to present the work of these creatives and be a leader in conversations regarding representation, identity and the environment.”

Alanna Airitam

Alanna Airitam The Queen

Alanna Airitam, “The Queen” (2017)

"For many years, I have considered San Diego to be my home. It’s where I found my courage and my voice to put into this work,” says artist Alanna Airitam, winner of the 2020 San Diego Art Prize, who shares the honor with three other local female creatives. “To understand just how much this means to me, you have to first understand how often Black women get silenced and pushed aside and told we don’t matter. You have to understand how important it is to have representation and for the messages of freedom, empowerment, creativity and beauty to be seen and heard in communities that are largely marginalized,” shes says. “When young people see themselves represented, they are seeing possibility within themselves.” A Critical Mass 2020 Top 50 finalist and a 2020 Michael Reichmann Project Grant Award honoree, Airitam uses her talent to challenge stereotypes and question the lack of fair and equal representation of people of color in the arts. By utilizing minimal lighting, Airitam’s in-studio photographs—showcased in her limited-edition series like The Golden Age—mimic the richness and pigmentation of canvas paintings. Up next, she will head to North Carolina to visit the land where her ancestors lived and worked as enslaved people to inspire her next works of art. “The landowner left his land to the children he fathered with enslaved women, now home to my aunts and cousins,” Airitam shares. “I feel called upon to spend time on this land, to piece together the history for my family and to understand how we became and continue to be an integral part of the United States of America.”


AREA 15 Peter Ruprecht Art Island

“OMAH” by Alchemy Arts artists Fez and Heather B. Gaetz depicts a larger-than-life neon-lit owl

Las Vegas is now home to the world’s first purpose-built experiential art and entertainment complex known as AREA15 , the crown jewel of which is Art Island. The permanent outdoor gallery features larger-than-life works of art composed of festival-friendly pieces from international stars like Davis McCarty, Ivan McLean and Michael Benisty. “At Art Island, we intentionally created a permanent showcase for these extraordinary pieces,” says AREA15 CEO Winston Fisher. “After all, what seems a more fitting, organic home for this sort of spectacle than AREA15—in the shadow of the over-the-top Las Vegas Strip?”

AREA 15 from above

An aerial view of Art Island

A collaboration between AREA15 Chief Creative Officer and Beneville Studios CEO Michael Beneville and Fired Up Management founder Josh Levine, the exhibition is a wonder for the eyes with 3D sculptures like Benisty’s 14-foot-tall “In Every Lifetime I Will Find You,” in which two individuals made of mirror-polished steel embrace. “Art Island acknowledges the growing audience for this burgeoning outdoor art form distinctive for its accessibility and ability to create new art enthusiasts,” says Beneville. “Here, for the first time in an urban setting, will be a place where collectors and lovers of visual culture alike can walk among this monumental artwork in a setting unlike anywhere else.”

Alex Gartenfeld

Alex Gartenfeld portrait

ICA Miami Artistic Director Alex Gartenfeld

When the global pandemic made culture go exclusively virtual a few months back, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami was one of the first institutions in the city to pivot and make its spring exhibitions available to art fans in a digital format. “We are a 21st century museum, so everything we have done since our founding has had an eye on digital,” says Artistic Director Alex Gartenfeld. “We seek to tell experimental stories in innovative ways, and digital storytelling is crucial to making our programs accessible to a broader public.”Allan McCollum artwork

An installation view of Allan McCollum: Works Since 1969, at the museum

Even though the museum has now reopened with new shows (programming in December includes the first American museum retrospective for renowned artist Allan McCollum and the first solo museum presentation for Miami’s own Tomás Esson), its commitment to art from anywhere at any time continues thanks to its massive online library, ICA Channel, which offers an exclusive selection of artist videos, talks, exhibition stories, interviews, public lectures and much more. “The ICA Channel is the way we build upon our exhibitions and programs—through educational and poetic storytelling,” adds Gartenfeld. “Practically speaking, we create cinematic and educational videos for major exhibitions, talks and artists in our collection, and work with videographers to provoke thought and imagination.”

Tags: art virtual

Photography by: Ken McFarlane photos by Ken McFarlane; Christopher Martin photo by Brittany Irvine/courtesy of Christopher Martin gallery; Sheila Pree Bright Photos © Sheila Pree Bright; SEN-1 photo by Ben Flythe for galerie d’Orsay Boston; Jessica Ingle photo courtesy of Sheryl Lanzel; Dont Fret photo by Clayton Hauck; Sandro Kereselidze & Tatiana Pastukhova photo by Greg Powers; Kori Newkirk photo by Sharon Suh; David Graeve photos courtesy of David Graeve; “Analogous Colors” photo © Titus Kaphar Photo by Christopher Gardner/Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian;
“Twins” photo © Titus Kaphar, Photo by Alexander Harding/Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian; Made in L.A. 2020: a version Installation view at The Huntington Library,
Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, Photo by Joshua White; Jiab Prachakul photos courtesy of the Artist and Friends Indeed, San Francisco; Arlene Shechet photo courtesy of Shechet Portrait Studio 2018, © Jeremy Liebman; Larger Than Memory photo courtesy of Heard Museum; Alanna Airitam photo courtesy of the artist; AREA 15 photos by Peter Ruprecht; Alex Gartenfeld portrait by Gesi Schilling/Courtesy of ICA Miami, art photo by Zachary Balber/Courtesy of ICA Miami


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