Contemporary Artists That Defined 2013

ron mueck sculpture
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Note: Contains nudity.

It’s a hard thing to do, compiling a list of the greatest visual artists the year has thrown at us. For one thing there’s the sheer volume of practising artists out there in the big, wide world to sift through. From the famous faces selling their art by the thousands in auction houses, to the lesser known ones toiling away in their bedrooms or rented studios.

Then you’ve got the second major problem: art is subjective. Everyone who has an opinion on contemporary art will have their personal highlights of the year, and will fight tooth and nail to defend their choice.

The artists I have featured here have done something a little extra special this year, whether it’s an exhibition they’ve been involved in or a single piece of art that has resounded with people in a meaningful way. Feel free to disagree with my selection and write your own list in defiance, I encourage you in fact. For the heated discussion of art is such a fun enterprise.

Top: “Drift” by Ron Mueck.
kara walker silhouettes
Top: The magical silhouette art of Kara Walker. Bottom: An interview with the artist.

Kara Walker

There is no other artist of the last decade who has explored the history of racism and the struggles of the African-American people, more specifically women, in the US with as much versatility, passion and magic than Kara Walker. Rising to fame with her stunning black and white silhouettes, she takes a horrific subject (the treatment of black people before and after the civil war in the Deep South) and manages to create these spellbinding, enchanting artworks. On one hand her silhouettes could have sprung from some 19th century children’s classic but they don’t patronise or distort the memory of the tragedies that occurred in this time. In 1997, Walker aged 28 was one of the youngest artists ever to be awarded a “MacArthur Genius Grant” and this year she’s staged her first solo exhibition in the UK, at the Camden Arts Centre in London: “Capable Artworks by the Notable Hand of the Celebrated American, Kara Elizabeth Walker, Negress” (see video above). What a title. What an artist!

ron mueck sculpture
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Above: The sculptor Ron Mueck distorts the human body in various sizes.

Ron Mueck

The Australian sculptor Ron Mueck is a bit of an artistic phenomenon. His hyperrealist creations are so detailed and lifelike that one can’t believe that they are in fact works of art and not the creation of some genius anatomist. It’s easy to spot one of his sculptures. The scale of the piece will often be the first thing that catches your eye, as it will very likely either be the size of a jeep or an umbrella stand. The effect of this is quite startling to behold. Mueck dissects the human body with an unmerciful eye, every flaw, every flake of human skin is exposed for us to see. This year Mueck has once again climbed to the top of the art world ladder, as he staged one of his most ambitious exhibitions at the Cartier Foundation in Paris (see video at top). The show went down a treat with art critics and the art going public alike. It’s impossible to play down Mueck’s influence and success in the modern art world. Here we truly have a visionary in the purest sense of the word.

Jay Z purchased this art piece titled "Everyone’s Scared" by Hebru Brantley hebru brantley portait of the artist
Top: Jay Z purchased this art piece titled “Everyone’s Scared” by Hebru Brantley. Bottom: A portrait of the artist in his studio.

Hebru Brantley

There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding this Chicago-based artist in 2013. His mixed-media paintings and illustrations, which are steeped in graffiti art and often feature spray paint, have generated much excitement in the US art world. Taking inspiration from a wide range of sources, including Japanese anime and comic book heroes, Brantley’s work recalls the pop art collages of Jean Michel Basquiat in their playful spirit and use of colour. When Jay-Z bought one of Brantley’s pieces for $20,000 at Art Basel, his reputation was sealed and propelled him into the art world A-List. His pop culture canvas mixed with a droll sense of humour and street art style make this artist definitely one of the highlights of the year.

pop art pakpoom silaphan pakpoom silaphan pop art picasso
Pop artist Pakpoom Silaphan plays with images of Picasso and Andy Warhol in his mixed-media pieces.

Pakpoom Silaphan

Here’s another quality pop artist making waves in the International art world. In Silaphan’s pieces the colours are bright and the brands are ultra recognisable, but with a Southern Asian twist informed by his years spent living and working in Thailand. You’ll find icons of popular culture from Salvador Dali to Yayoi Kusama, painted against old advertising boards and factory boxes which result in witty and subversive collages that get to the heart of our capitalist society. While the obvious points of reference like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein make sense, it underplays the unique slant of Silaphan’s art. There’s a subtlety at work that is very often lost in the over-the-top aesthetic one finds in similar styles of art. The Independent recently called him a “Pop artist for these times,” and it’s hard to disagree with this.

All Images © respective artists and galleries.

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Christopher is based in the UK, the former assistant editor of Scene360 magazine. Follow the author @ and view more articles.