Recent political events (including the fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Gulf War) and the proliferation of new technologies have given rise to new themes and media that have inspired much contemporary art, and artists from all over the world are now exploring similar ground: the critical analysis of political and social issues, environmental concerns, the human body, and personal relationships.
The last few years have also seen changes in attitudes regarding the making of art itself. Painting, for example, has come to be viewed as no longer a venerable, almost magical object. Likewise, sculpture has continued to question its own status, broadening its traditional limits and legitimizing new spaces through the incorporation of all kinds of materials. And finally, video installations have come into their own as a medium of expression that permanently alters the relationship between the art object and the viewer.
Julian Schnabel (New York, USA, 1951)
In 1990, Julian Schnabel completed three monumental paintings [Anno Domini, El Espontáneo (for Abelardo Martínez) and Catherine Marie Ange] executed for the "Maison Carrée," a Roman temple in Nîmes, France. The paintings were inspired by three events that took place in the city. Anno Domini was inspired by the death of animals in the bull-ring in Nîmes; Abelardo Martínez was a viewer who leapt into the ring to take part in the bull-fight and was gored to death; and an ID card found underneath one of the many doors into the "Maison Carrée" led to Catherine Marie Ange. The three works were painted outdoors with no preliminary drawing to suggest the artist had a specific result in mind. Schnabel achieves an effect similar to an engraving or woodcut using wet tablecloths as paintbrushes. The procedure is remarkable: after dipping them in paint he threw the tablecloths at the vertical canvas. The palette was limited to red, the color of the canvas, and the occasional touch of yellow.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres (Guáimaro, Cuba, 1957–New York, USA, 1996)
In his work, Felix Gonzalez-Torres resuscitated strategies of the Minimalist and Conceptual movements of the 1960s and 1970s, infusing their formal and analytical practices with emotional content. Gonzalez-Torres gave away everyday objects, like candy and offset prints in paper stacks, to lure the viewer into his works. Untitled (Public Opinion), 1991, a work consisting of roughly 400 kilograms of missile-shaped licorice candies, questions the validity of public opinion, particularly in connection with militarism and patriotism in the United States. The work was created the year of the Gulf War. In Untitled, 1989–95, Gonzalez-Torres used an inventory of events and their dates, all in random order, to create a self-portrait in the form of an architectural frieze. By cross-referencing contemporary events with more personal situations and details, the artist constructed a narrative of his own life that reveals the contingent nature of meaning.
Cai Guo Qiang (Quanzhou, China, 1957) Richard Baquié (Marseille, France, 1956–1996) Leonardo Drew (Tallahasee, USA, 1961)
In an attempt to restore harmony to a world of fragmented, unrelated experiences, Chinese-born artist Cai Quo Chang works with abrupt contrasts, combining the immense and the tiny, juxtaposing things that frighten and things that cure. He also bridges the past and present, preserving original elements in combination with those that are strikingly new. Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan, 1996—a series of traditional rafts made from inflated sheep's skin with three running Toyota engines—suggests a recognizable icon of popular Chinese culture: the dragon. The rafts are inspired by those the Mongol army used many centuries ago to ford the Yellow River and invade the rest of Eurasia. The engines bring us back to the present day, by evoking the current, inescapable Asian presence in the West, this time through technology.
French artist Richard Baquié recuperates discarded objects and explores their aesthetic and functional qualities. In Tranches d'ailes, 1986, he recycled found objects and materials, grouping together a series of disparate items including a mattress, the wings from an aircraft, and fluorescent lights. Airplanes frequently figure in the artist's work, evoking romantic notions of voyages and flight, while also visiting specifically contemporary questions about space and time. African-American artist Leonardo Drew also uses waste materials to both explore the disintegration of the classic post-Minimalist grid and the inexact repetition of form, and to reference the histories of African-American experience. In Number 52, 1996, he uses apparently decomposing and rusting structures to create images that recall an aerial topographic survey or a close-up of rippled water. Rust, in addition to cotton, is a central element in the artist's oeuvre, and here it evokes urban decay.
Gillian Wearing (Birmingham, United Kingdom, 1963) Pipilotti Rist (Rheintal, Switzerland, 1962) Andreas Slominski (Meppen, Germany, 1959)
British artist Gillian Wearing is particularly interested in the fears, fantasies, and secrets of ordinary people and in the processes of identification set up with the viewer. In Sacha and Mum, 1996, Wearing attempts to unmask the ambivalent emotions surrounding the complex personal relationships between a mother and her daughter. The warmth of an embrace becomes transformed into a confrontation bordering on violence. The palpable tension in Wearing's work is in sharp contrast to the sensual celebration of the body in Swiss-artist Pipilotti Rist's video installation Sip My Ocean, 1996. Rist has created a magic submarine dream world in this video, which was filmed almost entirely under water and is accompanied by her own cover of Chris Isaak's love song "Wicked Game." Her entire aesthetic borrows from pop music and the vast area of mass culture. Double screens and spectacular effects suggest an ideal region of unadulterated pre-Oedipal pleasure. The work is Rist's personal invitation to take part in the eternal dance of desire and satisfaction. For more than fifteen years, German conceptual artist Andreas Slominski has been reinterpretating the concept of the trap. Slominski, who designs his own functional traps for all kinds of animals (foxes, marder, birds, insects), has found a perfect metaphor for art: like art, the trap seduces and deceives. Hermetic and humorous, the work lures its viewers, asking them to ponder the very limits of what constitutes the absurd and, hence, to contemplate the boundaries of art.