Since 2001, the public-television series “Art in the Twenty-First Century” has offered down-to-earth excursions into the often quirky, sometimes arcane yet always fascinating world of contemporary art. The program returns Sept. 16 for its eighth season with a few notable changes, including the addition of actress Claire Danes as host.
Unlike previous seasons, which were each built around a theme, this season’s hourlong broadcasts are centered on four North-American cities with significant visual art communities: Chicago, Los Angeles, Mexico City and Vancouver.
“Where you choose to live and work is one of a few factors that can deeply influence an artist’s choice about subject,” said Tina Kukielski, executive director of ART21, the New York-based non-profit organization that produces the series. “Artists respond to the culture that surrounds them, and seeing that aspect of the creative process at work — that is a story everyone can identify with and understand.”
‘Art in the Twenty-First Century,’ 9 p.m. Sept. 16 (Chicago and Mexico City episodes) and 9 p.m. Sept. 23 (Los Angeles and Vancouver episodes), WTTW-Channel 11; art21.org; wttw.com ‘On Space and Place: Contemporary Art from Chicago, Los Angeles, Mexico City and Vancouver,’ Sept. 15-Dec. 18, DePaul Art Museum, 935 W. Fullerton. Admission: free; museums.depaul.edu
Chicago was an obvious choice, she said, because it boasts a vibrant contemporary scene that is not as well-known nationally as it should be. In addition, ART21 already had strong relationships with the city, including previous films that featured artist Kerry James Marshall and works by Jenny Holzer and Jeff Koons that were on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
Each of this season’s episodes focuses on four renowned artists with significant ties to the spotlighted city. Representing Chicago are Nick Cave, Theaster Gates, Barbara Kasten and Chris Ware.
“These artists have a strong presence in their home city,” Kukielski said, “while at the same time managing careers internationally that take their work to major museums around the world. There is an attempt to make a judgment that these artists will and have already become a part of our cultural history. We are, in essence, writing art history.”
Three award-winning directors worked on this season’s episodes: Deborah Dickson, Stanley Nelson and Pamela Mason Wagner, with filming running from April 2015 through April 2016. The project involved 40 trips and more than 100 interview sessions — some 400 hours of original footage in all.
In conjunction with the series, the DePaul Art Museum will present an exhibition from Sept. 15 through Dec. 18 that features examples by each of the 16 featured artists. It is the first time that a show of this kind has been mounted alongside one of the program’s seasons.
Here is a glimpse at three of the four spotlighted Chicago artists in their own words:
Nick Cave, chairman of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s fashion design department, is best known for his distinctive sound suits — exuberant, brightly colored wearable sculptures. His work, which also encompasses stand-alone sculptures, video and performance, will take another turn on Oct. 16 with “Until,” a football field-sized installation at MASS MoCA, a museum in North Adams, Massachusetts.
“I am an artist who is very much driven by excess or surplus, rebuilding and repurposing materials and renegotiating and redefining how this stuff is re-used. One’s man trash is another man’s treasure. So, it’s really talking about that and talking about the nostalgic elements. We can look at my work and make connections to particular moments in time in our existence. So, it’s really allowing ways to enter and connect to memory. There’s always been this sort of political undertone in the work and that’s really what has been the driving force. This piece I’m doing at MASS MoCA is definitely talking about this senseless gun violence. How do I create a platform for those conversations to be had? How do I create a safe haven for that kind of urgency? There’s a very dark underlying tone, but there’s also this seduction, this element that draws one in. And once they’re in, then how do we start to break down and dissect and see what’s there, and then how does that expand on ways that we can think and respond?”
The innovative, Bauhaus-influenced photography of Barbara Kasten, a native Chicagoan who moved back to the city in 1998, mediates between two and three dimensions. She was featured in a 2015 survey that was organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and toured to Chicago and Los Angeles.
“One of the things I feel I’m always thinking about is this translation of three dimensions into two dimensions. The fact that I build these temporary kinds of sculptures and assemblages and bring a translation of those three dimensions into a flat plane, which is a photograph that has, of course, its own sense of illusion to space. But it’s still an object that is a surface, a flat surface. When I work between the two spaces, I myself become involved with the work in a different way. When I’m in the space, I’m bodily in it, because these are not small tabletop assemblies that I do. So, I’m actually in it, moving things around. I’m on backdrop paper – I have to take my shoes off, and I relate to the space in that way. But, then, when I go put my shoes back on and go to the camera, I see it in a totally different way and then I have to apply different criteria to what I see and then it’s this kind of give and take between what I just experienced and what I see on a flat plane.”
Chris Ware is a genre-bending cartoonist who is best known for his “Acme Novelty Library” series, which he began in 1994, and such graphic novels as “Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid On Earth” and “Building Stories.” His first solo museum exhibition in Chicago took place in 2006 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
“It is important to me to be taken seriously as a contributor to American fine art, especially since cartoonists like me who are trying to do self-revelatory and experimental work are still sometimes lumped in with commercial artists (even though no one ever tells us what to draw or write). Cartooning is a solitary, life-consuming effort, the product of a single mind and hand, ideally not accusatory or patronizing and ultimately unpretentious and affordable, if not just plain disposable. Most importantly, it is an art that relies on the (very adult) act of reading pictures, not just on looking at them. I feel like it’s my job to try to write and draw about everything, not just some things. I’m simply trying to communicate what it feels like to be alive to readers who haven’t been born yet.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer