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24 Powerful Works by Contemporary Women Artists You Should Know

Like other realms of the culture, the visual arts are, at the moment, a male-dominated profession. A recent book put together by arts scholars, entitled The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium, records the same kind of problem you often hear women writers complaining about: in spite of the fact that MFA graduates are overwhelmingly women, it’s men who get the crucial solo exhibitions at galleries which can make or break an artist’s career. The Reckoning seeks to correct this by recognizing the work of 25 young female artists who are breaking new ground, these days. Here is a sampling of their work.

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Tracey Emin, “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995″ (1995)

Tracey Emin is an English artist whose work is often called “confessional.” Her most famous work includes the above installation of a tent, called Everyone I Have Ever Slept With. (The names of said people are appliquéd on the inside of the tent.) If this sounds like a euphemism for all the people Emin has, well, had sex with, it isn’t, quite: her grandma’s name is on there, for example. The original tent was destroyed in a warehouse fire, in 2004; she’s never recreated it. 

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Catherine Opie, “Jake” (1991)

Catherine Opie’s work with photography is famed for its treatment of identity, and queer identities in particular. She made her name with portraits of the queer and trangender people she knows in Los Angeles. “Few artists of her generation,” the New York Times wrote of her 2008 retrospective at the Guggenheim,”have as consistently and brilliantly shown queerness to be the capacious category that it is.”

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Ghada Amer, “Le champ de marguerites,” 2011)

Ghada Amer once traded one of her paintings for a green card. She works with embroidery and watercolor to create the kind of gorgeous canvas you see above, and her use of mixed media is politically motivated, as she reiterates in her artist’s statement to the Brooklyn Museum:

The history of art was written by men, in practice and in theory. Painting has a symbolic and dominant place inside this history, and in the twentieth century it became the major expression of masculinity, especially through abstraction. For me, the choice to be mainly a painter and to use the codes of abstract painting, as they have been defined historically, is not only an artistic challenge: its main meaning is occupying a territory that has been denied to women historically. I occupy this territory aesthetically and politically because I create materially abstract paintings, but I integrate in this male field a feminine universe: that of sewing and embroidery.

Jane and Louise Wilson are British sisters who work together. (I suppose that means this list technically contains 25 artists, but oh well.) They love abandoned buildings; the above video shows their work with Orford Ness, a British military test site.

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Janine Antoni, “Lick and Lather,” 1992

Janine Antoni’s work has been said to blend performance with sculpture. What that means, in plain English, is that she likes to fashion her work in more creative ways than simply using her hands. For example, in her latest work, she licked the chocolate bust of herself, above, to create that mottled effect. She has also mopped the floor with her own hair.

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Cecily Brown, “Sweetie,” 2001.

Cecily Brown’s paintings, particularly of late, are often both abstract and “figured,” in the sense that you can sometimes make out human figures in them.

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Julie Mehretu, “Stadia I” 2004.

Julie Mehretu, who hails from Ethiopia, often sees her work called “architectural.” One reason for that is the way her paintings contain layers, and specifically often recall blueprints. “I don’t think of architectural language as just a metaphor about space, but about spaces of power, about ideas of power,” she once told an interviewer.

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Detail from Pipilotti Rist, “Ever is Over All” (1997)

Pipilotti Rist, who is Swiss, likes to project moving images on walls. Many of them are lush landscapes of flowers, and they are always saturated in bright colors. The effect is beautiful, but almost too beautiful, even disorienting at times, though always kind of comforting. The New Yorker‘s art critic, Peter Schjedahl, has called her an “evangelist of happiness.”

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Cao Fei, “UN-Cosplayers” (2006)

Cao Fei, a Chinese multimedia artist, does work that blends the old and new world with our hyper-fast culture. The above photograph, from her UN-cosplayer series, pretty much says it all.

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Lisa Yuskavage, “Small Morning” (2005)

Lisa Yuskavage is known primarily for her female nudes. Like the above, they are always markedly voluptuous. And like Pipilotti Rist, she loves popping color. There’s also, generally, a lot of fruit, to signify fertility.

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Justine Kurland, “Waterfall, Mama Babies” (2006)

Justine Kurland’s photography tends to focus on themes of escape, and of idyll, and she’s been called romantic because of it. She made her name with a series of photographs of female nudes in American countryscapes, particularly Western countryscapes. (Kurland hails originally from Poland but now lives, like almost all the artists here, in New York.)

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Kara Walker’s silhouette panoramas tell stories of the cruelties and excesses of racism. Her work is disarmingly pretty to look at; it’s when you scrutinize the story that the images are showing that you come to see the darkness of them. Her theme is race. As the New York Times once put it, “It dominates everything, yet within it Ms. Walker finds a chaos of contradictory ideas and emotions. She is single-minded in seeing racism as a reality, but of many minds about exactly how that reality plays out in the present and the past. For her the reliable old dualities — white versus black , strong versus weak, victim versus predator — are volatile and shifting. And she uses her art — mocking, shaming, startlingly poignant, excruciatingly personal — to keep them this way.”

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Liza Lou, “Kitchen” (1991-1996)

Liza Lou works not with paint, but with beads. Her most famous work is the above Kitchen, which took five years to complete. It gave her tendonitis. It also upset all her art teachers. But in the end, she was awarded a genius grant for her work, and continues to work in beads now.

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Wangechi Mutu’s most famous pieces are collage. She likes to rework images from magazines into work that explores the nature of the body. “My work is often a therapy for myself — a working out of these issues as a black woman,” the Kenyan-born, Bed-Stuy-dwelling artist told New York recently, “And a way of allowing other black women to work through this kind of stigmatization as they look through the images and feel how distorted or contorted they might be in the public eye.”

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Andrea Zittel, “Rough Furniture” (1998)

Andrea Zittel’s work is a little hard to describe in language. One of her first projectsinvolved renting a Brooklyn storefront and raising chickens in it. From there she moved on to a kind of furniture-building that was heavily inflected with sculpture. She has also built islands. The way art critics typically sum her up is as conducting an “investigation of fundamental aspects of contemporary domestic and urban life in Western society.”

Katarzyna Kozyra is a Polish video artist whose work has caused considerable controversy in her home country. She has been known to film horses at the moment of their death, for example, never a way to endear yourself to PETA sympathizers. She has also snuck into male bathhouses, disguised as a man herself, and filmed the ablutions performed therein. The above video, The Rite of Spring, uses time-lapse photography and elderly naked bodies to recreate the famous ballet of the same name.

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Kate Gilmore, “Love ‘em, Leave ‘em” (2013)

Kate Gilmore’s work often focuses on themes of mess and destruction. She has, for example, in the past invited women to come into the pristine Pace Gallery and throw some clay around; other videos of hers involve breaking through walls. In Love ‘em, Leave ‘em, whose results are pictured above, she carried vases and pots filled with paint up these steps, and then let them shatter.

Mika Rottenberg, from Argentina, does video installations in which she casts unusual-looking women — another way of putting that might be “striking-looking women” — and then has them perform the kind of tasks which question the nature of labor and capitalism. You can see a good sampling in the YouTube video, above.

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Yael Bartana’s And Europe Will Be Stunned, a video installation, was a sensation at the Venice Biennale a few years ago. It consists of three films that tell the (fictional) story of a Jewish repopulation of Poland. Israeli by birth, she generally explores themes of Jewish identity.

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Detail from Sharon Hayes, “In the Near Future” (2009)

Sharon Hayes was and is deeply involved in activist politics, so her work, which typically combines performance and installation, is often explicitly political. Her art often comments on queer and identity politics in particular, and the way in which slogans interact with people’s need to belong.

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Tania Bruguera, “Untitled (Havana)” (2000)

Tania Bruguera is a Cuban installation and performance artist. As perhaps befits someone from a country with a troubled political history, she’s interested in the uses and nature of power. The art critic Eleanor Hartley once wrote of her work, “‘In Bruguera’s world, concepts like freedom, liberty and self-determination are not abstract ideals, but achievements that write their effects on our physical forms.” The installation pictured above, for example, was shut down after a single day by Cuban authorities, because it seemed to them to be a (subversive) commentary on the political situation there.

Natalie Djurberg is a Swedish video artist. She likes to work with clay in particular, and her pieces tend to be oddly reminiscent of fairy tales.

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Teresa Margolles, “Muro Ciudad Juárez,” (2009)

Teresa Margolles, a Mexican installation artist, uses her work to address the violence of Mexico’s drug war. In the above installation, a wall with bullet holes shows the extent of the violence. In another work, she had the floors of an exhibition space mopped with the water used to wash corpses in the morgue.

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Klara Liden’s work often responds to architecture. In the above still from the video The Myth of Progress (Moonwalk), Liden herself moonwalks — yes, the Michael Jackson maneuver — through New York City’s streets at night.

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