T he December Contemporary Discoveries line-up celebrates life, colour and variety, with artists hailing from Iceland to Nigeria. As if in a cosy country house on a winter’s day, we scoff down one last scone, take a last sip of tea, warm our hands before the roaring log fire, and look around at eyes that follow us around the room...
In Oluwole Omofemi’s warm-toned Soul Meditation II (2018), Omofemi celebrates the soulful, seraphic beauty of five women in repose. Five pairs of eyes are closed in gentle, meditative contemplation. The colour scheme is queasily, eerily vibrant. The acrylic on canvas juxtaposes moss green skin with taffy pinks and royal purple eye shadow, presenting a kaleidoscope arrangement reminiscent of the dreamily languid Gustav Klimt. Described by the Financial Times as “Nigerian art royalty”, the Ibadan artist sold 12 paintings to a friend for around US$1200 four years ago. His fortunes changed when he was commissioned to paint what was to be the last painting of HM Queen Elizabeth II, which adorned Tatler’s Platinum Jubilee issue in 2022. Combining an alert, fizzingly bright colour palette with a classical portrait artist’s sensibility for poise and elegance, 35-year-old Omofemi elevates his subjects onto a pedestal of veneration and awe. All his subjects, the late Queen included, would have pride of place above the country house mantlepiece.
ob’s symmetrical Past Wound (2017) is the largest painting on our list standing at nearly two metres tall and equally wide. The symmetry in size extends to visual symmetry on the canvas. Two soulful eyes gaze at us, guileless and straight forward. The eyes are deep wells of empathy and pathos, framed within a silvery helmet of hair, which curves to meet a slender neck bisecting an iridescent horizon. Her signature motif of a wide-eyed young girl swallows up the canvas, at once candidly inviting attention and dexterously reflecting scrutiny. Labelled collectively as the “SNS Generation” (social network service generation), ob and others allow the physical and online/gaming worlds to converge on canvas to form a new synthesis of reality. At the same time, she summons up memories of salient time periods of her life to inspire her. In her own words: “Nostalgia, melancholia, and adolescence; these time-travelling emotional fluctuations form the basis of my paintings.”
Nashville-born-and-based Shannon Cartier Lucy brings a surrealist edge to the Music City, her paintings replete with sharp edges, unexpected situations and thresholds of sudden violence. Threading Blackberries (2021) is a precarious arrangement where plates threaten to topple, and mythical creatures are ready to spring. Presenting a nature morte as a coiled spring of incipient movement, this is an artist of drama and action. The painting is a contrasting composition of perpendicular lines in the vertical and horizontal, interspersed with the rounded circles of plates and open jugs. Warming cherry and crimson hues lure the eye over the discarded bric-à-brac on the table into the deep, beautiful blackness beyond.
Another artwork devoid of human presence, yet seething with life is Andy Warhol’s Camouflage (F. & S. II.407), a screenprint from 1987. Completed shortly before the artist’s death, this is a work which allows us both to zoom in and zoom out all at once. The sea-like collision of greens, beiges and greys seem to surge and swell before our eyes, allowing the mind to find both movement and repose. Camouflage (F. & S. II.407) presents a reassuringly simple way of seeing the world, a rejection of complexity and an acceptance of the world around us. It seems to chime with the artist’s worldview. As Warhol once said: “Sometimes, people let the same problem make them miserable for years when they could just say, so what. That is one of my favourite things to say. So what.”
Japanese Superflat artist Aya Takano’s formative influences include manga, notably legendary animé illustrator Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy and Phoenix. A member of Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki , she is one of Japan’s most exciting contemporary artists. In An Offering to Our Ancestors: Fruits, Japanese Cakes, Flowers, and Vegetables (2014), watermelon and fruit form garlands and halos around an ethereal trio who seem to be partly of this world and partly of the next. Three eyes are visible, and three are obscured. Charcoal-hued and unsusceptible to overt expression, the triumvirate of faces gather close together. What do these bewitching sylphs portend? The rosy-cheeked, fairylike countenances which hide more than they reveal.
Barcelona-based Spanish artist Jordi Ribes’s The Guide (2021) embodies the artist’s signature collision of paradoxes. The lack of human features, including eyes, might seem to resist human emotion or empathy. Yet The Guide seems here to help us; the stacked turquoise verticals which lead left and right approximate outstretched arms, reminiscent of Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North (1998). The circle of fire underneath the figure might call to mind the fire of the Christian Pentecost, perhaps enhancing the spiritual dimension. This is an angel of mystery as much as salvation, whose purpose remains unclear. The Guide’s head is tilted downwards; if the eyes were there, they would be downcast. Should we be worried? We might ask The Guide where we are to be taken, and if this is a journey we should yearn for or shrink from.
Vanity of Vanities (2021) by Baldur Helgason is a work of irreverence and gentle satire. The title, a quotation from Ecclesiastes, speaks to the futility of humankind’s efforts. The words “Salvator Mundi/Saviour of the World” are visible, perhaps a reference to the Leonardo da Vinci painting, which was whisked around the world to great fanfare, and sold at auction in 2017. Iceland-born and Chicago-based, Helgason uses a cartoonish aesthetic to pulsate with the thrilling absurdities that life often sends our way. The face, eyes and ears are composed of near concentric circles and ovals, offering a comical, cheeky countenance. Clutching onto a crystal ball in his Homer Simpson-hued hands, the subject wonders what the future brings. The painting may call to mind the dangers of following false prophets as they appear in modern politics, ready to lead us down a dangerous path.