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15 Of Our Favorite Contemporary Artists Get Real About Making It In The Art World

Cait Munro

Looking for something fun to do on a Saturday afternoon that isn’t Netflix and Seamless but also doesn’t require you to don full-body sunscreen? Consider the art gallery. You don’t have to live in New York to gallery-hop — there’s plenty of great art to be seen in cities big and small — and the best part is, unlike museums, art galleries are free and often feature work from younger artists. Oh, and don’t be scared if that painfully chic front desk girl doesn’t immediately greet you. She’s probably just really busy!

Whether you dig sculpture, painting, digital art, or you’re not really sure what you like yet, there are plenty of incredible female artists to put on your radar. They're using their platforms to address issues like race, gender, immigration, and inequality, as well as making work that's beautiful, fresh, and fun to look at.

Also, few fields are as difficult to make it in as the contemporary art world — particularly as a woman, and especially as a woman of color. But that hasn't stopped the women on this list, who are photographers, painters, sculptors, installation artists, and more, from making a lasting impression.

They may not yet be household names, but they're popping up at galleries, festivals, and museums — not to mention Instagram feeds —around the world, not to mention stopping us mid-scroll on our Instagram feeds. They're the next generation of creators, and we picked their brains on everything from influences to career highlights to what to do when the well of inspiration runs dry. Yep, turns out that even happens to budding artistic geniuses. Who knew?

Yasmine Diaz

Raised in Chicago to Yemen-born parents, multimedia artist Yasmine Diaz's work is all about interrogating tensions surrounding religion, gender, and third-culture identity, mainly through personal archives and found images. Her work is able to express things that language often fails at. Consider, for example, her series that addresses the current conflict in Yemen. One collaged image presents a chic marble bathroom next to a house reduced to rubble, another shows a kitchen table next to a cloud of smoke and fire. They're not always easy to look at, but that's kind of the point.

Diaz has work in LACMA's permanent collection, a feat she calls her greatest professional achievement to date. "I made new work for five group shows and two collaborative projects this year," she says. "I'm really looking forward to organizing my studio and doing research for the next phase of work."

How would you describe your work in 3-5 words?

Personal, political, cheeky, challenging.

What’s inspiring you right now? What have you been thinking about?

I'm still obsessed with coming of age stories, but now I'm looking outward more. I'm interested in how young people, particularly those who are children of immigrants or identify as third-culture, navigate the dualities of their lives and how tools like social media have played a role.

What do you do when you feel creatively ‘stuck’?

This is not very sexy, but cleaning and reorganizing my space pretty much always does the trick. Breaking a sweat on a hike is a close second.

Hein Koh

Hein Koh's work is undeniably pretty, but it's also psychedelic, in your face, and even a little sad. "At first glance my work may seem silly or shallow to some, but I think it’s important for the viewer to take a deeper look, and especially view the work in person," she says. "There’s more to the metallic spandex and glittery eyes — you just have to look hard enough."

If you live in New York City, you may have seen her murals and installations, which were produced by the Art Production Fund, this year in the Rockefeller Center concourse. (We really like the image of businesspeople rushing to work beside crying flowers and rainbows blasted from a cartoon sunshine with eyeballs.)

How would you describe your work in 3-5 words?

Weird, playful, freaky, layered, honest.

What do you want an audience to take away from your work?

I want my work to help the viewer get in touch with their inner child or a deep emotion, strike some kind of chord that is usually inaccessible. Also I want the viewer to leave with the belief that art can be fun and humorous, but still be taken seriously.

What career achievement(s) are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of my resilience during the low points of my career, all the times I was rejected or ignored. I always picked myself up and kept going, and eventually it paid off.

What’s inspiring you right now? What have you been thinking about?

I’m lucky to be among a community of super talented artists in NYC ... I also saw Bikini Kill perform recently, who was one of my favorite bands over 20 years ago. Kathleen Hanna was a very influential figure to me when I was young and still forming my identity. She taught me to channel my anger and vulnerability into something creative and productive, which motivated me to form a band at the time and helped me to be more honest in my visual art. I still try to carry that honesty in my work today, and seeing Bikini Kill helped me remember the DIY and punk rock values that were so important to me in my youth. I realized I don’t want to lose that.

Alex Nuńez

Color, glitter, feathers, Cynthia the doll from Rugrats: all of these are present in works by Miami-based painter Alex Nuńez. The titles are good, too. There's Put some lipstick on and pull yourself together and Don't set yourself on fire to keep others warm. Nunez displays in her work a deep understanding of what it really feels like to be a woman today — but unlike the rest of us, who settle for tweeting something salty or complaining to our roommate, she channels that into orgiastic explosions of color you can't help but smile at.

If you're in Miami this fall, she has a show at S/223 Gallery, which she says "consists of large scale abstract paintings that form reimagined environments — wherein the urban sprawl is consumed by nature." She also has a podcast called Sunday Painter, which you can listen to on her site.

Alex Nunez, I will eat your heart.

How would you describe your work?

Jumanji meets South Beach after-hours.

What do you want an audience to take away from your work?

On average, people take 15- 30 seconds when viewing a work of art. I want people to slow down. My work creates immersive environments that draw the audience in, demanding engagement. Each work dissects and celebrates my Cuban-American heritage. Born and raised in Miami, I have watched this city transform and influence every aspect of my practice — from color palette to subject matter. These paintings preserve a disintegrating present with the urgency of recording the human experience; they party in the agglomeration of desire and its aftereffects, radiating light and color — a true celebration of Dionysian deluge paired with Apollonian intricacy.

Who are some of your artistic influences?

My grandmother taught me how to paint and continued making work right up to her last years on this earth. We would compete for wall space at my parent’s home. Her prolific oeuvre encouraged me to develop an ambitious practice, working on several pieces at a time. Although the subject matter of our work could not have been more different, she directly impacted how I experiment with color and arrange compositions.

Andrea Mary Marshall

Andrea Mary Marshall has lampooned everything from Vogue and the Pirelli calendar to selfie culture and Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate. Often using her own body as a subject, she's both photographer and model, as well as a skilled painter and mixed-media artist.

Marshall studied fashion at Parsons, and that influence never feels far away. Her work is sleek and sexy, but she's also not afraid to make the viewer uncomfortable. Consider an image from her 2016 calendar in which she juxtaposes herself makeup-free, hair slicked back, and leather jacket-clad to a sexed-up version, in which white, milk-like liquid dribbles from her open mouth. If you're interested in seeing more, look out for her forthcoming collaboration with Office magazine, which will hit stands this September.

Andrea Mary Marshall, January 2016, 2015.

How would you describe your work in 3-5 words?

Self-portraiture, self-reflection, self-expression.

What do you do when you feel creatively ‘stuck’?

Let it go. Or work through it.

What’s inspiring you right now? What have you been thinking about?

The next painting. The next drawing. The next photograph. The last conversation. The last kiss. The last song.

Alex McQuilkin

Alex McQuilkin uses video, drawing, and installation art to examine what it means to be a woman both within and outside of the male gaze. For example, in 2000, as a recent graduate from NYU, she made Fucked, a pseudo-sex tape in which she applies makeup while appearing to be grabbed and penetrated from behind (it's actually just a friend and fellow female artist merely helping a sister out). If dark humor is your thing and your Instagram feed is largely comprised of feminist meme accounts, McQuilkin's aesthetically pleasing, unabashedly honest artwork is sure to resonate with you.

She's featured in writer and curator Kathy Battista's new book New York/New Wave: The Legacy of Feminist Art in Emerging Practice, which she says is a career highlight because the book "speaks specifically about women artists appropriating the language of minimalism in new ways that inject the work with feminist agendas."

Alex McQuilkin, Untitled (Abbeville Floral Pink), 2014.

How would you describe your work in 3-5 words?

Life trapped in surface images.

What’s inspiring you right now? What have you been thinking about?

I’ve been thinking a lot about repeat patterns, particularly depictions of women’s lives portrayed in textiles throughout history, but also about depictions of nature standardized into patterns. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the relationship between abstract and geometric patterning versus floral and representational patterning. A recent series of paintings “Sense and Sensibility” is all about exploring the artificial dichotomies between abstraction/rationality/geometry/modernism and representation/emotion/intuition/romanticism.

Also, I have a one and a half year old son, and spend a lot of time looking at children’s books and find myself inspired by their illustrations and thinking a lot about fairy tales — the way they create such vivid images through storytelling — and the way that those aesthetics are woven into these morality tales and how we prepare children for “life."

What do you do when you feel creatively stuck?

Ideas never come when you look at them straight on so I try to relax and try not to obsess about “figuring out” what I’m doing. I try to trust that something in me knows the next right thing and that it will come out in its own time. At the same time, I don’t stop working. With my process, the conception/planning/design/composition takes about 5% of the time and the rest is mostly mechanical execution of the idea. It’s very labor intensive so there’s almost always something I can be doing. I think when I can let go and just go through the motions, ideas for the next works start to develop without my awareness. When I feel REALLY stuck, I try to get out of the studio completely and focus on something else — go to a movie or something. As Agnes Martin once said, “Its better to be at the beach thinking about painting than in the studio thinking about the beach.”

Ellen Macomber

If you've ever questioned whether or not fashion can be fine art, you'd do well to check out Ellen Macomber's work. Macomber makes caftans, capes, and bags so intricate and unforgettable, they've literally been hung on gallery walls. From fringe-lashed eyeballs to a Frida Kahlo portrait, there's something for everyone — even a purple sequined caftan with the word "squad" scrawled on the back. (Perhaps AOC and the gang should consider copping.) Macomber also makes glass paintings, many of which celebrate her native New Orleans.

She takes textile commissions via her website, where you can also buy pre-made items. "I'll be heading to Memphis and Nashville soon for some fun pop ups in the fall," she says. I love taking my art on the road so if anyone wants to host a workshop and or a pop up, holla!"

Ellen Macomber, Supreme.

How would you describe your work in 3-5 words?

Depends on which work. Textile art: exciting, wearable, relatable. Glass cartography paintings: vibrant, sexy, lovable.

Who are some of your artistic influences?

Exposure to local artists from all of the countries or places that I have been lucky enough to travel to. I'm horrible with names so again can't list anyone major but I can always visualize their work in my head.

What's inspiring you right now? What have you been thinking about?

Things that have been overlooked. The underdogs.

Field Kallop

If abstraction and order are your thing and you seek artwork that helps you clear your mind, you'll love painter Field Kallop. The grid-like structures and complex patterns of her paintings are super calming — a perfect antidote to, say, the news or your Twitter feed. In our fast-paced technology-obsessed world, gazing upon something that celebrates simple beauty and utilizes ancient, sacred geometry can be restorative.

Kallop's solo exhibition, "Reflections on Order" was on display at the Voltz Clarke Gallery in New York this summer. She also has a show of works on paper right now at Grain in Amagansett, NY.

Field Kallop, Plain Weave, 2017.

How would you describe your work in 3-5 words?

Colorful, geometric, precise, systematic, harmonious.

What do you want an audience to take away from your work.

A feeling of quiet introspection.

What’s inspiring you right now? What are you thinking about?

I was completely blown away by the recent show of Hilma af Klint’s paintings at the Guggenheim. I discovered her about ten years ago and loved the work but at that time it was very difficult to find. The Guggenheim exhibition was absolutely divine; her paintings are so beautiful, powerful and mystical. I’m still pouring over the catalogue.

Katarzyna Przezwanska

Polish artist Katarzyna Przezwanska's canvases play with texture: some are shiny, some are matte, some are shiny-matte, but all have the luminous glow and heart-melting palette of a summer sunset. Her sculptures, however, are where things get delightfully weird. Lobster claws and agate stones come together to make surrealist faces; ostrich eggs and seashells are breasts (or, alternately, very alert eyeballs). She has an uncanny ability to find humor in the quotidian, and we're so happy she decided to share it with us.

Przezwanska says she's currently working on a public project to be displayed at the University of Warsaw, which will "consist of furniture/sculptures for students to hang out, made of stones and metal and wood." She is also preparing for a ceramics residency this fall and "thinking about scenography for erotic movie that maybe will happen next year."

Katarzyna Przezwańska, Untitled, 2018.

How would you describe your work in 3-5 words?

Funny, serious, straightforward, sensual, positive.

What do you want an audience to take away from your work?

Some kind of a feeling that the world is okay.

What career achievement(s) are you most proud of?

That I can do mostly what I want and it's diverse – so I'm not getting bored. And I can get by.

Who are some of your artistic influences?

Lina Bo Bardi, Le Corbusier, Manicurists of Instagram, Beyonce, Rihanna.

Laura Collins

If you're inspired by the Olsen twins, obsessed with the Real Housewives, and/or have merely noticed Anna Wintour's habit of crossing her legs a certain way, you should know Laura Collins, the Chicago-based painter rendering all these phenomena and more. In the great tradition of pop artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Collins' work holds up a mirror to our culture, exposing all its absurdities with a good-hearted sense of humor.

Since 2015, Collins has been working with comedians-turned-curators Matt Harkins and Viviana Olen, creators of the Tonya Harding Nancy Kerrigan 1994 Museum, on pop culture-inspired exhibitions that continue to capture the hearts of of both IRL and internet patrons. You can also hear more from her in Refinery29's recent look into the evolution of fan art.

Laura Collins, from the "Anna Wintour Double Crossing Her Legs" series.

How would you describe your work in 3-5 words?

Impressionistic pop paintings.

What do you want an audience to take away from your work?

A lot of my paintings show well-known women in a state of discomfort. I enjoy highlighting the absurdity of celebrity culture and playing with a bit dark humor. I hope that my audience is able to laugh while also finding empathy for the subjects featured.

What’s inspiring you right now? What have you been thinking about?

Right now I am thinking about getting a bigger art studio. I really enjoy working on a large scale and am excited to make this transition. I would like to further explore painting with oil on linen, and having the right space for that is important.

What do you do when you feel creatively ‘stuck’?

My best ideas come to me while I am running, showering, or at 3am when I should be sleeping. In the meantime, I like to scroll through Instagram and find inspiration from other creatives.

Myla DalBesio

A model, photographer, multimedia artist, and writer, Myla DalBesio is way more than a triple-threat. When she's not posing for Calvin Klein or Sports Illustrated, she makes collages, sculptures, paintings, and other artwork that celebrates the female form, mystique, and experience. And her point of view is gaining mainstream traction; in 2016, she photographed herself for Playboy 's first non-nude issue

DalBesio has exhibited around the world and published two books of her work. Currently, she's working on "a photo book that focuses on women’s relationships with their bodies and with nature."

Myla DalBesio, Space Keepers.

How would you describe your work in 3-5 words?

An exploration of women’s strength through vulnerability.

What do you want an audience to take away from your work?

I want women to see my work and recognize a part of themselves in it. I want them to feel empowered and free.

What do you do when you feel creatively ‘stuck’?

I go back through older notebooks, journals, and hard drives. I’m always writing things down that I think are interesting, or jotting down project ideas and forgetting about them, so revisiting old notes usually gets things moving again.

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you or your work?

I am always looking for new people to photograph! If you’re interested, email me at studio@studiomyla.com.

Rikki Wright

Rikki Wright's photography and videos depict the black female experience in a sensual, soft-focus style that's simultaneously powerful and romantic. Her work also makes use of nature, sometimes juxtaposing modern, high-fashion outfits against raw landscapes. There's a magic to what Wright creates; it's a ringing endorsement of sisterhood and natural beauty in a world that so often depicts women of color in a much less celebratory light.

Wright's first experimental short film A Ritual of Sisterhood will be screening at the eighth annual BlackStar Film Fest this August. She adds: "I am working on a lot of personal work dealing with grief and the loss of my mother and father so looking forward to being apart of some group shows." You can shop prints on her website.

Rikki Wright, Untitled.

How would you describe your work in 3-5 words?

Etherial, Vulnerable, Black, Radiant, Femme.

What do you want an audience to take away from your work?

There is something so powerful in seeing something of yourself reflected in another, seeing a resonance between your life and someone else's. I want my work to continue serving as a reflection to black and brown women who look like me and the women in my family. Always yelling back at them that they are enough, they are beautiful, they are seen.

Who are some of your artistic influences?

Currently, I am influenced by the writings of the late Dr. Maya Angelou and Zora Neale Hurston. My work deals a lot with loss and grief and while revisiting the past and digging up a lot of trauma in order to heal it's helpful to have some literature that you can use as a guide. I recommend Maya Angelou's entire seven-book autobiography series to everyone.

What do you do when you feel creatively ‘stuck’?

I read. I just take a break and read and let words inspire me, learn something new. I also use that time I feel "stuck" and connect with nature: a hike, camping, climbing, breathing.

Olivia Locher

Olivia Locher likes to break the rules -- literally. In 2017, she created a photo series that documents her violating a weird or antiquated law (for example: "In Connecticut, pickles must bounce to officially be considered pickles") from each state. She published the photos in a monograph titled I Fought The Law. It's a perfect example of the surrealist sense of humor that differentiates her work. Other things she's done for photos include sticking a bunch of pins in a popsicle and awkwardly plunging her foot into a high-heeled shoe backwards. Consider it the fine art version of doing it for the 'gram.

Locher has been working on a long-term photography series, titled How To, since 2012. "I’m starting to compile a collection of images from the series related to beauty and wellness into a photo-book. I’m hoping to have that wing of the project wrapped up in the next year," she says.

Olivia Locher, In Alabama, it is illegal to have an ice-cream cone in your back pocket.

How would you describe your work in 3-5 words?

Colorful, sarcastic, tasty.

What career achievement(s) are you most proud of?

I am most proud that I continue to have an overload of creative ideas that excite me. I’m also endlessly grateful that my photography allows me to meet wonderful and interesting people; these encounters often lead to some of my most meaningful lifelong friendships.

What do you do when you feel creatively ‘stuck’?

First I tell myself it’s ok to be stuck! Creativity comes in waves, sometimes the waves are slow, and that’s perfectly fine. I used to get worried that new ideas would never come, but they always eventually resurface. I use times of feeling stuck as a little vacation or time to recharge. If I need to find inspiration, I look to photo-books, exhibitions, films, music, etc.

Phaan Howng

Multidisciplinary artist Phaan Howng makes places — as in, rooms and other self-contained environments — that are so stunning, many might happily resign themselves to living in them. Which is good, because Howng envisions them as "optimistic post-apocalyptic landscapes." They're fun, trippy, and draw on cultural references like Predator and warehouse raves. But underneath it all is an overarching sense of environmentalist duty that feels so urgent right now.

If you live in Baltimore, you may have caught her 2016 installation at School 33, which the Baltimore Sun called a "walking hallucination." She also recently had an installation at the Art Kiosk in Redwood City, California, curated by Fung Collaboratives. "After that," she says, "endless possibilities, and whatever exhibition places that say 'yes to the dress' for me to do a show."

Phaan Howng, Niagara.

How would you describe your work in 3-5 words?

Paintings and installations of optimistic post-apocalyptic landscapes.

What do you want an audience to take away from your work?

For everyone to get over their differences and come together as one to fight climate change and save humanity and nature... or to accept death and failure. Either one is good I guess since in both outcomes, Earth wins.

What’s inspiring you right now? What have you been thinking about?

Beyonce and Cardi B, because they are dominating so hard right now, and their level of artistic craft is impeccable and very empowering for women. And for what I have been thinking about? The end of the world due to climate change, how I must achieve as many life goals as possible before (sh)it really hits the fan (I swear I am not a prepper, I have done absolutely nothing to prepare) and how my associate children (my partner's kids) will live in the future, because they will be the ones really burdened with dealing and surviving the worst of it. I feel like the bulk of my tiger-momming has been trying to prepare them to be self-sufficient and independent strong female individuals so they can grow up to be super cool She-Ra adults —but no prepper stuff yet, like how to can food and live off the land. That would be too much I think. They deserve to enjoy their freedom and spirit in childhood... while they can!

Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir aka Shoplifter

If you've never gotten the chance to experience Shoplifter's work in the flesh, you're missing out. The Icelandic artist's enveloping installations are like being in a cartoon world where everyone and everything is wearing the biggest, loudest faux fur coat they could possibly find. Made of both natural and synthetic hair, her sculptures both question and celebrate themes like vanity, beauty, and individuality. They're also just really funny. And soft.

Shoplifter will open a solo show at the Akureyri Art Museum, in Iceland this August before decamping to Como, Italy to create a site-specific installation in a church as part of the show "Miniartextil." "Next year I will be producing Nervescape IX for the Nordatlantens Brygge in Copenhagen, Denmark," she shares. "Oh, and of course, my work for the Biennale is also travelling to Reykjavik next year — Chromo Sapiens will be at the Reykjavik Art Museum, in Iceland, between January and March 2020."

Shoplifter, Chromosapiens.

How would you describe your work in 3-5 words?

Colorful, tactile, humorous, peculiar.

Who are some of your artistic influences?

I am inspired by humans and human ingenuity, by nature… and the astonishing variety of man made objects that I find on my non stop curiosity missions.

What’s inspiring you right now? What have you been thinking about?

Synesthesia and neuroscience, emotions and mood. It relates to my interest in the complexity of human existence.

What do you do when you feel creatively ‘stuck’?

Take a bathroom break, always works.

Tali Lennox

Painter Tali Lennox isn't afraid to paint people the way she seems them. The results are portraits that are sometimes romantic, sometimes playful, often slightly off-kilter, and occasionally with a hint of Francis Bacon-esque ghoulishness. She's good at finding the beauty in darkness; she not afraid to speak about mortality through her work. She paints strangers she finds on the street or in books, particularly eccentrics and outsiders. "I like to capture people who already look like living paintings. I drop them into my realms. Like casting a painted play," she explains. It's a fascination with humanity that clearly knows no bounds. Lennox will have a solo show this fall at Meredith Rosen Gallery in New York.

What do you want an audience to take away from your work?

I like to place a distorted mirror in front of my viewer and invite them to explore realms that play with the line between vulgarity and luster. Im interested in what makes people uncomfortable, and the beauty within the theatrics of fantasy and perversion. I also want to bring up questions of mortality, a topic that also tends to make people uncomfortable, the figures in my paintings act as ghosts from another era, the time and setting is in an in-between reverie. Touching remnants of a lost age, and the spirits that move through. I do intend all my work to share beauty and celebration alongside melancholia. Life is both light and dark and we should embrace these sides with equal wonder.

Who are some of your artistic influences?

Lately I've been looking at the work of Gerald Brockhurst and Anna Zinkeisen a lot. Both figurative painters from the eras of the '20s and '30s. Their work was painted with classically beautiful technique, yet they submerged their figures in an atmosphere that is subtly peculiar and veiled with an exquisitley eerie power.

What do you do when you feel creatively ‘stuck’?

I go to the flea market. I feel so at home among the disarray of relics and treasures. Its like bathing in discarded jewels. It's also where I source a lot of my references for my paintings, in old personal photographs of strangers, or antique religious icons and trinkets. I also love that most of the sellers and buyers are well over 60. I've always felt much older internally, and I feel like I can speak the same language with these individuals who have an appreciation for the past. I love to sit in the stalls and hear their stories and knowledge on the objects they’ve collected.

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