Against a backdrop of vast social and political change artists have been stimulated to explore both the definition of art and its role in the world. This led to the development of major movements in art that began in the late 19th century and continued throughout the 20th century, leading up to the contemporary period. The term ‘movement’ in the context of art refers to a shared style, philosophy, trend or technique that evolved at a particular time. Art movements have typically been termed retrospectively by historians and art critics, as such categorisations have been regularly contested and debated. Examining art as a collective movement is, however, useful as a point of departure from which to reflect upon certain styles and approaches to art as well as the social world that produced such tendencies. While not exhaustive, here we spotlight a selection of art movements that continue to influence artists in the contemporary moment.
Abstract art is also referred to as nonobjective or concrete art. The movement first emerged in Europe in the late 19th century and gained traction during the early 20th century. Abstract art can be understood as a style that draws influence from the ‘real world’ and then seeks to explore it through form, colour and gestures that remain detached from close representation.
Abstract art can negotiate non-tangible ideas approached through the artist’s subjective gaze. If we consider the art of Joshua Hagler, for example, his drawings and paintings meditate upon the intangible notions of life, love, death, memory and mysticism. Hagler shies away from producing recognisable imagery in favour of explorations in materiality rendering his subjects barely recognisable. In abstract art, colours can symbolise an emotion while an object can be approached through a simple gestural brushstroke. The art of Duncan Jago is, for example, considered to be pure abstraction, in some works he uses drips of colour to reflect his love of the natural world.
Minimalism is a style of abstract art that has its roots in 1960s America. Minimalists produced work devoid of representational content, characterised by the deployment of self-referential geometric forms.
Helen Beard tackles complex themes such as sexual psychology through art. Minimalist tendencies are evident in the way that Beard reduces her characters to fields of vibrant colour. In the 60s and 70s Minimalist artists upturned fixed ideas surrounding cultural production by utilising industrial technologies and materials as well as processes absorbed from alternative disciplines. Minimalists would, for example, employ processes traditionally found in mathematics to structure their compositions. Artists working in the contemporary period continue to demonstrate such convention-breaking tendencies. Tyler Hobbs and IX Shells have both turned to computer science and coding to give shape to their art. Tyler Hobbs develops algorithms that generate graphic visual imagery. Hobbs uses coding to produce a simple method of robotic drawing which he combines with hand-drawn marks around which algorithmic structures coalesce. IX Shells draws upon her background in computer science to invest her works with a narrative established through lines of code. This process contributes to a context-based portrait of what IX Shells is experiencing at a certain time.
The term ‘surrealism’ denotes the surpassing of realism. Surrealism was a movement that spanned art and literature and boomed between the First and Second World Wars.
In 1924 French poet André Breton published the First Manifesto of Surrealism. Breton drew on Sigmund Freud’s theories that upheld the existence of an unconscious mind, a space containing the emotions and thoughts that our conscious mind cannot access. Surrealists claimed that the unconscious could be unleashed through dreams. They sought to revolutionise the human experience by accessing the subconscious, a superior reality where oppression grounded in the rationalism of modern society might be overcome. Ziping Wang demonstrates the influence of surrealism in her paintings that seek to engage the mind in unconventional ways. Wang stimulates sensory memory triggers through the incorporation of commonplace symbols such as the packaging of childhood snacks into her compositions. Surrealism was never a unified artistic style. Some artists employed realism to depict their ideas while others generated imagery through ‘automatic’ techniques thought to overcome the conscious mind, artists might conflate real-world imagery with unreal situations or construct dream-like scapes. The art of Jeremy Olson draws from both the Surrealist and Dada movements. Olson navigates contemporary social anxieties from loneliness to digitalisation via the construction of complex fantastical environments inhabited by anthropomorphic creatures.
Pop art emerged in Britain and later America during the mid-1950s. Pop art is characterised by its reimagining of imagery absorbed from popular culture and mass media. Subversion and appropriation are central to this movement. By harnessing popular imagery pop artists challenged social conventions, the status of high art, media consumption, consumerism and capitalism. In the contemporary period, artists continue to draw from these approaches. In his art, Teiji Hayama confronts social obsessions with celebrity, online realities and perfectionism by distorting the image of iconic stars. Hayama elongates and blurs figures from Marilyn Monroe to Elizabeth Taylor, subverting their sparkling status into a sinister reimagining.
Often referred to as the first modern art movement, Impressionism was pioneered by a group of French artists during the 1860s.
Impressionist painters focused on creating an impression of what they saw. Working outside, they captured the shifting qualities of light and that which they observed in nature and everyday life. Artists worked with short brushstrokes and a palette of pure, unblended colour. An impressionistic approach is palpable in the art of Seth Armstrong who uses oil paints to capture the light of his native LA, with a focus on the affecting emotional qualities of sun and shadow. Impressionists were concerned with the ‘essence’ of a subject rather than producing a realistic depiction, as such the artist’s perception was central. The art of Stephen Wong reveals Hong Kong landscapes invested with a phantasmagorical palette, Wong is less concerned with rendering a true depiction, instead, he attempts to conjure personal memories.
Modern art was later followed by contemporary art. The parameters of contemporary art have been contested yet it is said to have begun in the late 20th century. The term ‘contemporary; suggests that contemporary art is the art of the moment. Unlike other movements in art, contemporary art does carry a distinct style, philosophy nor approach yet it is widely considered to be avant-garde.
Some suggest that modern art contests the nature and definition of art while contemporary art presents a mirror to present-day life. Contemporary art is produced during a moment of transnationalism, digitalisation and globalisation. The rapid flows of humans and information at this time results in art that might synthesise multiple themes and cultural references. Jacky Tsai explores ancient Chinese artistry techniques in a contemporary manner. Rather than reproducing what has already been done Tsai fuses traditional eastern artistic techniques and imagery with references from comic books, western Pop Art and literature presenting an entirely new understanding of historical and visual codes. The process of combining techniques and influences that connect cultures and moments in time is also apparent in the art of Jake Wood Evans who employs classical approaches to address questions of contemporary concern such as the legacy of imperialism and social hierarchies.
Expressionism is a movement that encompassed art, architecture, literature, and performance and flourished between 1905 and 1920, particularly in Austria and Germany. Expressionists were concerned with humanistic values and emotional experience rather than the physical world. They sought to revive the art world with works fuelled by expressive force.
Expressionists looked beyond European approaches to art to tribal art and folk traditions as their inspiration. These influences are palpable in the simplified, flattened forms, extreme angles and exaggerated palette of the Expressionists. Jason Boyd Kinsella demonstrates the influence of Expressionism in concept and approach. He examines human existence by producing portraits based on the Myers-Briggs personality test, constructed from geometric shapes that resemble colourful building blocks. Another artist, Ryan Hewett produces gestural portraits and landscapes that also demonstrate a contemporary take on Expressionism. Rather than attempting to capture likenesses, Hewett is focused on the essence of a mood or sensation. He works intuitively and builds his scenes through a combination of impasto layers and geometric forms. Expressionists sought to capture their environment as it felt rather than relaying its true form – an approach demonstrated in Nicolas Holiber’s art. Holiber explores collective and individual psychology, he obscures the expressions of his subjects through a technique that straddles intuitive mark-making and recognisable form.