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10 Stand-Out Working Visual Artists of 2021

by Saffron Forsberg

Arts + Culture Editor

art by Keith Jackson

[originally published November 2021]


Before the prevailing self-indulgent year-end listicle, I’ll let you in on something: as a painter myself, who’s been at it since childhood and thus accordingly obsessed with other painters, this is a biased list. How can it not be? But, in curating this collection of alive and active working visual artists, I did strive to compose it exclusively of artists I found “underloved”–smaller, sometimes self-taught, and far from the brightest conceptual depths of the MOMA. This is both because I find it a worthy task, and also because these are the ones I tend to prefer. So, this is not a list of those artists who created, of everything that came out of the visual art world this year, the most cutting-edge nor perhaps most culturally impactful works, but instead, a list of those that stood out to me in their debuts, sketchbooks, and studio experiments…and who I hope will stand out to others in 2022.

1. Keith Jackson

Keith Jackson is a self-taught figurative painter who, though active since the early ‘80s, had his debut exhibition just this year, courtesy of his son, fellow artist Alex Jackson. Born in rural South Missouri, and currently based out of Kenosha, WI, Keith Jackson’s work depicts scenes from his childhood in unabashed color and theatrical perspective. His paintings are vivid depictions of ‘70s working-class, Black, rural America: honeyed wood paneling, Transformers on a boxy TV, Big Wheels, overalls, a riled-up German Shepard crouching before stretches of farmland. Jackson’s are paintings that show his own artistic hand with a rich honesty that strays from sanitized notions of contemporary art. His debut has changed what it means to occupy space as a contemporary painter. IG @keithjacksonpainter

2. Lilith Smith

I promise you’ve never seen work like Georgia-based artist Lilith Smith’s. Her paintings, drawings, sculptures, prints, and masks–I’m out of breath–are musical and kaleidoscopic. In her worlds, atmospheres sway and sing as harps, fiddles, cellos, and dancers’ legs leap across fields of ink and acrylic. Light stretches. Colors bleat. Her compositions center her figures who, though belonging deeply to their own worlds, hold the ruddy, deeply human expressions of your strangest family members. And though I’ve been following Smith’s work for years, she’s not strayed from her status as a hugely prolific artist with an eye all her own. In fact, her artistic approach has only grown more brilliant in 2021. IG @theringinghouse

3. Melissa Joseph

Melissa Joseph is an Indian-American, feminist textile artist originally from rural Pennsylvania. I became first acquainted with her work through her 2020 debut solo show, Née, a collection of stunning, impressionist felted wool pieces based on images from her family archives. I’d never seen anything quite like them: colorful, melting products of memory, experimentation, and artistic intuition. Her figures are intimately human, yet obscured by her impressionist feltwork. And such textile processes have continued into 2021, her portfolio a spread of beautifully rendered pieces–both figurative and abstract–on family, memory, womanhood, and diaspora. She’s certainly an artist to watch for in 2022. IG @melissajoseph_art

4. Mas Guerrero

Mas Guerrero is a surrealist digital collage artist based in Los Angeles. In an interview with Blue Wash, they describe childhood memories of KidPix experimentation and an obsession with TV commercials; “30 seconds of a heavily stylized, idealized world of commodity fetishization and sensory bombardment. I feel that all plays into my work as an adult.” These influences are immediately apparent in their postmodern dreamscapes, where pop culture references blip in and out of focus, and scenes sit nearly figureless except for the occasional thrusting limb or looming creature. Guerrero’s compositions are at once mundanely recognizable, and jarringly liminal. 2021’s “Protagonist Syndrome (Porky’s Revenge),” features a digital landscape that is as mundane as a basement hallway or gloomy arcade–childhood sports trophies, shag carpeting, retail surveillance mirrors–yet, at once, as feverishly strange as a bad dream. Figures are faceless, floating ominously in dark corners. Guerrero’s works are the early internet nightmares of the twenty-something insomniac. IG @midi-wizard

5. Emily Gillbanks

Emily Gillbanks is a figurative oil painter based out of Suffolk, UK. Gillbanks, like the ever-lauded Jenna Gribbon, is revising what it means to be a figurative oil portrait painter. Her works are fascinatingly honest in their contemporality, where an atmosphere of constant technological connection and self-consciousness undermine the frank humanity of her portraiture. Her work often features images of herself in skewed, selfie-like poses, while others depict “ordinary” people in lush detail. In her most recent large-scale work, 2021’s “Us Working Things,”--perhaps one of my favorite paintings of the year–a crew of female custodial staff occupy the frame with beautiful and distinctive humanity. It’s a radically working-class, and fascinatingly contemporary depiction of true “modern women”--those who often belong to the service workforce–in a culture where they are usually neglected. Gillbanks’ conscious meditations on honest humanity are truly exciting. IG @emmmalem

6. Yazaki Haruhiko

I’ll be immediately up-front; I know very little about the artist Yazaki Haruhiko. Like many lesser-known, non-Western artists, finding information other than that which fills a scant Instagram bio can be difficult. What I do know, however, is that I fell in love with Haruhiko’s art in 2021. I suppose that is one of many things one can (positively) attribute to social media: how else would I have seen the brilliant hand of Yazaki Haruhiko? Their art dips between hazy, yet heartily evocative portraiture, and fantastically detailed, mechanical compositions. What can be found of Haruhiko’s work online is sure to transfix. IG @donimura

7. Jane Sugar

Like that of Haruhiko, the work of painter and illustrator Jane Sugar is little-known and perhaps a bit mysterious. She’s been in the game for quite a few years, but information on her as an artist is confined mainly to an Instagram presence, a small cult Tumblr blog. Still, Sugar’s work is some of the most original of its time. From surrealist figurative ink drawings, to abstracted oils, her scope is wide, whimsical, and experimental. IG @jane_e_sugar

8. Kareem-Anthony Ferreira

Kareem-Anthony Ferreira is a Trinidadian-Canadian figurative artist specializing in mixed-media Black portraiture. His collaged paintings are brilliantly colored and rendered, using familial flash photos as his main source materials. They’re intimate explorations of memory and one’s understanding of cultural roots–authentic and false alike. Ferreira writes: “The experiences and narratives that manifest in each work are the result of combining several vernacular photographs into a compositional arrangement.” Indeed, his 2021 collection of acrylic works–currently on display in Brussels–are bold and honest; little children stare into the viewer while their mothers laugh over their shoulders. The works are earnest yet sarcastic, candid yet fantastical. 2022 can only see more of Ferreira’s brilliant artistic hand, and for that I’m excited. IG @kareemanthony.artist

9. Mychaelyn Michalec

If you attend Oberlin, you should know about Dayton, OH-based fiber artist and painter Mychaelyn Michalec. An Ohio State alum, Michalec has been active in the art scene for over twenty years, and has shown her work both domestically and internationally. I was first taken by Michalec’s work when I saw her large-scale tufted yarn textile pieces–rugs that are hung like tapestries. Her textile works are mostly contemporary domestic scenes, intimate and stylized, with blunt, lyrical titles like “I don't think life has any meaning but to be with you,” and “So that ended that and it was a big misunderstanding all around.” Michalec creates work that captures what it’s like to be alive and kicking right now, on a level that is simultaneously startlingly personal (think 2021’s “Texas is the reason”) and cathartically general (consider the sardonic IPhone screenshots and tufted emojis of “God needed a driver, Jesus take the wheel,” also from this year.) Indeed, Michalec is not afraid of humor in fine art…the sort that enlivens the serious. Her’s is a refreshing voice. IG @mymychaelyn

10. Hannah Hatley

Young Ohio-born, Baltimore-based artist Hannah Hatley is one of the most original voices in illustration right now. Her social media presence is an open sketchbook; a parade of blobby ink scenes that move like nothing I’ve seen in years. Hatley draws silent narratives, those that need no words, along with expressive paintings frothing with her unique hand. Her approach to detail is fluid yet intensely careful, calling to mind master cross-hatchers like Edward Gorey. If you’re in search of graphic art satiation, Hartley is surely your new obsession. IG @hanohouse

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