The Art Issue: 5 Top Artists Reveal Exclusive Works Inspired by 2020

Phebe Wahl | December 2, 2020 | People Lifestyle Feature Culture

As we approach the end of a year unlike any other, the art world’s top talents — including Otani Workshop, George Condo, Daniel Arsham, Nick Cave and Mister E — share new works to mark this historic moment in time.

Otani Workshop


Otani Workshop, “Golden Child (gold)” (2020, bronze, gold leaf), 127 centimeters by 129 centimeters by 68 centimeters

“The appreciation of objects is vital to my practice,” explains Shigeru Otani, the artist behind Otani Workshop. Despite the name, Otani Workshop refers to the singular sculptor and artist who has emerged as not only Japan’s preeminent ceramist, but Takashi Murakami’s chosen protégé. Otani’s enigmatic figures of bulging heads, children, animals and anthropomorphic shapes all share a surreal allure that beautifully merges traditional techniques with the futuristic fantasies of Japanese pop culture. “I take inspiration from objects of the past in my contemporary practice,” he says. “For example, when I look at an ancient pot from Shigaraki, the form of the pot could be simple, but I never tire of admiring the soft curves, textures and the complexity of the colors. I feel deeply moved inside. Even seemingly simple, mundane objects stimulate me, but paintings and sculptures offer infinite inspiration.”

Otani Workshop Opener

Otani Workshop, “Standing bear” (2020, ceramic), 87 centimeters by 33 centimeters by 34 centimeters

Reflective of his hauntingly silent and solitary figures, Otani’s studio is located in an abandoned ceramic tilery on the island of Awaji in the Seto Inland Sea. “My personal practice is fueled by the world around me, and I hope that the world is similarly fueled by art. The world is constantly changing, and my work dialogues with this evolution.”

In a departure from his signature sculptural oeuvre, Otani spent much of the past year focused on painting—works that are included in his first stateside solo exhibition at Perrotin New York (on view through Dec. 24). “As a result, the artistic expression in both my sculptures and paintings has continually developed,” he shares. “This new body of work is inspired by childhood memory,” says Otani. “In particular, I am drawing from the feeling of being young and wandering around the empty homes in my neighborhood. From this, I developed four different characters that form the basis of the exhibition.”

Otani Workshop No 5

For the title of his presentation, Otani Workshop chose a phrase, which is a magic spell borrowed from a picture book the artist read as a child that translates to “Be if you can, even if you don’t have to be, let it be.” The title’s selection for this exhibition reflects the artist’s struggles for self-expression and the nuanced emotionality of his childlike works, which cause almost an involuntary empathy.

Is Otani perhaps the ultimate provocateur of peace? “I ultimately hope people around the world can find peace in their lives,” he says.

George Condo


“Drawing is a way of life; it’s a kind of private activity that you basically do when nobody’s watching, but here we are, in a situation where nobody could possibly be watching because we’re all quarantined,” says artist George Condo in a film screened online for Drawings for Distanced Figures, an online exhibition with Hauser & Wirth of his work created during the pandemic. “We’re all sitting around at home trying to find our way into some sort of imaginary world that will make life better. I am imagining figures distanced from one another. They don’t want to be but they have to be. There are figures who are invented to resemble those who I wish I could see.”

The New Hampshire-born artist has been prolific during the pandemic working from his studio in Long Island, N.Y. The quiet solitude of his studio is quite a departure from his early start as an artist working at Andy Warhol’s Factory studio. Condo worked as a screen printer on the icon’s Myths series, but the tables soon turned with Warhol collecting Condo’s work.

George Condo artwork high res

George Condo, “Father and Daughter with Face Mask” (2020, acrylic, pigment stick, metallic paint and wax crayon on linen), 82 inches by 80 inches

Condo’s work feels both familiar—full of references to Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning—yet disorientingly new thanks to the cacophony of emotions evoked in his work. Darkness grapples with the light as representation blurs and tangles the abstract, the grotesque with the farcical, love with hate. The artist describes his work as “psychological cubism” and “artificial realism.” The overtly obsessive nods to Picasso feel iterative and part of an evolving process. “Picasso painted a violin from four different perspectives at one time,” Condo says. “I do the same with psychological states.”

Condo’s art star has burned bright ever since his early years as part of the East Village scene in the 1980s, which included fellow virtuosos Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Often celebrated as America’s most prominent painter, Condo’s esteemed work has also graced album covers for Kanye West and Travis Scott. Yet his most recent work and haunting “psychological cubism” resonate more deeply than ever as we close out a year of unprecedented isolation. “The figures in this new series of works often appear in pairs, linked by intersecting lines, yet their viewpoints do not connect,” Condo says in his gallery statement.

Daniel Arsham

Daniel Arsham portrait

Like many of us, artist Daniel Arsham spent this year focusing on the fundamentals. “I would say the largest thing is that I’ve spent a lot of time going back to the early techniques in my practice, which were largely in drawing and painting,” he shares. “It’s been interesting, allowing some refocusing of priorities in the studio as well.”

Daniel Arsham sculpture

Daniel Arsham, “Quartz Eroded Bust of Diane the Hunter (Named Diane of Versailles)” (2020, quartz, selenite, hydrostone)

The New York-based, Miami-bred artist, who has collaborated with everyone from Pharrell Williams to Adidas and Dior, is known for blending architecture, archaeology, sculpture and art—crystallizing the paradoxical. After studying at The Cooper Union, Arsham co-founded Snarkitecture, a collaborative practice to make architecture perform the unexpected. Arsham was only 12 when Hurricane Andrew swept through his Florida home, causing massive devastation that impacted his lifelong exploration of the destructive powers of nature. “I think Miami as a city, for me, has always been about fantasy in a way,” Arsham offers. “Not like science fiction fantasy, but it’s a place where, literally, the city was built out of a swamp. The land that it’s on just didn’t physically exist. And I’ve always found it to be a magical place in terms of the more direct connection with nature. I grew up in Coconut Grove and spent a lot of time out in the Everglades, in and out on the water, when I was a kid.”

Daniel Arsham sculpture

Daniel Arsham, “Grey Selenite Eroded Venus of Arles” (2019, selenite, hydrostone)

Arsham’s work often centers on perplexing gestures of time dislocation—literally casting modern objects of millennial culture in stone to create future relics of the present. “I’ve often used objects from the present that were reformed in materials that we associate with a kind of geological time frame,” he explains. “So taking a computer or a camera, reforming it in crystal or volcanic ash—and seeing these objects from your own experience, your own life, with this kind of bizarre perspective of time. It’s almost as if either you’ve traveled forward into the future, and you’re viewing the remnants of your era, or those objects have been kind of brought back from the distant future.”

Daniel Arsham sculpture

Daniel Arsham, “Blue Calcite Eroded Bust of Rome Divided” (2020, blue calcite, quartz, hydrostone)

The artist’s recent work even further complicates the time continuum, presenting ancient relics filtered through Arsham’s artistic lens. “These sculptures that were originally made in stone or bronze, in some cases are now made in calcite—so there’s a color shift in them. They appear as if they’re in a state of decay, yet the materials that they’re made of are actually materials we associate with growth,” he says.

Next month, Arsham’s latest work will overtake Perrotin New York’s Orchard Street gallery (Jan. 16 to Feb. 20). “It’s going to occupy all three levels of the gallery,” he shares. “So it’s a robust exhibition that covers really all the mediums in which I work. So there’s painting in the show, a whole new series of sculptural work, as well as drawings.”

Nick Cave

Nick Cave Photo by Sandro Blue Suit

Nick Cave is here to make some noise. The Chicago-based sculptor, dancer and performance artist is best known for his Soundsuits—costumes crafted to cause a clamor and respond to movement. The Soundsuits, which conceal gender, race and class, were initially created in direct response to the police beating of Rodney King in 1991.

Nick Cave artwork high res

Nick Cave, “Arm Peace” (2018, cast bronze, vintage sunburst and tole flowers)

The artist continues to connect the painful divisions of our day, ranging from gun violence to systemic racism, anchoring them with intimate human forms. Cave layers active dialogue into his work with performers like Helga Davis and Daniel Watts. “The artist responses are an additional voice or layer upon my work and add a very human and reaction-based commentary to the work’s place in the moment,” he says.

Nick Cave artwork high res

Nick Cave, “A·mal·gam” (2019, bronze)

Cave’s recent work, As It Was and Still Is, was on view virtually due to the pandemic. “It was important to produce this virtually because this moment needed to see this work,” he shares. “This format allows it to be shared with new audiences that wouldn’t get to see it in a gallery setting. I am making use of all the means we have,” he says when asked why he continues to engage virtually during this unusual time. “There is real power in real-life experiences, but there is real reach digitally.”

Nick Cave Unarmed Until

Nick Cave, “Unarmed” (2016, cast bronze, metal and vintage beaded flowers)

While in the past Cave might have spent months or even years developing works, the artist is responding in real time to the crises of the day. “My work has long been about this subject, and the violence to Black bodies keeps happening. This was the time that forced me to question my practice’s purpose and make sure it is as purposeful and effective as possible,” he explains, noting his work has taken on a new urgency. For the election, Cave covered the facade of Jack Shainman Gallery’s exhibition space in Kinderhook, N.Y., with two-story-high black vinyl letters reading “TRUTH BE TOLD.” The piece is part of the gallery’s new initiative, States of Being, dedicated to expanding the conversation around social and racial justice.

“There is an urgency and an opportunity,” Cave offers. “We need to be on top of all of this so that the conversations stay live. It’s my responsibility and I am finding every way to keep making and being there.”

Mister E

Mister E portrait high res

“I knew I needed to do what COVID forced me to do—which I think forced everyone to do—which was look at what you’re doing. Stop. Pause,” shares artist Mister E. “You dissect what you were doing and ask: Maybe there’s a better way to do it? I started working a lot differently when COVID started. In times of crisis, that’s when true, true creativity is born,” he says.

Mister E The Show Must Go On

Mister E, “The Show Must Go On” (08.28.20, acrylic on linen)

With his vibrant depictions of cash cropping up everywhere from the flashy music videos of Kendrick Lamar to the New York Stock Exchange to collabs with Lamborghini—Mister E is actually not all about the Benjamins. His art collected by the likes of Miley Cyrus, Floyd Mayweather and Adam Sandler, the artist keeps his birth name private, but not his increasingly important message about the dialogues around money and value. “There is a reason it is called ‘making money,’ because we all have the ability to make it. It is a man-made renewable resource,” he says. “It is creating value that is a true art.”

Mister E artwork high res

Mister E, “100” (10.24.17, sandblasted aluminum)

“You realize how important the message behind the work is in times like this,” he says. “I am obsessed with value and how people perceive the value of different things and what is actually valuable. I think COVID has probably made a lot of people think about luxury items, designer items and clothing—and the whole hype culture. I think there’s been a cultural shift in what’s important. COVID might have helped make people realize what’s really important to them in life. And I think material things have gone down and will continue to over the next few years while people look at life differently.”

Mister E artwork high res

Mister E, “100” (08.30.20, acrylic on wood), 30 inches by 60 inches

Similar to his iterating meditations on value, Mister E’s mantra, “The show must go on,” also rings more true than ever these days. “I think we can all agree it’s been a fucking roller coaster,” he says. “But, people like roller coasters, right? I think at the end of the day, it’s made me focus more on putting a message in the art that I think people can relate to. And that makes people also look at life the way that I’m looking at it. One thing that we can’t [do] is to go back in time. And that’s why people say time is money—because time is much more valuable than money. You can’t make it,” he continues. “I never look backward because it’s done. You can only look forward to have a positive attitude in life.”

Tags: art celebrity

Photography by: Otani Workshop portrait by Claire Dorn/Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin ©2020 Otani Workshop/Kaikai Kiki Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.; Otani Workshop artwork photos by Guillaume Ziccarelli/Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin ©2020 Otani Workshop/Kaikai Kiki Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved.; George Condo portrait by Thomas Barratt © George Condo/Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth; George Condo artwork photo by © George Condo/Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Daniel Arsham portrait by Guillaume Ziccarelli/courtesy of the artist and Perrotin; Daniel Arsham artwork photos by by Claire Dorn/Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin; Mister E portrait by Nick Garcia; Mister E artwork photo courtesy of Mister E; Nick Cave Portrait by Sandro/courtesy of robert faust; Nick Cave “Unarmed” photo courtesy of The Momentary; Nick Cave "Arm Piece" photo © Nick Cave/courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York