NPT and the Frist Center preview Art in the Twenty-First Century

This month Nashville Public Television (NPT) and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts will present advance screenings of the new season of Art in the Twenty-First Century, the only primetime national television series to focus exclusively on contemporary art and artists.

Episodes one and two, “Romance” and “Protest,” will be screened on Sun., Nov. 11, from 2–4 p.m. Episodes three and four, “Ecology” and “Paradox,” will be screened Sun., Nov. 18, from 2–4 p.m. Screenings will take place at the Frist Center Auditorium and are free and open to the public.  

The series will air on NPT-Channel 8 in January 2008.

Captivating and intriguing, contemporary art is admired and appreciated by many in museums and galleries. Yet few are given access to the creative processes behind the work—the inspirations and ideas that translate into compelling finished objects. The award-winning biennial television series reveals the inspiration, vision and techniques behind the creative works of some of today’s most accomplished contemporary artists, including Nashville native Robert Ryman.

Traveling across the country and abroad to film 17 artists, from painters and sculptors to photographers and filmmakers, in their own spaces and in their own words, the series is a rare opportunity for viewers to experience first-hand the complex artistic process—from inception to finished product—behind some of today’s most thought-provoking art.

Artists speak directly to the audience, describing their passions, impulses and methods; viewers are invited behind the scenes to see artists at work in their studios, homes, communities and in sites as diverse as an old-growth forest near Seattle, a military base in California, a theater academy in Warsaw and a film set, in addition to galleries and museums.

“This is great opportunity for fans of contemporary art to get an advance look at this outstanding series,” says Beth Curley, president and CEO of NPT. “It’s an even greater opportunity for the community to reap the benefits of two local cultural organizations working together as partners to support each other’s endeavors—great art and great television.”

Each one-hour episode is loosely structured around a theme that unifies the individual artists—as diverse as their media may be. Season four episodes include themes of romance, protest, ecology and paradox.

“Romance” (Nov. 11 screening)
The premiere episode features four distinctly different artists whose works pose questions about the role of emotion, regret, fantasy and nostalgia in contemporary art. Laurie Simmons’ first feature film, The Music of Regret, gave her an opportunity to bring her photography to life. Staging scenes with puppets, ventriloquist dummies and dancers costumed as everyday objects (a book, a clock, a cake), Simmons creates a nostalgic world that explores the sentiments of love and romance among family and neighbors.

Lari Pittman draws inspiration from a childhood that allowed him to be creative and imaginative, as well as from an acute awareness of our country’s attitude toward the gay community. His meticulously layered paintings transform decoration, pattern and signage into elaborate scenes that sweep viewers away with their dizzying complexity.

Sculptor Judy Pfaff designed an exhibition around the sadness and loss she experienced following the deaths of several of her closest friends and family members. Balancing intense planning with improvisational decision-making on site, Pfaff creates a sprawling sculptural installation that explores the worlds of black and white and blends landscape and architecture into an organic whole.

Pierre Huyghe uses various forms of expression to create new worlds and investigate the circulation of stories. His films, installations and public projects closely examine culture and boundaries and use playfulness and humor as a way to address complex social topics. From an expedition in Antarctica to a small-town parade, Huyghe thrives on the production and documentation of new and scripted realities.  

“Protest” (Nov. 11 screening)
The second installment examines the ways in which four artists use their work to picture war, express outrage and empathize with the suffering of others. Politics and the brutality of war underscore many of Nancy Spero’s paintings. A pioneer of feminist art, she creates easily read yet complicated work that makes an unapologetic statement against, and generates discussion about, the abuse of power, privilege and male dominance.

Landscape photographer An-My Lê’s black-and-white images examine the impact, representation and meaning of war, as well as the relationship between military activity and the surrounding terrain. Lê draws on her own childhood experience as a refugee of the Vietnam War to capture compelling photographs reflecting current American involvement in the Middle East.

Basing his work on research, reflection and response to horrific events, Alfredo Jaar’s installations, films and community-based projects communicate a specific experience to his audience, capturing beauty but also confronting horror. Jaar identifies the gap between reality and its representation, and his work explores the limits of art to accurately represent tragic world events, from genocide to poverty and famine.

Jenny Holzer, well-known for her subversive use of text and poetry, focuses on cruelty, devastation, consumerist impulses, death and disease in order to provoke a critical response from the viewer. Whether in an installation of declassified war documents or a large-scale projection of text from provocative essays, Holzer presents words in ways that are overwhelming, exacting and illustrate the power of language to harm or heal, expose or conceal.  

“Ecology” (Nov. 18 screening)
This program introduces viewers to four artists whose works pose questions about the relationships between nature and culture. Ursula von Rydingsvard works primarily with cedar to create large-scale structures. Drawing from her childhood memories of growing up in World War II Polish refugee camps, she creates massive wooden sculptures, which often resemble bowls, tools and walls, and echo the raw, wooden barracks in which her family was forced to live.

Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s technologically sophisticated sculptures and video installations employ natural forms such as clouds and icebergs, as well as objects including an umbrella and bullfight ring, as metaphors for understanding difficult social issues, from immigration and gun violence to human cloning.

For photographer Robert Adams, inspiration comes from the American West. Through his compelling black-and-white images, he documents scenes and landscapes—from a stripped forest to a sprawling suburban neighborhood—that are beautiful yet disturbing and strike a balance between sober documentation and somber indignation.

Mark Dion lives amongst “the world of stuff,” collecting materials from flea markets and yard sales for his installations and public projects—many of which explore our ideas and assumptions about nature. Inspired and intrigued by scientists, natural history museums and laboratory procedures, Dion’s works include an elaborate vivarium in Seattle for which he constructed a greenhouse to protect and keep alive a fallen tree and its surroundings—a tribute to and appreciation for the complexities of our natural system.

“Paradox” (Nov. 18 screening)
The final episode of the series showcases five artists who, through uniquely different styles of work, address and respond to contradiction, conflict and ambiguity and examine the relationship between mystery and meaning in art. Collaborators Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla draw inspiration from their belief that art can function as a catalyst for social change, and their works—which include sculpture, video documentation and public installations—often solicit active participation and critical responses from their viewers. They approach visual art as a set of experiments that test whether concepts such as authorship, nationality, borders and democracy adequately describe today’s increasingly global society.

Influenced by the work of artists such as Mark Rothko and his own love of jazz and bebop, Robert Ryman is well-known for his work with white paint on square forms, which reveals the nuances of the surface. His paintings, characterized by their subtlety, emphasize the role that perception and context play in creating an aesthetic experience.

Mark Bradford uses signage and advertisements scavenged from the street to create wall-sized collages that respond to the impromptu networks, such as underground economies, immigrant communities or abandoned public spaces that emerge within a city. In his films, Bradford captures and documents the cultural, political and racial conditions of an urban environment.

Catherine Sullivan’s anxiety-inducing films and live performances reveal the degree to which everyday gestures and emotional states are scripted and performed, questioning the border between innate and learned behavior.

A companion Web site, www.pbs.org/art21, complements the series with additional, in-depth information about the artists featured in season four.

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