Contemporary artists we're loving

Joana Vasconcelos

By Mike Brennan

contemporary sculpture - Joana Vasconcelos

Born in Paris in 1971 and now based in Lisbon, Portugal, Vasconcelos first attracted widespread attention at the 2005 Venice Biennale with A Noiva (The Bride), a giant chandelier-like construction of over 25,000 tampons.

Such allusions to femininity are typical of the artist's output of installation, video, sculpture and ceramics.

Many of Vasconcelos' most recognisable works to date have used finely detailed crochet - a traditional Portuguese craft usually associated with female makers - as a sheath-like covering for objects ranging from pianos to models of animals and the human figure (above left, and below) .

Joana Vasconcelos

Explorations of key facets of the artist's identity - womanhood and the notion of nationality - are fundamental to Vasconcelos' work, and Portuguese iconography is again the subject of the early sculpture series Independent Hearts, in which a popular traditional motif is recreated in translucent plastic cutlery.

Slowly turning on a chain, the giant hearts rotate to a recorded accompaniment of Portuguese 'fado', a form of music characterised by the expression of deep longing in its mournful tunes and lyrics.

important contemporary art: Joana Vasconcelos

While Vasconcelos' principal themes remain consistent, her practice is exploratory, often shading into areas of nuance that are partially obscured by the energy and presence of her works.

The sprawling installation Contagió (Contagion, left), for example, winds through space like a kind of tentacled, cartoon parasite.

Its title appears to strike a note of concern, yet the vibrant colours and patterning of its fabric body - a showcase of crafts such as stitching and stuffing - inspire excitement and pleasure.

In fact, the upbeat effects of its presence are contagious in the most positive sense, inviting interaction and a sense of childhood play.

The concept of belonging - to a nation, a gender - is transmuted into a sense of festive community within the gallery itself.

Seeping beyond a notionally allocated space, Contagio belongs to no one and to all. And as Vasconcelos is fully aware, spectacle is highly inclusive, encoraging viewers to approach works without reservation.

Joana Vasconcelos

Perhaps one of the best examples of the layers of finely tuned observation so often embedded in Vasconcelos' work is provided by a recent series of giant stilleto shoes (left).

Constructed of stainless steel cooking pots, and with titles such as 'Cinderella', 'Dorothy' or 'Marilyn', the over-sized footwear impresses while harbouring a string of associations and myth.

From kitchen drudgery to femme fatale, screen siren or fairy-tale transformation, the shoes encapsulate a dizzying series of perceptions relating to the so-called 'female condition'.

Beneath the sheen, however, lies real unease. The pots and pans symbolic of 'women's work' become a fashionable accoutrement, yet despite the urgings of 'Sex in the City' sensibilities, the freedom to cast aside kitchen utensils for 'must-have' stilettos may simply represent a different kind of slavery.

Such subtleties have not been lost on collectors, and prices for the artist's work are rising at startling speed.

Vasconcelos' first sale at auction - in June 2009 at Christies, London - netted 163,250, well above its highest estimate. And in February 2010, Marilyn - from the above-mentioned shoe series - made an astonishing 500,000, more than three times its estimate.

Vasconcelos, it seems, is shaping up to become a dominant force in contemporary art.


more artist profiles: Allison Schulnik | Oskar Dawicki | Sara Ramo | Nora Schultz | Nicholas Hlobo | Tillman Kaiser

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