Art Curator Kate Bryan reveals the 7 artists to watch in 2021

Kate's stand-out artists for 2021, both established and up-and-coming, include Bea Bonafini, Zoe Buckman, Corbin Shaw, Cary Kwok and more

It’s been a turbulent time for the art world, but a pandemic, social justice movement and several lockdowns have also generated a new wave of creativity. Now more than ever, curator and art expert Kate Bryan argues, it’s important to support British and London-based artists and to invest in work that can help us process and understand the world today. From more established names to the most exciting up-and-coming talent, these are the artists Kate Bryan recommends looking out for this year.

‘Over this past year, what’s been really impressive is that we’ve all adapted really positively to different ways of working. Some people are saying that we fast-forwarded the art world, getting it to a digital place which might otherwise have taken years to achieve, but I think the truth is we’ve revolutionised it. We’ve not speeded to the inevitable, we’ve re-written the playbook, and that’s really exciting.

Art Curator Kate Bryan Reveals The 7 Artists To Watch In 2021Pin
Bea Bonafini

‘I’m also encouraged by how inventive people have been. So many artists came up with great solutions last year with initiatives like the #ArtistSupportPledge. There are also more people recognising that we have systemic issues in the art world in terms of underrepresentation of people from different backgrounds, races and classes. People are being really forward-thinking about how to solve those problems, and using the pandemic as a sort of catalyst for doing it.  This has resulted in a number of great initiatives from across the board, from big galleries hosting graduate shows on their website, to more creative, subversive movements like GUTS Gallery’s ‘It’s 2020 for F*cks Sake,’ which was a back-to-back series of showings of emerging artists who otherwise wouldn’t have had much or any opportunity.

Art Curator Kate Bryan Reveals The 7 Artists To Watch In 2021Pin
Shaqúelle Whyte, When We Fall

‘I think the past year has demonstrated that there’s a really big appetite for art. What we still need to figure out is the solution for how to discover artists, especially new and emerging talent — Instagram is great, but if that’s not the main or most natural tool for an artist or a buyer, then what’s the answer?  I’m hoping that we’ll start to see artist open studios, as well as graduate shows, again near the end of the year, and maybe people will be a bit more interested in discovering artists in their area. 

‘In the last year we’ve really turned to artists to help us navigate and understand what’s going on in the world around us — not just the pandemic, but the Black Lives Matter moment and the huge inequity that’s been revealed in our society. What’s exciting about art in this moment is that we’re starting to better appreciate the philosophical, cultural and emotional value of art. The artists I’ve selected here speak to that. They’re all the kind of artists who are very sensitive to the world around them, who process it in a really beautiful way and give it back to us to help us understand it, too. I hope that they’re artists that people could find great comfort and companionship in.’

Jeff McMillan

Originally from Texas, painter and sculptor Jeff McMillan has been based in London since 1988. The Tate just acquired work from his Biblio series, and this year he’s showing at the Kristof De Clercq gallery in Belgium. 

‘Jeff’s work is very much about the process of making art itself and the passing of time — which is very appropriate given that we’ve all been watching time pass very slowly. During the first lockdown he was doing a residency at the British School in Rome, where he created these wooden block sculptures using wood he found around the city.They look like minimalist sculptures, but they’re actually a composite of Rome.

‘He’s also got these works that he’s been working on for the past year or two, where he takes antique linens and puts them face down in oil paint so they become bathed in paint. He then puts them on the south facing wall outside his studio so they’re exposed to the elements, and peels them off a couple of years laters — whenever he thinks they’re “ripe.” It’s very meditative, slow work which I think is particularly interesting for the time we’re in.’

Zoe Buckman

The British artist has been based in New York for most of her career. Her solo show Nomi, co-curated by Bryan, is being held at the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London, online until 13 March. 

‘I’m a major fan of Zoe’s work, and this exhibition is a sort of homecoming for her as it’s her first show in London ever. She’s been doing some really impressive stuff  in the States, including a big public commission with the Art Production Fund, where she made this glowing pair of ovaries clad in boxing gloves that were 43 ft tall on Sunset Boulevard. They got installed just before the Oscars in that post-Harvey Weinstein moment. It was very powerful.

‘The work she’s showing at Pippy Houldsworth is really special because it came through this process of grief and trauma. She’s been on this real journey, travelling to India and starting EMDR therapy and coming out the other side with this work that’s very much about reclaiming power and positivity. I think they’re a good antidote for the world we’re living in at the moment. Zoe’s work is intensely personal but radiates out to the audience so well because her message is universal and authentic ’

Cary Kwok

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Cary Kwok has been based in London since studying fashion at Central Saint Martins in the 1990s. 

Art Curator Kate Bryan Reveals The 7 Artists To Watch In 2021Pin
Cary Kwok, Man Powered, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Herald St London

‘Cary makes these amazing ballpoint pen drawings, very exquisite, very real. At first look they are just very beautiful drawings, but then you look closer and discover a lot more going on underneath the surface. He uses realism mixed with very fantastical ideas, with a lot built around male sexual desire and fantasy.’

The reason I wanted to point him out is because he had a show at Herald Street that was one of the last exhibitions I got to see in the flesh last year before lockdown. It reminded me how important it is to go and see these shows, and I’m hoping that we remember to support these exhibitions when they reopen. 

He’s making very special works for Soho House that we’ll unveil this year, and he’s just a very exciting artist that people should watch — he deals with identity in a really joyful and celebratory way.’

Corbin Shaw

This year, the British artist is finishing a residency at the Changing Room Gallery in London, culminating in a joint show in March with fellow resident Celeste McEvoy

‘I literally just discovered this artist last year through one of the GUTS Gallery exhibitions. His work is really interesting to me because I’ve been a real fan for such a long time of female artists who deal with sex discrimination and stereotypes, and his work is a parallel conversation from a male perspective. 

‘Corbin explores masculinity and is very interested in examining spaces that are normally dominated by men, drawing on his experiences of growing up in football clubs and boxing gyms. His work looks at rites of passage in England, the way in which men get in each other’s way with these traditional standards of masculinity, and how this can affect men’s mental health. 

‘A lot of his work is based in fabric and textiles, so it’s particularly interesting to see him adopting these methods normally associated with craft or “women’s work” and using it to explore questions around masculinity. I personally bought one of his pieces for myself as well as for Soho House because I was so intrigued.’

Miranda Forrester

A recent graduate of the University of Brighton, following multiple residences and group shows, this year she will unveil a new commission for Soho House.

Art Curator Kate Bryan Reveals The 7 Artists To Watch In 2021Pin
Miranda Forrester, Up Late

‘This is another artist who I discovered during lockdown. I find her work really fascinating because it looks at the history of women in art history and the male gaze, but totally subverts it. She’s interested in the Black Queer gaze, relfective of her own idenitity, so her work is about undoing art history by doing it through a new lens — when she does life drawing through her Queer, Black feminist lens, she’s seeing stuff that a male gaze can’t see. 

‘I love the way that she physically manifests that in the work, because not only is she a great figurative artist, but her pieces are also very evocative and thoughtful. She uses plastic over the stretcher so that there are these transparent veils over the paintings — she’s making you think about the nuances through which we see these bodies. 

‘We’ve just done a great commission with her for the new Soho House at 180 The Strand, where she’s painted onto the wall with a canvas on top, and I cannot wait to unveil it.’

Bea Bonafini

The Italian artist is based in London, where she got her BA at the Slade and a MA in painting from Royal College of Art. This year she has a show at Renata Fabbri in Milan this September, and a solo show at Lychee One in London.

Art Curator Kate Bryan Reveals The 7 Artists To Watch In 2021Pin
Bea Bonafini, Rippling
Art Curator Kate Bryan Reveals The 7 Artists To Watch In 2021Pin
Bea Bonafini, Sight of your Sleep
Art Curator Kate Bryan Reveals The 7 Artists To Watch In 2021Pin
Bea Bonafini, Il Trionfo

‘In the last four years, Bea’s work has just matured so much, it feels like she should have been working for 20 years. I think it’s great escapist art — she’s very good at making these immersive experiences, and she uses a lot of fabrics and textiles to do so.

‘Bea overlaps ancient art history with contemporary art history, so sometimes you’ll be seeing this Etruscan imagery but from a very contemporary perspective. She really puts the viewer at the heart of the work, so it’s so much about your physical reaction to the spaces she conjures. It’s a real celebration of material, and she just has a great sense of colour and texture.

She’s just finishing her residency at the British School in Rome, which is where she’s spent her lockdown, and then after that she’s going to do another residency at the very respected Palazzo Mozzi. She’s also got her show at Lychee One in London and at Renata Fabbri in Milan — it’s a big year for her.’

Shaqúelle Whyte

The 20-year-old artist, originally from Wolverhampton, is currently studying at the Slade School and is due to graduate in 2022. 

Art Curator Kate Bryan Reveals The 7 Artists To Watch In 2021Pin
Shaqúelle Whyte, It'll Be Okay
Art Curator Kate Bryan Reveals The 7 Artists To Watch In 2021Pin
Shaqúelle Whyte, A collection of thoughts
Art Curator Kate Bryan Reveals The 7 Artists To Watch In 2021Pin
Shaqúelle Whyte, Nothing But

‘Even though he’s literally doing his undergraduate degree right now, Shaqúelle’s already been put into group shows, including at the Daniel Raphael gallery last year, and won the scholarship to the Rome Art program, meaning he gets to do an exchange with the Cooper Union School of Art and Science in New York. 

He makes these fantastic figurative paintings that navigate his place through the world almost like a kind of theatre, using all these characters. He’s talking about his experience as a young Black man, but they’re never self-portraits. You can see the paintings getting increasingly surreal, and he loves the physicality of the paint. Often, he’s putting oil pastel over the top, going back to his very strong drawing practice, and I really like the combination of both.

His is the kind of generation of artist that has been so badly affected by the pandemic, so I’m really pleased that he’s going to be in a joint show in Edinburgh next year, and he’s already been put into a group show in London this April.’

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