The PBS series Art in the Twenty-First Century, commonly called Art21, is now presenting its 8th season of profiles of contemporary visual artists. For the first time, programs are organized by location—Chicago, Mexico City, Los Angeles and Vancouver—rather than by theme. As a result, the series highlights the characteristics of place and how it impacts the selected artists. The season showcases the geography, architecture, and culture of each location. Executive Producer Eve Moros Ortega said, “Using the sounds, colors, and energy of the city as a landscape that artists respond to and interact with, the films expand beyond the studio to explore each artist’s engagement with their communities and the world around them.”

The opening program on Chicago was directed by Emmy, Peabody, Sundance, and MacArthur award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson (The Black Panthers, The Murder of Emmett Till) and features Nick Cave, Theaster Gates, Chris Ware, and Barbara Kaster. From the top, shots of Chicago with its iconic buildings and cityscapes are used as interstitials between the profiles. “Chicago is the city of architecture, very inspiring to me,” says Barbara Kasten. “Can art and culture change communities? It does it all the time,” says Theaster Gates.

Nick Cave’s Soundsuits—which are performative suits of armor, wearable sculptures—make you long to have him create Beaux Arts Ball architectural costumes, rivaling William Van Alen’s. (Remember the horses at Grand Central Station in HEARD•NY, a Creative Time project?)

Theaster Gates. Listening House and Archive House, 6918 South Dorchester Avenue, Chicago, IL. 2009-present. (© Theaster Gates. Courtesy of the artist and Rebuild Foundation.)

Theaster Gates. Listening House and Archive House, 6918 South Dorchester Avenue, Chicago, IL. 2009-present. (© Theaster Gates. Courtesy of the artist and Rebuild Foundation.)

Theaster Gates calls himself a social practice installation artist who is committed to the revitalization of neighborhoods through urban planning (he holds a degree in planning from Iowa State University) and art practice. Stony Island State Savings Bank on the south side of Chicago was a building slated for demolition. Supported by the city of Chicago, he made into an arts center by taking marble from the bathrooms and creating “bonds” that he sold at Art Basel for $5,000 each, raising $1 million to start renovations. Gates, whose father was a roofer, also knows how to build things, so he started working with found materials. His collection of houses and buildings along Dorchester Ave. has grown into a vibrant neighborhood including a housing collaborative for artists, a music repository, and movie screenings.

Chris Ware, a cartoonist, graphic novelist, and New Yorker cover artist, lives in Chicago’s Oak Park, so his segment kicks off with his drawing of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home & Studio. One of his publications is Building Stories, a box of books and pamphlets that are literally about building and building a life.


Barbara Kasten makes abstract, colorful, architecturally inspired photographs printed on cyanotype fabric. The physicality of transparent sheets hit with light and the resulting shadows make these planar tensions manifest. In videos, the planes move in space, adding the third dimension. Kaster cites the influence of Chicago architecture and the urban landscape, and her work is shown in an exhibition at the Graham Foundation (you can hear Sarah Herda’s voice introducing the artist).

In the Mexico City episode, Damián Ortega, whose Controller of the Universe of exploding tools was the centerpiece of Cooper Hewitt’s reopening exhibition last year, uses everyday objects and found materials in a display in the plaza of Museo Jumex.

Pedro Reyes. Disarm (double psaltery), 2012. Recycled metal. (Photo: Ken Adlard. © Pedro Reyes. Courtesy of the artist.)

Pedro Reyes. Disarm (double psaltery), 2012. Recycled metal. (Photo: Ken Adlard. © Pedro Reyes. Courtesy of the artist.)

Pedro Reyes studied architecture and says that as an artist, he problem solves like an architect. One project turns weapons into musical instruments, and in another, he took an abandoned 1968 concrete tower, Torre de los Vientos, and created a space for art interventions.

In Los Angeles, video and installation artist Diana Theater thought about becoming an architect because of her interest in space. She uses color and imagery to make one conscious of world around us.

In Vancouver, Stan Douglas, who makes films, videos, photography, and installations, examines the “failed utopia” of modernism and obsolete technologies. His works are based on actual locations such as Hogan’s Alley (2014), an interactive video featuring an Italian bootlegger and a Chinese brothel. His performance Helen Lawrence (2014) is set in 1948 Vancouver, with a rebuilt neighborhood created with 3D environments including the old Hotel Vancouver and Hogan’s Alley (which are filled with hard-boiled characters and a femme fatale). In another use of place, Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 (2008), Douglas photographed an intersection and re-created a protest that occurred there.

Check local listings or view online at PBS.

Related Stories