EPISODE: "Transformation"

Whether observing and satirizing society or reinventing icons of literature, art history, and popular culture, these artists inhabit the characters they create and capture the sensibilities of our age.

“My work, all along, has been a critique of Empire,” says Yinka Shonibare MBE, adopting the honorific title of Member of the Order of the British Empire, with willful irony, as part of his name. Shown in his London studio, Shonibare is working on his first series of drawings in twelve years, taking as his subject climate change. The artist is also on hand for the installation of a retrospective of sculptures—headless, “post-racial,” mannequins dressed in vibrant costumes—at the MCA Sydney. Acting as the protagonist in two photographic series, Shonibare explores personal themes of leisure, excess, mortality, vanity and physical disability. The final work in the segment is a masked ballet that recounts the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden. “Power creates excess,” he asserts, while playfully admitting, “I also, actually, would like to have the trappings of wealth myself, even though I may be criticizing it.”

“I didn’t want to make what looked like art,” Cindy Sherman says about her earliest works, explaining that “film has always kind of been more influential to me than the art world.” The segment surveys thirty years of untitled works in which the artist photographs herself in various scenes and guises, grouped into informally-named series such as fairy tales, centerfolds, history portraits, Hollywood/Hampton types, and clowns. Sherman used a digital camera and green screen for her most recent series of society portraits, modifying each image’s “background with the same kind of license that a painter would take.” Sorting through test shots at the computer, Sherman leads the viewer through her iterative process. The segment later follows her to a thrift store where, upon finding several “wacky pants” she wonders if this shopping trip “might be inspiring a whole new series.”

“My work seems to be about tearing down and opening up conventions,” says Paul McCarthy, who bristles when asked what his responsibility is to the audience for his work. “My responsibility is to the ideas,” he explains, “that’s the difference between making art and making entertainment.” The segment begins with a series of motorized architectural works installed at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. McCarthy’s interest in performance is introduced through a series of minimal videos in which the artist uses his body as a tool. Later works show the artist performing similarly absurd tasks, only this time adopting a character and on a sound stage. “The persona usually started with a kind of mask or some sort of costume,” he says. The segment concludes in McCarthy’s Los Angeles studio where he and his assistants are shown working on a series of drawings and sculptures that include elements from Snow White, Hummel figurines, and a bust of President George W. Bush.