'Art in the 21st Century' is PBS at its best

In recent times, no Seattle Art Museum show has generated as much heat as the amazing sculptural installations of Korean artist Do-Ho Suh. His glittering piece "Some/One," a suit of armor built of thousands of dog tags, created such a furor among viewers that museum trustees Pamela and Barney Ebsworth purchased it for SAM's permanent collection.

Some of the excitement of Suh's visit to Seattle was captured on video and highlights Part 1 of the outstanding documentary series "Art: 21 — Art in the 21st Century."

This is the second season for the four-part series — which airs the coming two Tuesdays on KCTS. Don't miss it: It's the kind of programming that makes public television shine.

"Art in the 21st Century" delves into the work of stellar contemporary artists Kara Walker, Martin Puryear, Kiki Smith and Vija Celmins while introducing a handful of emerging talents.

If you are one of those who's been grumping about the miserable state of contemporary art, get ready for an attitude adjustment. The enormous diversity of work that's quietly being done in our midst, not to mention the smart, articulate, exceptional people who are making it, is sure to turn your head around.

"I like art that at first makes you mad," says Walker, an instructor at Columbia University and winner of a 1997 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. An African-American artist in her 30s, Walker shocks viewers with the subtle brutality of her cut-paper silhouette images, prompted by the slave culture of the antebellum South. Seattle audiences who have seen Walker's work at the Henry Art Gallery and at Greg Kucera Gallery know its power — and the discomfort it creates.

Hearing Walker discuss her motivations adds meaning to the images. She says the titillations of the book "Gone with the Wind" impressed her profoundly and left her "wanting to be the heroine and yet wanting to kill the heroine at the same time."

The push/pull of that dichotomy and the struggle for power are essential ingredients of her art, meant "to freeze frame a moment that is full of pain and blood and guts and drama and glory."

And if you get stuck thinking Walker's imagery dwells in dead history, you've missed the point. "The illusion that it's about past events — that's part of the ruse," she says.

Walker leads off "Stories," the first hour of "Art: 21," introduced by filmmaker John Waters, and also including Suh, Smith and up-and-coming Texas artist Trenton Doyle Hancock. Hancock's obsessions — toys, grocery lists, found photographs, stuff — feed the fantastical world of his art, melding comic-book melodrama with sophisticated abstractions.

The second hour of the show, introduced by actress Jane Alexander, revolves around the theme "Loss & Desire," focusing on three artists: Collier Schorr, Gabriel Orozco and Janine Antoni. Each is intriguing. Photographer Schorr, her own gender deliberately ambiguous, works through identity stereotypes by closely examining, and empathizing with, "the other." In her case, that means photographing powerful young men, high-school wrestlers and — difficult for a Jew — the sons of a German family she met while traveling in the country. "So much of my work is about confronting the Aryan myth that scared me as a little girl ... that was the bogeyman," she says.

Antoni's work, on the other hand, is unabashedly feminine, hearkening back to pioneering women performance and conceptual artists from the 1970s. She's narcissistically body-based in her art, which incorporates body casting, spinning, ropemaking and tightrope walking.

But it's Orozco who steals the show. This guy turns the world upside down, rearranges it and puts it back in a way that jolts the brain. A Mexican-born artist of all trades, Orozco has no studio, no particular medium for his work. He uses the camera as a tool of awareness but makes art out of anything he chooses.

His is "an art that takes nothing for granted." The work is extraordinary — and so is what the artist has to say.

On Sept. 16, "Art: 21" zeroes in on the fabulous sculptures of Puryear, the pop-culture inspired works of Paul Pfeiffer and the paintings of Vija Celmins, in the program "Time," hosted by dancer Merce Cunningham.

It concludes with "Humor," hosted by Margaret Cho and featuring Eleanor Antin, Raymond Pettibon and Elizabeth Murray.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

TV review

"Art: 21 — Art in the 21st Century," 10 p.m.-midnight, Tuesday and Sept. 16 on KCTS (Repeats 3 a.m., Sept. 21 and 22.)