Twenty years ago this spring, Newcity launched its first Breakout Artists edition, working with no mandate other than to champion emerging creative forces before the culture-at-large. The world tends to celebrate its prominent artists so vigorously that it’s easy to overlook the fact that thousands of artists do their work in relative anonymity in careers driven more by muse than purse. By shining a light on a handful of artists we think most promising today, perhaps we can make a small difference at a time when it’s needed most.
Since 2004, we’ve featured an even 160 artists, many of whom have since gone on to significant careers; you can peruse the year-by-year list at the end of this feature. This year, we’ve evolved the process we go through to identify our artists to include input from a much wider constituency of voices in the art community, settling on a shortlist of 130 that we whittled down to our largest group ever. In the pages that follow, meet the ten Breakout Artists of 2023, and then make a plan to meet them in person, and see their work, at the Breakout Artists Exhibition at the Chicago Artists Coalition opening on April 12. (Brian Hieggelke)
Newcity’s Breakout Artists 2023 was written by Alexandra Drexelius, Annette LePique, Ciera McKissick, Nicky Ni, Chris Reeves, Vasia Rigou, Jennifer Smart, Mana Taylor, Jacqueline WayneGuite and Parker Yamasaki.
In the weeks leading up to our meeting at their studio—quietly lit but announcing itself with bolder varieties of makeup, wigs and clothing—Ále Campos had performed in their persona Celeste at a romance-themed pop-up exhibition, kicked off a queer variety series at Logan Square mainstay Café Mustache, exhibited work for Hyde Park Art Center’s Ground Floor Biennial, and was announced as one of six Bolt Residents at Chicago Artists Coalition for 2023-2024. Despite this list of enviable achievements and their consistent presence sidling up to both the cognoscenti of the humble DIY and the proud institutional, Campos can’t help but shake a feeling of imposter syndrome. “I ask myself, ‘Am I good enough? Am I doing the art thing?’” Campos says, “But of course I know I am, because I love and think about performance in such a deep way.”
Campos’ endearingly modest but nonetheless self-searching queries are born out of work that bridges two worlds that are still slow to meet: performance art and drag performance. Initially working in other mediums while an undergrad at Bennington College, Campos came to drag in 2018, first as a performer in and producer of shows at Lil’ Deb’s Oasis, a restaurant where Campos worked in the Hudson Valley. The spark ignited from these early experiences in this formative space pushed Campos to not only pursue performance and show production full-time, but to also think further about the role of drag as performance art proper. “I was collaborating with some photographer and some videographer friends in the Hudson Valley on these larger-scale videos and performance stuff around pop music and drag and lip-syncing,” Campos recalls, “but my brain started to think more about the cameras, the space and the landscape, all these things. You have a lot of access to landscape in the Hudson Valley.”
Encouraged by a friend to apply to the School of the Art Institute Chicago’s MFA in performance (one of the few offered in the United States), Campos assembled a portfolio that was, by their own concession, “haphazard,” but nonetheless was found deserving of admission. Attending remotely their first year due to COVID, they finally got to perform in-person, both at the school and in the city proper in the fall of 2021. These initial performances, occurring in Chicago mainstays such as No Nation Art Lab, Co-Prosperity, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and Kavi Gupta, introduced the city to Campos’ dynamic multimedia performances, but also to their persona Celeste.
As Celeste (and by virtue, performances as Celeste), Campos cannily posits a rhizomatic reimagining of the myth of the stable body relative to the supposedly stable ontology of the social. Equipped with the knowledge that a body carries an emphatically yet-to-be-fulfilled aspect, Celeste allows Campos (and vice versa) to mine processes of becoming, be it the privileges that allow movement and dance, reducing the abstract power of objects into autobiographical details, or mining the thoroughfare of creative networks (theater, performance, vernacular and underground cultures) to use them in ways that they weren’t designed. Or, as Campos succinctly calls it, “a rhapsodic, hypnotic medley of shit.”
Campos’ work ambitiously paves a conceptual multidirectional path in our increasingly one-dimensional political frontier and is nonetheless tethered to a desire for effect. Their performances can be designed, through trance-like audio and the repetition of gestures and movements, as a means to elicit moments of sadness or joy (often both). Of course, the politics of encounter in art spaces can differ wildly from others, but it’s this insistence on the potential for permeability in location that gives Campos’ work a political dimension (fluidity over power) and a liberatory desire born out of thinking that the world could still be felt otherwise (queering as form). Yet, as anyone tasked with the cumbersome role of shaking the doldrums off of given normative behaviors can attest, provoking the art world to let go and dance or sing is no easy feat. “The odds may be stacked against you somewhat in an art space,” Campos says, “but I want to chase the feeling of shaking people out of what to expect in those spaces.” It’s not about simply reifying drag performance in an art space to give it greater purchase, but insisting that it is an elevated form in its own right, one that has been denied proper access for reasons both well-known but also inexplicable. Following José Esteban Muñoz’s brilliant treatise on disidentification, it’s about cracking open the codes of dominant culture to use as raw material against it. (Chris Reeves)