10 Visual Artists Who Are Changing the Way We See Advertising, and the World

Advertising might not be art, but it's certainly artful. And it relies on the most skilled fine artists to keep its craft at the highest level. For Adweek's Creative 100, we've chosen 10 visual artists working outside the agency world who have an enormous impact on marketing today. Whether building their own brands or contributing to campaigns, these visual masters help create unforgettable work in a host of mediums, from photography to virtual reality to machine building.


Chris Milk

Multimedia artist

Milk has vowed to build "the ultimate empathy machine," using virtual reality to help viewers experience diverse scenarios and vistas. In March, South by Southwest visitors were able to "attend" Saturday Night Live's 40th anniversary show—and virtually rub elbows with the celebrities in that episode's audience—thanks to one of Milk's mind-blowing VR films. He's been crafting media/audience fusions since 2010's "The Wilderness Downtown," an interactive music video for Arcade Fire that won the Grand Clio and Cannes Cyber Lions Grand Prix. Three years later, Milk made "Hello, Again" an acclaimed VR concert video with Beck, on behalf of Ford's Lincoln nameplate. More recently, his production company Vrse.works launched a mobile app and produced a VR film in partnership with the United Nations that tells the story of a Liberian ebola survivor. Milk screens such productions for "the people that can actually change the lives of the people inside the films," he said during a TED talk in March. This brings the process full circle, with virtual experiences having a palpable positive impact on reality.


Rama Allen

Filmmaker, creative technologist

"I love smashing together emotion, filmic dream states, technology and wonder," says Allen, who is pushing the frontiers of visual narrative for one of the world's great effects houses as filmmaker and executive creative director at The Mill in New York. Of late, he has worked with Levi's, MTV and Sony. His title sequences have twice been nominated for Emmys (True Blood and Vikings). "I always begin my creative development with music," he says. "I use it as an emotional metric and catalyst. I grab onto a 'moment in time' that has flickered through my imagination in that process. Typically this is a single image, dream-like and otherworldly, that then becomes the totem of an idea to build around."


Annie Leibovitz


Her magazine covers are legendary. John Lennon, naked and vulnerable, curled up next to Yoko One for Rolling Stone in 1980. A nude and pregnant Demi Moore, caressing her tummy, for Vanity Fair in 1991. Kanye West, his eyes nearly closed, embracing Kim Kardashian for Vogue last year. And none, perhaps, is more iconic than her July 2015 Vanity Fair portrait of Caitlyn Jenner. Seated on a stool, swathed in white, the subject gazes poignantly into the camera with a look that mingles pride and vulnerability. Once again, Liebovitz captured the tenor of the times, crystallizing a complex cultural moment in one unforgettable shot.


Liz Eswein

Executive Director
Laundry Service

Eswein gained fame for her @NewYorkCity account, and last year she started spreading the news at NYC agency Laundry Service, founding its Cycle division, where she guides 1,500 social influencers, creating content for brands including Beats by Dre, Holiday Inn and Jaguar. In a recent push for Amazon Kindle, "we sent six photographers around the world to capture their experience and showcase how the Kindle is a perfect travel companion," she says. "Not only did the client receive social syndication via our influencers' accounts, but they were also able to use the content throughout digital and in print."


Brett Doar

Machine maker

Doar loves setting 'em up and knocking 'em down, Rube Goldberg style, and achieving exhilarating effects with bespoke machines. Doar first gained notoriety for his work on OK Go's "This Too Shall Pass" video in 2010, and says he experienced a "groundbreaking moment" with last year's trailer for Leo's Fortune, which used circular saws, balloons and a model train. Doar savors the thrill of "performing" live with his installations, as he did at the 2014 Google I/O Worldwide Developer Conference and on The Colbert Report. "It's where the stakes are highest," he says, "because the audience is in the room with you, and there's no retakes."


Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg

Cinemagraph makers

This husband-and-wife team created and named the GIF variant known as cinemagraphs, in which motion takes place in a specific area of an otherwise still image. "It's a photograph that has a living moment inside it," Burg told Time magazine. Working through their Ann Street Studio, the pair frequently conjure up images of poetic beauty, such as the tiny butterflies flapping their wings near a table decorated with flowers, fresh fruit and Cointreau in an ad for the orange-flavored liqueur. Sometimes, though, their creations titillate, notably in an ad for Revolve Clothing that shows a model flicking her fingers across a breast barely concealed by her open leather jacket.


Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins

Multimedia empire builders

Writer Holkins and illustrator Krahulik are the fertile, twisted minds behind Penny Arcade, a webcomic focused on gaming culture—one of the most popular such venues on the Internet, with, by some measures, an audience approaching 4 million. Their approach is magnificently, manically meta (Holkins and Krahulik appear in the comic as their alter egos, Tycho and Gabe). Their geektastic empire includes the annual PAX gaming conventions (some with 70,000-plus attendees), a video channel, a children's charity called Child's Play and several original video games.


Meagan Cignoli


"After years of photography, I still approach everything as if it were a photo," says Cignoli, best known for her stylish Vines. "Now, I just make sure the photo moves and tells a story." The fanciful "Fix In Six" series of Vines, created with BBDO for Lowe's, is her best-known work, scoring numerous prizes, including a Bronze Cyber Lion at Cannes. Ads for Las Vegas tourism, touching on the city's transformative power, rank among her recent favorites. "I love working with dancers, models and actors, so that was fun," she says.


Jeremy Cowart

Photographer, educator

Cowart employs an especially wide-angle lens in his creative endeavors. These include: See University (an online educational platform), OkDoThis (an iPhone app that promotes creative thinking) and Help-Portrait (a global movement of photographers who donate their talents to those in need). Cowart's celebrity photo portfolio includes A-listers like Taylor Swift, Sting and the Kardashians, but he's equally focused on humanitarian projects. Recently, he collaborated with nonprofit Exile International on an art-therapy program for former child soldiers in Uganda. "If what I'm doing isn't helping others, then what's the point?" he asks. "I find the most fulfillment in things that are bigger than myself."


Paul Lindahl


Colossal Media focuses on the big picture. The really big picture. Co-founded by graffiti artist Lindahl, the company specializes in creating hand-painted advertising murals, hundreds every year, on city walls from coast to coast. "Our method is half persistence, half talent," Lindahl says. "We approach all of our projects, no matter the size, timing or place, with the best people working as a team for a common goal. From there, we typically have a ton of shit go wrong that we put back together as we go along." Recent walls of note include efforts for Google, Converse and Qualcomm—as well as the brilliant Snickers board in New York, a tie-in with its Super Bowl ad, that showed Marcia Brady slowly transforming into Danny Trejo over a period of weeks.


More of Adweek’s Creative 100:

Check out all the honorees by category:

30 Copywriters, Art Directors and Creative Directors
10 Chief Creative Officers
10 Digital Innovators
10 Branded Content Creators
10 Viral Content Creators
10 Commercial Directors
10 Visual Artists
10 Celebrities and Influencers

You can also browse the full list alphabetically or follow the entire Creative 100 on Twitter.

This story first appeared in the July 20 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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