What does it take to make it in the big leagues of contemporary art? More than talent. Curators at Canada's top public galleries - always on the watch for the next Jeff Wall or Janet Cardiff - look for superb technique, originality, depth, relevance, a certain element of surprise and the ability to go the distance without repeating oneself. Tough criteria - but the curators were nonetheless able to name at least three dozen exceptional young artists who make the grade. Maclean's spotlights 10 of them:

Karen Azoulay, Toronto

THE ART: Exquisite, unabashedly feminine wall paintings/installations brimming with abstracted organic forms that mimic tropical flowers, garlands, shrubs and gentle rains. Azoulay fashions pastel fantasylands out of delicate fabrics, ribbons, pompoms, coffee filters, egg cartons and other cheap domestic materials. One of a generation of emerging artists who reject stark modernism, Azoulay possesses a sensibility that is ornate, Victorian and deliberately sentimental. Azoulay insists her work isn't at all political. "It always seems important to people that my work is feminine," she says, "but it's just a byproduct of my femininity."

THE BUZZ: Only three years out of art school, Azoulay, 26, has won two high-profile commissions. The Canadian Art Foundation invited her to create a major installation for its annual gala last September. Then, in November, one of her works appeared in an exhibit, curated by the editor of Canadian Art, for the Toronto International Art Fair.

Massimo Guerrera, Montreal

THE ART: Multimedia. Food is the core subject of Guerrera's playful, poetic and highly original art. Some of his fresh takes include: performance works in which he invites the public to join him in a picnic on an art gallery floor or in a meal on a subway platform; drawings that become placemats; and sculptures made out of leftovers and food waste such as olive pits. The artist serves up his unorthodox works as visual metaphors - entrees into issues as deep as the nature of trust and intimacy and as concrete as our appetite for consumerism and worries about the control of the food supply.

THE BUZZ: Many curators consider Guerrera, 36, one of the most interesting artists in Canada. After an impressive showing at the Montreal Biennale in 2000, Guerrera won the prestigious Ozias-Leduc prize the following year.

Cal Lane, Halifax

THE ART: Knockout steel sculptures with a lacy touch. Lane, 35, a certified welder and graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, wields an industrial blowtorch as if it were a crochet hook, burning dainty, intricate designs into heavy metal. The artist's signature Steel Doilies and monumental, "crocheted" I-beams elegantly perforate traditionally masculine realms of art and architecture with feminine craft.

THE BUZZ: In 2001, Lane won an Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award from the International Sculpture Center in Hamilton, N.J. And in 2002, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia appointed her artist in residence, inviting Lane to create a new work for the opening of its new sculpture gallery in the spring of that year.

Shaan Syed, Toronto

THE ART: Oil painting. Syed's painterly canvases combine a traditional style with edgy, contemporary imagery. The 28-year-old artist, often inspired by newspaper photos, depicts familiar scenes - busy urban intersections, rock concerts and other crowd scenes, people unloading a car - but his vignettes have a dreamlike quality, a sense of impending disaster. In the past year, as he's worked mainly on larger canvases, that anxiety has carried through in the unsettling angles of his composition and claustrophobic, horizonless backgrounds. His typically aerial perspective heightens the feeling of alienation in works such as The Cool Kids or Inner Divisions of People and Systems . Heavy brushwork and semi-abstract figures add to the mystery in Syed's dark, brooding but beautiful work.

THE BUZZ: In the past year, the Ottawa native has enjoyed artist residencies in Banff, Alta., Switzerland and upstate New York. And commercial galleries in Toronto and Zurich have decided to show the promising young painter, just three years out of art school.

Paul Butler, Winnipeg

THE ART: Butler's compelling collages demonstrate his ingenious use of ... duct tape. In fact, the 30-year-old artist "draws" with an assortment of tapes - Scotch, masking, hockey, surgical and electrical. He applies the humble adhesives, along with found text, to images borrowed from popular magazines, transforming them into surprisingly sophisticated artworks (such as Untitled Landscape). A stretch of hand-torn duct tape might define a horizon in a landscape; tiny cut-up pieces might darken a figure. The results are elegant pieces that make wry comments on contemporary values.

THE BUZZ: The personable artist's collage parties are achieving near-legendary status. First organized so he and his artist friends could make art and, uh ... drink, Butler has since held collage parties in Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles, London and Oslo, Norway. Future stops include Berlin and L.A. Both artist and dealer, Butler - himself represented by an established Toronto gallery - showcases the work of other young Canadian artists in his on-line gallery.

Will Kwan, Toronto

THE ART: Performance art or "social sculpture" is how Hong Kong-born Kwan likes to describe his funny and imaginative public "interventions." A University of Toronto graduate who also describes himself as a writer, Kwan has presented his performance work in public spaces throughout Toronto. For one of his most popular pieces, Don't Toe the Line, Or Toe Your Own Line, the artist painted a hopscotch court in the middle of a busy downtown intersection, then stood back and videotaped pedestrians' reactions.

THE BUZZ: Only 25, and currently pursuing an M.F.A. at Columbia University in New York, Kwan was asked to participate in the 50th Venice Biennale last June. He was the only Canadian invited to create a work in a four-week artist-in-residence program at the event. He then participated in the Prague Biennale.

Scott McFarland, Vancouver

THE ART: Photography - extraordinary, large-scale images of quiet moments and unremarkable environments. McFarland works within the tradition of documentary photography but with a radically modern aesthetic. The artist deliberately avoids spectacular subjects and, for the most part, vivid colour, choosing instead to create photographic series that focus on the ordinary: a dilapidated boathouse, a maintenance worker in a garden, a cottage stove (as in Embers, Late Evening). The art and beauty of the images lie in McFarland's vision and his impressive ability to evoke intense mood in the mundane through a brilliant manipulation of light and shadow and meticulous attention to detail.

THE BUZZ: Jeff Wall, one of Canada's most internationally renowned artists, has publicly praised his former student. The National Gallery of Canada offered its endorsement of the 28-year-old by purchasing two of his works.

Jason McLean, Vancouver

THE ART: A quirky mix of boyish, cartoon-inspired drawings, sculpture, collage, one-of-a-kind books, costumes, sound installations and performance works. Dubbed "Dada's Boy," by one enthusiastic critic, McLean, a native of London, Ont., takes his cue from the Dadaists, Surrealists and '60s pop artists, then goes his own zany way. His eccentric and irreverent oeuvre includes drawings on pages torn from colouring books, and fantastical foam helmets, wired for sound, that plug into the frames of his paintings. A frequent collaborator, McLean, like many of his generation, is also an enthusiastic practitioner of mail art - elaborately decorated envelopes and packages exchanged with fellow artists through the postal system.

THE BUZZ: McLean, 32, has captured the attention of the art crowd with large-scale drawing/paintings - on view last year in a Vancouver Art Gallery group show - that combine the busyness of a Bruegel with the sensibility of an underground comic. The works are like visual diaries - stream-of-consciousness illustrations that merge details of his personal life with the oddities he encounters in his rough downtown neighbourhood, bits of overheard street conversation, sports allusions, movie trivia and bits of Canadian history. Represented by galleries in Vancouver and Los Angeles, he has upcoming shows in New York.

Peter Flemming, Calgary

THE ART: Kinetic sculpture. Flemming creates ingenious mechanical contraptions from discarded electronic equipment - machines as metaphors. Consider Canoe. The automated paddle that dominates this popular, room-sized piece gracefully travels the length of a clear plastic shell filled with water, back and forth, in an endless loop. Like most of the artist's robotic constructions, it amuses, mesmerizes, then pushes viewers to reflect on the meaning, usefulness and ultimate impact of technology. "It's my way of expressing simultaneous disgust and fascination with our gadget culture," says the 30-year-old artist.

THE BUZZ: Flemming, an instructor at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, has six projects in the works for 2004 and 2005, to be shown at galleries in Calgary, Kingston, Ont., and Dawson, Yukon. The artist, who recently returned from a stint as artist-in-residence in Bergen, Norway, is clearly gaining momentum in this developing art form.

Lori Clarke, St. John's

THE ART: Video, sound, installation and performance works. Clarke explores the connections between, and issues around, art and medicine, mind and body, in deep and lyrical interdisciplinary pieces. To conclude her series SOMALORE ("stories of the body"), the 36-year-old artist produced the installation Anatomist in Situ in collaboration with a physician. It's currently on view at Memorial University's faculty of medicine. Chair of Breath, created with Undrea Norris, is also part of SOMALORE.

THE BUZZ: Clarke has won a coveted place in the high-profile inaugural exhibit at the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador's new building next June - one of the province's most anticipated art events.

See also Art, Contemporary Trends.

Maclean's January 12, 2004