As 2013 comes to a close, two recent events in hindsight comment interestingly on how some Nebraskans measure success, pride and identity. Both were quite entertaining—as you would expect sports and movies to be—yet neither was quite flattering.
The first asked Husker fans to choose between being a “Bo-liever” or “Bo-leaver” after a “disappointing” 8-4 football season. And the second recognized favorite son, director Alexander Payne, for a well-deserved day in his honor sponsored by Film Streams for his acclaimed film, “Nebraska.”
Ironically, neither Coach Pelini’s national anger management issues nor Payne’s rural vision of “Nebraska” portrays exactly a positive example of the Husker state though there is little doubt as to whose reflection shines brighter internationally. Putting sports and popular entertainment aside, there is at least a third element that paints an accurate picture of the “Good Life” and that is fine arts, its creation and appreciation, though by comparison it gets very little attention in the media in any given year.
Which is a shame, because, as this critic’s 7th annual “A-list,” the most important contemporary visual art events and exhibits bear out, 2013 was an especially successful year, particularly in the Metro. Venues, viewers, collectors and artists all had something to cheer about. And after being overwhelmed by planned and unforeseen events the past two years, exhibitions rose to the occasion both in quantity and quality, a fact that the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards celebration, Feb. 16, 2014, should bear witness.
But before we go any further and extol the virtues of this year, we must first acknowledge its biggest loss, the unexpected and tragic death of one of Metro’s most influential artists, Wanda Ewing, multi-media practitioner and UNO associate professor. For details of her life and art, see Reader’s profile posted online Dec. 18 at thereader.com.
The biggest visual arts events this year continued to involve the area’s three major institutions, the Joslyn Art Museum, the Kaneko and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. All three underwent and now look ahead to even more major changes that impact and benefit the area art scene.
Perhaps the single most significant event in 2013 was Joslyn’s change to free admission, a move that began Memorial Day and spiked weekday attendance during the summer by 155% compared to 2012. Even weekly 4th quarter figures are up 37% as are Sunday figures at 48%. Membership dipped as expected but is beginning to bounce back. And, most impressively, membership at contributing and patron levels have increased, a telling appreciation of what positive public relations can accomplish.
Don’t underestimate this move for Metro families looking for entertainment and enlightenment on a weekend especially for young children. A family of four could easily drop $50 plus at a movieplex matinee. And instead of wasting time and energy on video games and social media, all ages can make use of their digital skills and technology and interface at the museum with art up close and personal.
And while we are talking about extending art education and enjoyment past the sixth grade, kudos also to Joslyn for adopting—and thus guaranteeing the future of—the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts. KBS is devoted to mentoring high school students with professional artists in after school programming, and as long as that mission remains intact, this is a good move for both institutions and for the community as well.
Kaneko also underwent major changes, two to be exact. In July it welcomed its new executive director, David Thompson, a native Nebraskan and former consultant to non-profits on behalf of planning and development. Two months later in its 5-year anniversary Kaneko unveiled its new amazing public spaces that take full advantage of its creative use of ceiling fans straight out of “Blade Runner” as well as exposed vents, super structure and dramatic lighting.
Even more expansion is on tap as Kaneko also announced plans for a proposed Collections Building for Jun Kaneko’s art to be situated on the southeast corner of its campus. Scheduled for completion by 2017, if it follows its model and design as seen in the artist’s latest Omaha show (see below), this will be a stunning addition to the Metro arts scene and architectural skyline.
The Bemis Center also made some meaningful moves of its own in 2013 as its new director Adam Price made his presence known. However, not before its influential curator of six years, Hesse McGraw, said adios and headed west for the San Francisco Art Institute. Along with his former director, Mark Masuoka, now the director of the Akron Art Museum, they handed off this superb contemporary arts fixture with its international reputation and residency program intact. All that remains is for Bemis to make McGraw’s replacement, the estimable creative consultant, Amanda McDonald Crowley, official, which it hopes to do in early 2014.
As a sign of its continuing commitment to community arts programming, Bemis officially opened the Carver Bank in North Omaha in collaboration with the celebrated Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates. This place-based initiative with its studio and a dedicated area-artist residency of its own was Bemis’ single most important event of the year and not its much gossiped-about annual auction which went according to plan and design successfully with only a hitch or two. Will it continue into 2014? Stay tuned.
Speaking of new residency programs, the Union for Contemporary Art, also grounded in the North Omaha community by its location at 24th and Burdette and its mission celebrated the November opening of its new temporary gallery space at 2221 N 24th Street with Andrew Johnson’s exhibit Stochastic. This on the heels of UCA’s exhibit of its first fellows alumni at Creighton’s Lied Gallery in October called Predictions and Echoes.
The above auction wasn’t the Metro’s only as Gallery 72 introduced the first of its annual Collectors variety in October, and according to its owner John Rogers, it was a huge success. Normally, as with Bemis, auctions benefit not only the venue, but artists, “bargain-hunters” and first-time collectors as well. Gallery 72’s “Fine Art Auction” has helped to develop an important secondary art market, that is, an opportunity for collectors to buy and sell art previously owned by other patrons.
A highlight of any year is the opening of new galleries, public or private as are closings temporary or otherwise. In 2013, New BLK, an innovator in specializing in the exhibiting of emerging artist, went into hiatus before surfacing again—albeit on an irregular basis—with an interesting solo show featuring new artist Phil Hawkins. Meanwhile, the Apollon, arguably Omaha’s latest, if not the first multi-genre entertainment hub, officially opened for business at 1801 Vinton St across from Gallery 72, which also officially re-opened in January.
Meanwhile, your next visit to Lincoln might include a visit to the Capitol City’s newest gallery, Fiendish Plots at 2130 Magnum Ct. FP is an artist-run initiative founded by Charley Friedman and Nancy Friedemann. Details as to times and upcoming exhibits at this promising and imposing new venue can be found online at its facebook page or by phone at 917-348-3331 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The addition of contemporary public art, permanent or otherwise in the Metro is always a major event and once again Council Bluffs lead the way. CB’s park and recreation in collaboration with its Public Art Commission and with funding by the Iowa West Foundation began the installation this fall of six new park signs designed by artists. Curated by local artist Joel Damon, each unique sign reflects both the artist’s vision as well as neighborhood resident interests.
Omaha’s contribution to public art this year came mainly in the form of murals including: two creations by A Midsummer’s Mural, one a 20 x 60 foot exterior on the west side of VFW Post 247 and an interior wall at Avanza grocery; an impressive 5 x 34 foot mural honoring Malcolm X on the side of JNJ Grocery; and a new Fire Station 31 mural created by Kent Bellows Studio’s young artists and mentors.
The above public art has a reasonable shelf life in the Metro, but the following exhibits that made this year’s A List may already be but a blip in one’s memory. That is, if you saw them at all. “Reader” arts writers Mary Day, Eddith Buis, Laura Vranes and myself did, and reviewed most if not all of the following.
But the opinions and rankings that follow reflect only my subjective response to the work and hardly represent the last word. In short, 2013 was a stellar year for art. It was a privilege to spend some face time with the following 32 shows that made the cut from nearly 100 that opened in 2013. Bronze Medals are awarded to the following shows because, either they succeeded within their own parameters or pushed beyond the limits of the medium or genre:
Accidentally on Purpose, new organic abstract paintings from established artist Christina Narwicz at Anderson O’Brien exhibited in May;
Arranged Music at the Sunderland Gallery in Feb/March, lyrical abstract drawing and sculpture from accomplished artist Robert Miller;
Heavy Metal magic by sculptor/craftsman Ron Parks at the Fred Simon Gallery in September;
On the Morning of Creation, which artist/instructor Paula Wallace successfully presented in the summer at the Sunderland Gallery in collaboration with writer David Gortner;
Machine/Man/Air and Forest for the Trees, a two-person, two-part, abstract and conceptual exhibit from Russ Nordman and Jody Boyer in August at the RNG Gallery.
Strike Slip, another mostly successful conceptual exhibit from installation artist Jarrod Beck, which had a long summer run at the Bemis Center.
Brion Poloncic enjoyed two, largely satisfying shows in 2013, one at Gallery 72 and this one, Drawings, which exhibited at the Fred Simon Gallery in March/April. Poloncic is an enigmatic artist who seldom fails to intrigue and please simultaneously;
Finally, a special off the grid nod to the Petshop’s gutsy THOU SHALL NOT KILL exhibit currently on display in December that showcases hundreds of postcards sent by an anonymous area artist to state legislators and religious leaders over the last six months urging them to abolish the death penalty. There is a relative dearth of political art in this burg, so kudos to the effort made with this collaboration.
Earning a Silver Star are the next shows that were a bit more unified and consistent in realizing their curatorial intent:
Cool Abstraction at Modern Arts Midtown (MAM) in March created an interesting visual interplay between the two diverse mediums and styles of drawer Michael Tegland and new media artist Gary Day;
The above show title could easily apply to a more subtle variation, also at MAM, the two-person exhibit, Of Common Ground, the sophisticated marking makings of Larry Roots and Teresa Schmidt;
In contrast, we had a provocatively expressionistic, two-person show at RNG featuring portraits from Rebecca Herskovitz (When everything goes silent) and Wanda Ewing (Little Deaths);
German artist Christian Rothmann returned to Omaha in April and May in two fine exhibits, Here and There, with his signature, colorful floral abstraction paintings at Anderson O’Brien Gallery and the more experimental, photographic Roboter at the Moving Gallery;
Equally intriguing was painter Bill Hoover’s risky Fenestrato, making art blindfolded, which exhibited in November in his studio/gallery in the Mastercraft building in NoDo.
The Moving Gallery also featured the return of former Bemis resident Joe Girandelo with his own experimental exhibit of monumental duct tape drawings in November, Rise and Fall;
A similarly bold interpretation of shapes, space and structure was seen in Endi Poskovics exhibit of fine art prints at Gallery 72 in September, It Was All Just a Dream;
Three, two-person shows effectively curated how different mediums and/or styles can complement one another to further enhance appreciation of one’s own art. The first included photo art of Roberto Kusterle and Todd Brown in Transcending Photography at MAM, the second featured Moving Gallery’s marvelous The Big Black Project comparing prints and paintings of Paolo Dolzan and ink drawings of calligrapher Master Yu, and the third, the exquisitely detailed Drawings/Glass of Nancy Lepo and Corey Bowman respectively at Fred Simon.
As fine as the above shows were, the next nine made the Gold Standard because whether they pushed the envelope or not, they met or exceeded their own expectations of unity and professionalism in a manner better than most:
Gallery 72 had two solid gold exhibits in 2013, both retrospectives or surveys of two gifted women: fabric artist Mary Zicafoose who helped relaunch the venue in February and Deb Masuoka who showed her ceramic, fantastic and mythic animal heads in April, many not unlike her public art that adorns Council Bluffs;
MAM contributed three impressive shows to the gold list, all of them mostly sculpture; the quirky, distinctive work of Iggy Sumnik, but this time in a two-person show at MAM, aptly titled The Challenge of Fun, with Mark Kochen’s equally playful and disarming paintings; the highly unusual and experimental sculptural work of Joe Ruffo and Chris Cassimatis in Structure/Paper/Stone;
But even these exhibits was exceeded by the imagination and ingenuity of sculptor/new media artist Jamie Burmeister in his solo show at MAM in August, which proved “vermin” make good Company;
The title of auspicious beginnings goes to two young artists that offered the best examples of emerging art seen this year: Freddie Rincon’s streetwise, beyond his years and autobiographic As the World Turns at RNG in April and Phil Hawkins dazzling Prismatic Transition and transformation of light, color and optic art at New BLK which is still on display through January of 2014;
Along with the above, three additional shows met the Gold Standard because of their successful innovation and interpretation of their medium. Ying Zhu continues to amaze with her own delicate time and site-based installations, this one being No Strings Attached, which showed at RNG in January. Garry Noland offered, arguably the Bemis Center’s most satisfying and creative exhibit in 2013—other than Mel Ziegler’s yet to be reviewed An American Conversation, and the Lossy group show currently on display—Unorganized Territory which riffed on fabric art. And Moving Gallery exhibited the superb photo portraiture of Ji-Hyon Kwon and three other Korean artists who went Beyond Face in the digital age.
At any other time, these exhibits would constitute the best work in a given year of contemporary art. But in 2013 six more exhibitions surpassed even these and so exceeded at least this critic’s expectations that a new category had to be created. Deserving then of Platinum Plus, the best of the best are:
Jennifer Steinkamp’s stunning video installation, the curiously titled Madam Curie, which showed at Joslyn for half of year, deserving of multiple visits;
Jun Kaneko’s dual shows, Fremont Dangos from the Collection and Stacked: An Exploration in Density and Line, at Kaneko that demonstrate once again the master sculptor’s international reputation and the Metro’s good fortune in having him and his venue in residence.;
Tim Guthrie’s believe it or not, group installation Museum of Alternative History at RNG in which he proved yet another time to be the area’s most prolific, conceptual installation artist in this area;
Watie White’s in your face, in the hood, All That Ever Was, Always Is, at 2424 Emmet St. Assisted by artist Peter Cales, this time-based, site specific installation not only was the best example of public art in 2013 but its remains were further enjoyed as well for their social commentary in an exhibit at Creighton University’s Lied Gallery;
Multi-media artist Catherine Ferguson, who exhibits wisely and selectively on her “crooked path, gave us this year’s most tasteful and satisfying exhibit, The Objects of My Attention, a bewildering array of sculpture, photography and “glass” on display at MAM;
Finally, 2013’s most outré and unexpected exhibit belonged to Lincoln artist Jar Schepers whose creature-hybrid sculpture in Materialization amazed patrons of the Moving Gallery with its wonderfully bizarre vision and imagination.