A long time coming, 15 years to be exact, but Joslyn Art Museum is once again featuring regional Art Seen on a grand scale.
The last such exhibition of sort was the Midlands Invitational 2000: Works on Paper, organized by then-curator Janet Farber and Joslyn director John Schloder, and which included Nebraska artists Karen Kunc and Paul Otero.
Joslyn’s popular Invitationals covered a seven-state region. Art Seen, juried by Karin Campbell, Phil Willson Curator of Contemporary Art, and Bill Arning, director of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, has a much narrower focus.
Subtitled A Juried Exhibition of Artists from Omaha to Lincoln, 200 or so submitted their work for consideration and 37 made the cut, 21 from Omaha, 16 from Lincoln; 20 are men and 17 are women; a sampling, as it were, working in nearly all traditional and new media.
For that is what Art Seen is; less a survey and more a sample—a worthy one at that—of work from some of the more interesting artists in the 50 mile corridor between Nebraska’s largest, most cosmopolitan cities.
Campbell said selection was based upon: technical skill within the medium; a willingness to grow/experiment; a development of skills and concepts over time; an ability to articulate about the work and its inspirations; how one’s work fit into a larger context.
“We were also thinking about whether or not artists were ‘ready’ to be in such an exhibition,” she added. “What was the depth of their body of work…how would they respond to Joslyn Art Museum as a context?”
After the artist selection process, Campbell worked with the artists to choose individual art for the exhibit. Art Seen then is a collaboration of submission pieces (i.e., from Sarah Berkeley), additional work from an artist’s oeuvre, new ones made specifically for the show (Rich Mansfield, Angela Drakeford and Holly Kranker) and site-specific art to some degree (Ying Zhu and Mary Zicafoose).
The result is an exhibition that is representative but hardly exhaustive, of the “best” artists in Omaha and Lincoln. Certainly it has the requisite, most recognizable artists, such as Jun Kaneko, Keith Jacobshagen and Therman Statom. And it features several other familiar names in this region, including Catherine Ferguson, Charley Friedman, Littleton Alston, Watie White and Marjorie Mikasen.
But Art Seen also recognizes a nice mix of mid-career and emerging artist. Among them are Nancy Friedemann-Sanchez, James Bockelman, Jess Benjamin, Jamie Burmeister, Kim Darling and Sarah Rowe.
Yet the exhibit is also noteworthy for who is not seen. Where are the Tim Guthries, Steve Roberts, Vera Mercers, Kristin Pluhaceks, Susan Knights, Joe Broghammers, Troy Mullers, Larry Rootses, Bill Hoovers, Christina Narwiczes, Nolan Tredways, Jar Scheperses, Fredy Rincons and Weston Thompsons?
I’m sure you could add a list of your own. Maybe the above were cut or chose not to submit. A different jury or different venue might well reveal a very different who’s who. The point is, a single exhibit cannot include everyone of merit. These 37 artists met Joslyn’s criteria at this time and place.
Which is fine if one has future “samplings” to look forward to, if Art Seen were the rebirth of future Joslyn juried exhibits or invitationals featuring local and regional art as it did for decades. But, by all accounts, that doesn’t appear to be on Joslyn’s horizon, at least on a regular basis.
“There are no current plans to organize another such exhibition,” Campbell said. “This is not to say that it will never happen again, but we do not have anything scheduled for the near future.”
Because Joslyn’s mission is based on the diversity of its exhibitions and audience, the curator explains that “should it be appropriate to feature the work of local and/or regional artists as we strive to achieve those objectives, we will do so.”
While not very promising, that of course is the expected reply. Notwithstanding, Art Seen holistically accomplishes several things. It introduces both familiar and unfamiliar artists to a wider museum audience. It raises especially the street cred of emerging artists to be seen in close proximity with their more established peers.
And last, don’t underestimate the boost in community credibility enjoyed by a major Metro arts venue such as Joslyn, Kaneko or Bemis when it exhibits local artists. And yet, ironically, if this is Joslyn’s “gift” to Metro arts lovers, why then a $10 ticket admission to Art Seen in an otherwise free museum?
If Art Seen is indeed a one-off, let’s enjoy it for what it is worth. Though some of the work here underwhelms, this is “a museum-quality show” that sits comfortably in close proximity to Joslyn’s permanent collection of contemporary art.
The exhibit makes an immediate first impression in the first gallery with three of the strongest selections in Art Seen. A monumental tapestry, “History, 2015” from Zicafoose, colorfully combines her signature use of geometric and metaphysical symbols in a striking pattern that takes great advantage of its lighting and sightline.
Not so for Zhu’s ephemeral and chameleon wall installation of thread, pins and tape, “Reading the movement of thoughts (a confluence of culture and identities),” a recurring theme in her oeuvre. This is a stunning site-specific installation of spinning, iridescent filigree and red-gold palette.
This installation is the most accomplished work from Zhu in some time, but because it shares the same harsh overhead spotlight with the show’s statement and signage, it risks being washed out while competing for attention.
The third “piece” in the room is a series of nine graphic abstracts from James Bockelman. A study in “cool abstraction”—each one unique without conflict or competition—the series demonstrates Bockelman’s skill at creating something stylistically greater than the sum of its parts.
The strong initial impression continues into the next main gallery as one turns the corner and enters what one might call the A-list, that is, a group of the region’s best known artists and others aspiring to be. Kaneko, Jacobshagen and Statom share the same space with White, Benjamin and Kranker, among others and none of them disappoint.
For this critic, two works dominate this gallery. The first is Statom’s “Untitled” mixed media and glass-–encased wall sculpture that also contains additional iconic glass figurines and shards. This process-heavy piece eschews the decorative or functional while embracing the conceptual, all the while remaining austere and elegant to the eye.
The second piece, also 3D, is Benjamin’s two totemic “Hoover Dam Inlet Towers” of ceramic and steel rebar. Though outside the region, these majestic, captivating interpretations of decaying concrete continue her creative exploration of Nebraska’s famed and threatened Ogallala aquifer and the struggle for water rights.
In sharp and playful contrast to this is Kranker’s “Here and Now,” a monumental paean to another mainstay of the Plains, an ear of corn. Though these tufted rows of kernels of corn claim to comment on the future of this staple, i.e., industrial farms and pesticide-resistant crops, its ghost-white façade of polyethylene also references a mythical and former time as the lifeblood of another civilization, Native American maize.
Perhaps the most surprising work in this space is the vitrine of “Untitled” small glazed ceramics by Kaneko. Given the artist’s international reputation, one might have expected a large scale Dango or Tanuki. Instead, Kaneko’s contribution here of sculptural and geometric forms demonstrates his mentoring and influence on other area artists such as Iggy Sumnik and Richard Chung.
As for influences, there probably isn’t a Nebraska landscape artist who doesn’t owe a debt to the iconic paintings of Jacobshagen. His two offerings here are “Edge of the Valley (Dog Days End)” and “Toward the Flood Plain,” which bears a striking resemblance to his former ambitious exhibit at the Bemis Center, A Golden Year. This show featured 365 days as miniatures on copper that revealed the artist’s skill as an accomplished mark maker and lover of big sky country and the not-so-Plains.
One can’t leave this gallery without noting White’s woodcut print, the best of his pieces here, “Homage to Van Gogh’s Homage to Hiroshige’s ‘The Flowering Plum’”. This remarkable work is another in the artists’ ongoing series of “homages” that riff on past artworks.
To those who might ask, “Why bother?”, consider that the most creative homages are not mere remakes but interpretations of similar scenarios and narratives filtered through a new set of cultural and stylistic references that either extend the mythic undertone or satirize it. White manages to do both with precise detail and dynamic composition, i.e., his inclusion here of domestic and wild animals coexisting in a civilized yet tension-filled environment.
New media, particularly installation and video, are well represented in Art Seen, beginning with Berkeley’s combo of an “Untitled” inkjet print of a muddied pair of high heeled red pumps and a video, “I Just Work Here.” The two images in tandem comment effectively on gender stereotypes and diminished identities in the work-a-day environment.
Michael Burton’s painted animation, “On a Knife’s Edge,” is a five-minute excerpt adapted from an original work by Gary Dull Knife, Jr. The result is a personal video narrative of remarkable fluidity, gesture and grace whose POV shifts dramatically from impressionistic landscapes to explosive, expressionistic drama.
Also noteworthy in this medium is Mo Neal’s enjoyable, clever and nostalgic installation comprised of an MP4 video, assisted by Anthony Marx, and a twirling, actual communion dress titled “Swinger” that references the content of the video, a young girl’s first communion as she leaves the house for church. The work is part ritual, part dance, a memorable scenario of initiation-maturation akin to so many other rites of passage.
This last gallery represents an eclectic mix of the edgiest art in the show (Neal, Dylan Lilla and Friedemann-Sanchez), the serious (Ferguson, Alston and Rowe) and the playfully unusual (Jamie Burmeister, Rich Mansfield). Arguably, the latter two drew the most attention with, respectively, an interactive 3D cabinet animation, “Chicken Dance,” and a pair of motorized battering rams called, ironically, “Brothers.”
As popular as these pieces are, they provide a sort of comic relief from the more serious study of Rowe’s “Stake and Claim, Father Sky” and “Vertical Integration,” acrylic on wood and mixed media on canvas. As the artist self-identifies as Lakota, this is Rowe’s most sophisticated and creative “vision quest” to date. The two works contrast nicely the traditional talisman and shaman figure with the iconography of an all-seeing streetwise skull, etc., popularized by Basquiat and which has influenced local artists of several generations from James Freeman to Rowe and the aforementioned Rincon.
This gallery also features significant sculpture from Alston and Ferguson whose work here has been showcased at area galleries. The former’s Hannibal series of 3D works, all titled “Helmet,” are a stunning departure from his better known public art pieces that grace the Metro. The same can be said for the latter, another well-known sculptor of public and studio art whose three elegant black figurines of bronze share the stage with the equally imposing photos of James Scholz that depict the above in glass form, later to be cast in bronze.
The most unusual piece in this gallery is Friedemann-Sanchez's beautifully understated “Self-Portrait with Papaya”, a mixed media installation of stark white on black austerity. Rooted in multi-culturalism, this work features a delicate, filigreed light fixture made of fresh water pearls mirrored on a piano-black surface—a fitting symbol of her own American-Columbian heritage.
Art Seen is also notable for another study in contrast—sharing the same wall—Mikasen’s graphic and precise geometric abstraction in her “Self-Recognition,” and the more organic, minimal, faintly figurative patterns of Avery Mazor that ebb and flow in virtual 3D.
Less successful are offerings from Kim Darling, Friedman and Drakeford. Darling, the persona of Kim Reid Kuhn, has created some of the more provocative imagery in the Metro in the past half dozen years or so in exhibitions from the former Bemis Underground and Benson First Friday shows to the RNG Gallery.
Yet, while “Effluvia,” shown here, continues her now-familiar mixed media of intertwining and organic iconography in pink, blue and black, it is overwhelmed by its density and inertness. A more liberal use of white space (as seen in other work of hers), a less-is-more POV, would help this piece breathe and communicate.
So too for another influential area artist, Lincoln’s Friedman, whose attempt at insight and humor, a series of text and graphic color-pencil images on Lenox acid free paper would benefit from an edit. With 50 samples on view, the corner installation on two walls is a labored study or exercise in repetition that belies its roots in Pop and minimalism. It’s not so simply overdone.
Drakeford’s “She Came to Me and Brought Me a New Me,” in fabric, sequins and beads, outshines, literally and figuratively, in its fetching rose and pink palette, the messy, haphazard floor piece “Rising” that is, nevertheless, lifeless in fabric and gold sequins. Neither work quite lives up to the promise seen in her recent triumph of self-identity in the State of the Art exhibition at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Obviously, there is much more to enjoy in Art Seen than space permits even here. Which only points out the need for the Metro’s three major arts venues to offer the opportunity to the area’s best artists to be seen…and seen again, on a grander stage that only they can provide.
Art Seen can be through Oct. 11, 2015 at the Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge St., Omaha, NE. For details, go to Joslyn.org