In a sleepy, soon to be revitalized, part of Downtown Omaha, LA-based artist/architect Mike Nesbit produced a logistical masterpiece. Taking over the first two floors of the Standard Oil building at 18th and Jackson, this multidisciplinary, multisensory production, which was a year in the making, is over—but that was the point.
In partnership with AIA Omaha, Dicon, Enterprise Precast Concrete Inc., and Gallery 1516, Nesbit and a crew slopped, dripped, drug, and most importantly “flooded” six massive concrete slabs with a thick black industrial product.
Per Nesbit, “the exhibition [sought] to create a discussion between art and industrial architecture, using a historical part of Omaha and transforming the space to reimagine how art can be displayed.” The display had extremely successful nuanced moments, as well as complications that were hard to ignore.
Entering the Standard Oil building, the first massive gesture halted viewers. Hung from the I-beams overhead, the ultra thin nine by twelve foot concrete slab had a horizontal swash of bubbly black waterproofing, traditionally used for basements. Like a Mark Rothko [or Helen Frankenthaler], the flood of a singular material was entrancing. It was dramatic and dominating.
Each of the six concrete canvases were originally created horizontally on the floor. Nesbit and crew first had to load the several ton slabs of concrete into the building. Once in, the team, in one day, used half-inch steal plates to frame a one-foot border around and then dumped drums of the dark, sticky waterproofing onto the concrete.
A large trowel was then drug across the “flooded” slabs. This was a trial-and-error process, especially at the beginning, but for Nesbit, he appreciates the mistakes and embracing the unknowns.
This is new material for Nesbit, but investigating industrial processes and spaces are not. As a trained architect working for world-renowned firm Morphosis in LA, Nesbit prefers working in a design-build method.
This often calls for quick thinking and use of existing products and processes in innovative ways. This was omnipresent in F L O O D, where he was clearly working as both an architect and artist.
Maneuvering through the first floor, two other works float. Nesbit solely flooded one side of the works, so while walking through, there was a semi-surprise of what the next work would look like. The second work in the space was a full flood of black. The waterproofing looked like a moon-scape from a distance, but upon closer inspection the thick material pursed up for Instagram worthy shots. Was he preparing us for the totality of #Eclipse2017? Toward the back of the Standard Oil building’s first floor the full black flood was matched with alternative. This flood was partial, creating a moment like a Franz Kline painting.
All of the works defied gravity. The super thin concrete slabs levitated, but the once horizontal marks now drip out instead of down. The micro details were where this work came alive. The details in each one of Nesbit’s paintings reveal a tiny story of their making, but they also don’t if you hadn’t been following Nesbit’s Instagram story.
Regardless, the semi gloss material sucked viewers in like a black hole. Personally, at six-foot-one, I had the opportunity to view most of the work, but the small children in the space had a much different experience. Like seeing a Richard Serra for the first time—fear and awe conflated.
Walking up a tight staircase, the second floor was open like the first. Three seven by twelve foot works unfolded in the space. However up here, there were more dramatic variations on the theme. Several works clearly had less water proofing dumped/flooded within the steel form.
The result was, as Nesbit referred to it, a “diptych”. The full floods below were disintegrating in ways that were more noteworthy as they also revealed the concrete canvas and gave hints to the process of making that was hidden on the first floor.
The second floor was a way to investigate both the black waterproofing and the concrete canvas. The concrete slabs are just as, if not more, alluring than the actual waterproofing pulls. Sexy and riveting, their display is terrifying. Their super thinness runway ready.
As this is both an art and architecture exhibition, the space of the Standard Oil building was also “on view”. Cleared of most of its previous history, the stark weathered concrete columns stood in utter contrast to Nesbit’s slabs.
This juxtaposition was a perfect cocktail of mixed worlds. The cavernous spaces stripped down to an acoustic set framed Nesbit’s work in ways that only an architect could scheme. Each pre-cast slab was predesigned to fit into spaces in between the columns. The space also had no electricity, making the dark paintings absorb into the architecture adding another layer of history to the historically registered structure.
Half of the viewers of F L O O D were investigating Nesbit’s swipes, half the concrete slabs domineering the space, and all the Standard Oil building. A major question remains; where did Nesbit’s work stop and display begin—and what about their architectural container? In a traditional painting exhibition, reviewers rarely celebrate how well the canvases are stretched or quality of the gallery walls, but this is different, right?
As a logistical production, F L O O D was significant. The team, lead by Ross Miller, deserves a pat on the back (and probably a shot of tequila). As a person educated in design, thinking about the production of this work was baffling. But as an art and architecture critic, removing the logistics and production value out of the equation and solely evaluating the work, there was a flood of concerns.
Nesbit esoterically refers to this body of work as “Abstract Technical” and that is a great descriptor. It is abstract, technically. However, apart from a few topical Abstract Expressionist male artists that were obvious references (Franz Klein, Ad Reinhardt) he neglects to contextualize the work beyond the obvious, while missing the most obvious (Gehard Ricther). Nesbit is literally just skimming the surface (pun intended) for buzzwords.
Further, the work is flat literally, conceptually and metaphorically. Consequently, it is very hard to dig into the work, as it is all surface. The all-over floods, void of production and Instagram, are lifeless remnants of a performance past. We all missed the most exciting parts: the transport and install of the concrete and the actual swiping. We were left with the frosting on the cake and pungent off-gassing.
With this, it is hard not to see this superficial approach to making as hyper-masculine gestures bordering on derivative and his almost slapstick “appreciating the mistakes” elementary. Simply, the project flat lined outside of the logistical production and spectacle of the space.
As a whole, was the work cool? Of course! Was the space transformative? Certainly. Was F L O O D a logistical feet of epic proportion? You betcha. But this is not an equation for unanimous success. However, and most importantly, I applaud the ambition of all parties involved for breaking the levy for Omaha to reconsider and contemplate ways in which art, architecture and the built environment can cohabitate.
F L O O D is on view by appointment only by contacting Claire Dilworth at email@example.com.