Local artist Joseph Broghammer could have played it safe.

When the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery offered him his current solo in the Old Market Passageway, Broghammer could have created yet another set of animal portraits not unlike last year’s Herd,a popular exhibit of beasts on the hoof. After all, why mess with success?

For more than a decade, this accomplished painter in chalk pastel has enjoyed a successful career captivating a myriad of collectors and fans who appreciate his bestiary of enigmatic portraits.

Along the way, Broghammer’s arc had been elevated by two local galleries, Anderson O’Brien and the former Moving Gallery and now the Zodiac, which have exhibited his menagerie of birds, livestock and the occasional wild thing, all of which transcend mere illustration to personal pet projects.

Conventional wisdom then would say, “Do what got you this far. Give the market what it wants!” And Broghammer, being a shrewd self-promoter like any smart artist understands that. Art is a business, and business has been good. So, when Zodiac owner, artist Vera Mercer, acting as curator, offered him this show, she encouraged Broghammer to include the wisdom and magic of owls not unlike the large portraits that have prospered at the more traditional, full service Anderson O’Brien.

And so he did. His solo at the Zodiac, which closes this Nov. 25, includes eight artfully rendered owl portraits in pastel and pencil, and though these birds do indeed flock together in Zodiac’s hallway and back gallery, no two are alike in palette, point of view or demeanor. These alone would not look out of place at AOB where indeed just after this show’s opening a similar portrait had just sold in the former.

Yet, Zodiac and prior Moving Gallery exhibits that extend back to the turn of the century have always offered artists and viewers something of an alternative, a more indie approach to its programming whether in artist or subject, and Broghammer’s work has often taken advantage of the freedom rendered.

Though his earlier “Flock of Joe” and barnyard critters have served him well in the market place, his Muse and artistic license have moved him at times to crank it up a bit and not just out. To create without that safety net. This exhibit is that leap “forward” and in it Broghammer lands on his feet.

In nearly retro fashion, at least to his fans who remember such past work prior to 2008 as “Well Protected Heart,” “First Steps,” “The Family March” and the popular L’Enfant terrible “Chuckles,” the artist has included five similar samples of his surreal tableaux in the front gallery of the Zodiac.

These wonderfully bizarre set pieces, reminiscent of Broghammer’s earlier signature carnival and circus setting and atmosphere, are a reminder of his fertile imagination and devil may care attitude that surfaces now and again, both in his art and in his life, at times, maybe to his chagrin.

This current sampling is no exception of the artist at his best and most daring or risky as their various titles may suggest: “Attack of the Gisela,” “Death of the Yard Prairie,” “My Molby,” “The Waiting Game” and the outré “Sprinkle Tits.” One will likely find them all outrageous, a bit amusing and no doubt baffling. But the viewer won’t even begin to see them until he takes his eyes off the two monumental buffalo head portraits that stand stage left and right facing each other like guardians or watchdogs in the front gallery.

What to make of “Buffalo 1” on the left and “White Buffalo” on the right, other than perhaps to find them symbolic of the exhibit itself with its dichotomy of subject, tone, style and vision. Even the artist acknowledged comments heard opening night that this solo appeared to be two disparate shows, verified by a gallery spokesperson also in attendance: pleasing, engaging owl portraits in the hall and back gallery and the tormented scenarios in the front gallery. Other than medium, what then unites this visual and thematic disparity?

The buffalo sentinels may provide a key to the exhibit’s unity themselves. Though similar in size, subject and extreme close-up, look closely and key differences become apparent. As it is, they are polar opposites of the same species, symbolic of gentleness, moderation and abundance as well as unpredictability, determination and stubbornness.

On the left wall, “Buffalo 1” is more passive and patient with its watchful, stately, somewhat aloof gaze not unlike some of the owls within the gallery. The palette is soft and pastel, nearly transparent in tones of ivory and sandstone; the brushwork barely visible and the texture marble-like with just a hint of personality and character and emblematic of Broghammer’s remarkable mark making. The beast at rest as it were.

Conversely, “White Buffalo” on the opposite wall is a hulking beast in extreme close-up, aggressive and fairly bursting from its surface. It’s as if this brute is daring the viewer to make a false move or rude comment. For all its “whiteness”, this buffalo, with its eyes narrowed and nostrils flared unlike its counterpart, looks ready to charge more bullish than bison serene. The brushwork here is aggressive and nearly crude, the tone dark and menacing, his fur is ruffled and his dander is up and the mark-making, like he, is more determined.

One then might conclude, based at least on some candor and the evidence of the artist’s work and provocation here, that not only do the two buffalos represent the same diverse personalities of this exhibit but two complimentary sides of Broghammer himself. “Seen” that way, the exhibit makes sense, virtually begging to be titled Beauty and the Beast, thus unifying both it and the artist.

What’s really interesting is that the viewer must first get through his darker, more trickster mood and mode in the front gallery before enjoying more familiar work from him within. Perhaps Broghammer transitioned as well in the exhibit’s process and progress. That is, maybe this retro work was a rebellious and artistic “urge to purge” before creating the more classically engaging work seen late in his career. Not that the latter owl portraits are merely “pretty”; they too are embellished with Broghammer’s unique point of view and iconography.

Yet, the five fantasies upfront are beyond the pale of an ordinary Muse. Broghammer is chomping or chafing at the bit of expectations and political correctness here, possibly biting the hand that feeds him. Nevertheless, his artistic license prevails. Damn the critics, it’s full rut ahead, and the progeny that results virtually defy description, let alone interpretation.

Each of the five allegorical works give birth to a protagonist naked–not nude–to the world, baring their souls, privates and emotions, and it’s not pretty. More caricature than human, each figure appears tortured, tethered or rooted to their task or circumstance in a complex “mise-en-scène of Broghammer’s own device both private and now public…sort of.

The artist can be Chaucerian at times in his revelation of the human condition. Other times more caustic like Swift. And though the set pieces are mostly motivated by friends and family, to paraphrase cinema auteur Federico Fellini, among others, “All art is autobiographical. The pearl is the oyster’s own.” Broghammer’s pearls of wisdom, imperfectly genuine, can be awfully self-referential no matter how deliberately couched in his obscure iconography and framework. He can even be somewhat evasive.

“The work begins by me deciding what topic or feeling I want to address. I try to choose ideas that provoke something in me, some kind of emotion,” Broghammer said. “This show I addressed, a friends’ first date, a friend possibly losing his house, me getting fat or fatter (couple of the works were that), a friend being a know-it-all.

“Sometimes it’s funny or positive and sometimes I do revenge art and passive-aggressive works. I rarely say what or who the negative works are about cause it’s usually something stupid I did or petty.”

But just when viewers may think they’ve “figured it all out”, Broghammer’s visual motifs that accessorize each work will throw them a curve as if caught reading the artist’s personal diary or getting too close for his comfort.

“I don’t like to spell everything out visually. I like to tell the story through symbols, objects, iconography, words, religious meanings etc.,” he said. “Charms of any sort are important to me. I feel putting charms in my work to represent ideas or things protects them as my thoughts and not others. I like finding obscure charms and ancient symbols because people really relied on them for protection, support or comfort. I always keep a few charms on me at all times.”

Ever the trickster or charmed contrarian, Broghammer enjoys an audience, though a times can feel self-conscious and under a microscope. If this paints a picture of a committed yet conflicted artist than it helps explain the duality of this richly complex exhibit. Consider just the imagery of his figurative allegories sans birds:

The winged soul in “My Molby” sits yoga like as his legs spiral beneath him like tree roots above and below ground. Wings or not, he’s not going anywhere; the Amazonian figure in the “Attack of the Gisela” a mythical angel (muse?) in a video or card game is tied to her platform, right arm being devoured by a meat grinder along with heart and other organs while dazed and confused by a revolving color wheel…. and most telling, an owl lurking about;

In “Death of the Yard Prairie,” a prone figure is relatively unharmed but floats above ground in a web of pencil lines connected to a set of menacing tendrils or climbing vine from a dark place below; the Sumo wrestler in “Waiting Game,” perhaps the most overt of Broghammer’s references, is likewise tethered with again, an owl motif perched on his pendulous breasts, a tree growing from his head full of fishing lures while squatting over the abyss. What does he see as he gazes into the unknown, black and menacing?

Lastly, the more modestly covered figure in “Sprinkle Tits” is wearing her owl in the form of a mask but sports roots for feet and branches for limbs while her genitals and breasts are hidden by a nest of birds and animals. One can ascribe such metaphorical images to the artist only so far, but it’s hard to deny the themes of conflict, insecurity, aspiration, torture and constraint, let alone a favorite motif.

Speaking of owls, they too are referential, personal and symbolic, even if less so than Broghammer’s twisted tales. But instead of mere motif in the latter, the artist give his aviary of wisdom and magic his full attention and artistry. Personality and character aside, the work here is masterful. Even the most dour of birds, “The Sugars” and “Doughboy,” are elegantly rendered and memorable.

In 2008, photo-artist Mercer saw something special in arguably Broghammer’s breakout exhibit, his “Flock of Joe”, at the original Moving Gallery, a special something that raised his profile.

“These drawings are so different, yes?”, Mercer said then of his bird portraits of a different color and feather. “The crazy, colorful fantasy is still there, but this is a development with a more refined focus in a classical painting style. Yet, they are so bold. He is such an original, not the style of the moment.”

A decade later, Broghammer hasn’t lost his touch. If anything, his owls are even bolder and more imposing, particularly three portraits, “Robbie,” “Lamb Fascinator” and “Kukla.” Whimsical and colorful “Robbie” gazes back big-eyed and glowing like a pet eager for attention. The “Lamb Fascinator” less so, somewhat doleful and vulnerable, receding “sad-eye” with its white visage on a whiter background. And “Kukla” with its narrowed eyes, bushy brows and sharp beak exudes confidence and in your face cockiness.

Like his narratives upfront, Broghammer’s inner circle of owl portraits have a backstory often modeled on family and friends. They also represent an odd sort of stand in or even mirror image of the artist himself, both subject and storyteller. The result may surprise even him.

“I choose the birds…usually before I know what the subject of the story will be,” Broghammer said. “I like the bird to look at me or at least face me. Though it rarely has anything to do with the idea staged on top of it, the bird does have to act as myself or a reflection staring back at me so I have someone to ‘talk’ to.

“I try to tell a story I can learn from or laugh at or correct myself so I don’t do it again,” he added. “I really think I am just talking to myself. The figurative works were a rebellion to other people’s ideas as to what I should or am suppose to do. I felt that if you take out the birds and add a human, you still have the same picture or idea of my story at least, but you don’t necessarily have me.”

What you do have in this dualistic exhibit is a composite portrait of an artist no longer a young man but one who makes occasional peace with the beast in him by letting it out and then creating something of beauty, obscure perhaps yet beguiling. Seen this way, his flights of fancy are sort of cathartic.

Broghammer isn’t often this self-indulgent, but something tipped him a bit over the edge this time. In toto, his work is a welcome stretch, and by all accounts his reach has not exceeded his grasp. His solo is, not so simply, one of the most interesting and original exhibits of this year.

Broghammer solo continues through Nov. 25 in the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery, Old Omaha Association, 1042 Howard St. in the Old Market Passageway. For details and gallery hours, contact 402.341.1877.

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