The first art show to showcase Nebraska and Midwestern art started in the early 1930’s as an annual, multi-state, juried show at Joslyn Art Museum. Initially allowing entries from Nebraska and Iowa, over the next two decades it finally evolved into a 10-state contest, in 1950. By the time the 1950 exhibition came around it had evolved into at least 250 entries curated by a panel of three. Starting with the 1950 exhibit, the contest continued as a biennial until 1988, after which it was dropped for various reasons.
Resurrected in 2017 by Gallery 1516 Director Patrick Drickey, and still young as far as biennials go, the Nebraska Artist Biennial presents its third episode this year. The ever-evolving event at G1516 has become a solid representation of a very skilled cross section of artists. This third iteration touts 100 works on display, chosen from more than 1000 entries.
This year, as with the 2019 Biennial, an additional judge has been added, upping the panel to five. The daunting task of paring down from over 1000 entries to an anointed 100 falls to five judges now. Returning for a third time are Curator Anne Pagel, and Russ Erpelding, former ARTreach Curator for the Museum of Nebraska Art. Joining them from last year is John Thein, artist and former Creighton University art professor. Two new names have been added, Amy Morris, Associate Professor of Art History at UNO, and Nicole Herden, Executive Director of the Museum of Nebraska Art.
This panel of jurors has singled out awards for Best of Show, eight pieces as Best in Category, and then further spread the good tidings in the show catalogue to four honorable mentions for each category. Awards are the same as 2019, with $2500 for Best of show, and $500 each for Best in Category, Artist’s Choice and Viewer’s Choice. Below is a list of the winners by category along with images of some of the Honorable Mentions.
Best Student Work: Charles McGarven. A dusky, steel blue sky hangs weightless over deep turquois pools in this oil by student award winner McGarven. The imagery is void of any detail and shading. Depth is implied, achieved only by placement and perspective, and the painting leaves out any texture beyond gross shapes, a sidewalk panel here, a leaf there, a flat grey rectangle depicts a building. A spray of leaves in the foreground, some exhibiting fall color, blocks our path, but not so much that we don’t feel invited into the scene. Structure and figures are evident in the distance, far off enough to preserve the silence of water lapping at shore and the soft rustle of leaves as we duck to walk into the scene. The extra detail in the moon and a red brick wall is a bit out of place, but overall a gratifying painting.
Best Sculpture: Dennis Wattier. A highly polished maquette in carved and turned woods illustrates an artist’s workspace, complete with oozing tubes of paint and the ubiquitous assemblage of brushes stashed in repurposed juice cans. No doubt the artist’s spouse, last year’s Artist’s Choice award winner Deb Murphy supplied props. In “Her Tools of the Trade” the details are a testament to Wattier’s fine woodworking skills, but more so to his inventive, unconventional application of the medium. Its drawback might only be an apparent lack of authenticity — some dents in the paint tubes, or even half a PB&J sandwich and a cup of coffee.
Best Printmaking: Sarah Rowe. “Heyoka,”a woodcut print depicting a horse/man/demi-god, backed by a field of black triangles, surrounded by the restrained addition of crosses, botanicals, and other symbolic icons rendered in Rowe’s signature style. Part of the mythology behind the Heyoka is that of a mirror, imparting a truer, more revealing reflection to the viewer. Rowe brings a contemporary and personal flavor to this seemingly authentic portrayal of the myth.
Best Multimedia: Michael James. “Haveli 3 (Varanasi)” is from James’ larger series called “India Through Beginner’s Eyes.” The work omits his well-known “flora and fauna” iconography and muted earth tones, instead taking the viewer on a vibrant, polychromatic tour of Oriental patterns and textures. Present still is James’ analytical introspection and reflection, but this time through the fresh eyes of a first-time visitor to a strange, wonderous place.
Best Drawing: Jennifer Homan. Like her winning work that snagged 2019’s “Best of Show” award, Homan’s “The Landing Skies” features Photorealism at some of its finest. From a perspective most of us don’t get to see except maybe through the smudged, hazy, plastic window of a 767, this is a clear and real view, as if through lead crystal goggles, in a bug-free sky, standing on the top wing of a biplane. Homan’s handling of the medium and bird’s-eye perspective is detailed and alluring, and she thankfully avoids the knife-sharp, hyper-realism so often associated with the genre.
Best Photography: Denis Hagen. An intriguing and controversial choice; Hagen’s “Ambit Series” is an expressionist figure work heavily abstracted through digital manipulation. The same cryptic background figure does not change, but somebody or something is attempting to filter it through a series of stultifying grids or screens. The result, if a bit derivative, highlights the digital photography conundrum presented to curators, jurors and viewers — Is this photography or has it now entered the realm of painting or digital illustration?
Best Painting: Marjorie Mikasen. Like the graphic explanation etched on the celebrated Voyager Gold Record, Mikasen’s acrylic “Self Recognition, No. 6” is a manual to understanding, a fanciful set of instructions. Here a kaleidoscope of pastel colors and shapes, mostly inspired by the world of science, dances around the canvas; some in orderly fashion, some dissonant and wild. The resulting imagery is graphically engaging, if a little arcane, leaving some of the instructions lost in translation.
Best of Show: Merrill Peterson. Magritte’s “Le Château des Pyrénése” hangs quietly in the corner next to a detail of Hopper’s celebrated “High Noon.” No couches, end tables or lamps. The room doesn’t appear belong to anyone, maybe only to itself. A mysterious glow emanates from behind a grove of trees, probably a cloud portending tomorrow’s storm. The terra cotta-orange floor is warm in the wedge of sunlight, cooler in shadow, but the room is inviting, even without furniture. Peterson’s “South Window” blends fields of color and tone with little gradation and even less detail. Depth and volume come through composition, perspective and line.
Best in Ceramics: Richard Chung. Eadweard Muybridge is known as the first to study human and animal motion using a camera and a strobe light. It is well documented that Marcel Duchamp was influenced by Muybridge when he painted “Nude Descending Staircase, No 2.” Richard Chung’s was quite possibly influenced by one or the other in ongoing “Motion Series.” His entry, “M122,” brings a humorous touch to this look at motion, mostly through facial expression and body language, as the multiple selves shuffle and bump from one point to another.
This time around an uncommonly large number (40%) did not make the first cut. “This is much higher than previous years,” Drickey said. He went on to surmise that since the entry fees were underwritten by a generous donation this year, that may have resulted in less critical judgement and choices by the artists.
Sales are good this year according to Drickey. No less than five corporate collectors have added work from this show to their collections.
“The Biennial is designed to bring the best Nebraska artists and their best work to a venue where collectors can view the work in person and begin or add to their own collection of Nebraska artists work, ” he said. “If a collector likes what they see, they will often pursue a visit with the artist at their studio and purchasing more work.”
The 2021 Nebraska Artist Biennial continues through August 1. Gallery 1516 is located at 1516 Leavenworth St, Omaha. For the time being, appointments are still required for viewing the show. For details and gallery hours, go to gallery1516.org or call (402) 305-1510.