Joslyn Art Museum expansion design by international firm Snohetta in partnership with Alley Poyner Macchietto. Image courtesy of Snohetta.

If 2020 was the “best of times, the worst of times” as argued in last years A-list , The Reader’s annual review of the most significant visual art events and exhibits, then 2021 must be an encore performance. Less so the art created and seen perhaps, but more the challenging circumstances under which the Metro art scene struggled in and outside the box.

2021 was marked by the usual art venue struggle to re-open, stay open and remain relevant under even the best circumstances. Not only for patrons but especially so for individual artists at all stages in their career who depend upon exhibitions. Yet, even as galleries re-opened or re-grouped, and new ones emerged anticipating better COVID outcomes, new variants also emerged. And with it, new conspiracy theories and knee jerk political and vox populi reactions to mask mandates and pleas for mass vaccination.

Will 2022 be another year of “what goes around, comes around?” Metro art centers remain positive, busy scheduling while providing a booster shot of their own, but not without taking cautionary steps for live exhibits. But before crystal ball gazing, let’s take one last look/see at the most significant art events and exhibits of 2021 seen and written about yours truly and Reader’s staff of arts writers.

The A-list doesn’t claim to be the last word on the “best in art” in 2021. Nor do we claim to have seen or written about all art events and exhibits therein. But the majority were and have been considered via the criteria of most creative, unified and realized work based upon original intent. In addition, every attempt has been made to emphasize exhibits featuring local or regional artists and curators who organized such. And always, if you disagree with the A-list or wish to add a choice of your own, please respond to or our Facebook page.

Every year is marked by key significant art happenings other than exhibits, some planned, some unexpected, and 2021 was no exception. Two major art centers, Joslyn Art Museum and the Bemis Center celebrated their 90th and 40th anniversary respectively with year-long recognition, public programs and events, all within carefully monitored pandemic protocols.

A decade from now, each institution will mark an even bigger milestone, but meanwhile, Joslyn broke ground this summer for its 42,000-square-foot Rhonda and Howard Hawks Pavilion scheduled to open in 2024. The new gallery spaces will feature works from the Phillip G. Schrager Collection of Contemporary Art. The Museum received a gift of over 50 works from the late Omahan’s collection of 20-21 century artists.

Though a few galleries remained closed to live exhibits and others were slow to re-open to such, one venue bravely opened in the Old Market, the so-called Jackson Street Pop Up, organized by a group of artists with close connections to the Kaneko Studio. Their future exhibits may be infrequent, but the Metro art scene welcomes any such pop-up, DIY effort, above or underground.

Untitled installation by Jun Kaneko, 1971. hand built and glazed and ceramics and steel

Speaking of Kaneko, Jun that is, Nebraska’s most celebrated artist was recently honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center during his titular center’s Soiree fundraiser. Though the world class sculptor has a well-earned global reputation, best of all for this community, his work can be appreciated publicly on both sides of the Missouri River as well as at the Kaneko in the Old Market.

“Monte Kruse at Cubby’s”, black and white photo by Skyelar Hawkins.

Not a year goes by without the passing of key figures in the Metro arts, and we recognize two who made their presence felt and their absence all the more so. In February, the magnetic “mayor of the Old Market,” Monte Kruse passed away. He is remembered as a talented fine art photographer, bon vivant, raconteur, hard worker, friend and mentor.

In his black-and-white work with nude models, he transformed the genre into a film noir embodying both sensuality and storytelling. Turning to color photography, Kruse haunted Hummel Park, creating images focused on found moments in its secluded corners, focusing on the remnants of human activities. Last year at the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery, he debuted Night Light, a suite of Old Market and downtown photographs taken from his bicycle in the wee small hours, capturing the stillness and poetry of after-hours storefronts, street-lit exteriors and rain-swept pavement.

Laura Vranes and her late husband John McIntyre as featured in Omaha Magazine, Sept/Oct. , 2015

In November, the metro lost one of its most vibrant and enthusiastic art patrons, John McIntyre. Along with his wife, Laura Vranes, McIntyre turned a lingering interest in art into a life’s work. Together, they dove deep into street and pop art, venturing online to collect the work of emerging talents across the globe.

Here at home, they sought out area artists to add local flavor to their distinctive collection. In 2015 they created Adopt Art Omaha, a fun, social media fueled treasure hunt for dog paintings by local artists. McIntyre’s community service also extended to the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards and the board of Amplify Arts.

What follows is a review of the most significant visual art exhibits in 2021, the A-list, divided into two tiers, current work separated only by a degree of uniqueness and creativity, ambition and scope, professionalism and unity. It’s a large order and margins between tier placement are often small and subjective. Links to Reader previews and reviews to many of the exhibits are provided for your consideration.

Before we begin, the following exhibits deserve Honorable Mention. These were all interesting shows visually with work that fell just shy of the top two tiers.

Large group shows offer an opportunity to see a variety of artists but the whole can often be less than the sum of their parts, especially when lacking an overall curatorial vision or unity.

This was the case with El Museo’s otherwise worthy Artist Invitational and the overwhelming Cathedral Arts Project’s Invitational that featured 80 works from 40 Midwest artists. Conversely, Omaha Artist Inc. offered its interestingly curated Dreamscapes group show at Hot Shops, but with some inconsistency in quality. Kudos though to this venue’s new and improved website and improved overall organization and communication.

The second tier of the A-list includes two group shows of its own, each carefully curated by concept or medium. RBR G specializes in the latter as printmaking is its métier of choice as seen in its 8 Printers & 1 Quilter exhibit that highlighted work from such well-known artists as Karen Kunc, Shea Wilkinson, Camille Hawbaker Voorhees and the late Wanda Ewing among others.

“Mobius Feral” by Kin Darling, 2018, woodblock print on BFK

A more conceptual group show was exhibited at Petshop Gallery curated by estimable artist Kim Darling. Titled Heart of the Beast, the exhibit featured new work by contemporary, Queer, Midwestern artists and continued this venue’s commitment to provocative events via Benson First Fridays.

But this tier was dominated by eight solos and two, two-person exhibits, a mix of established and emerging artists in various media. The best-known soloists in this group are Steve Joy, Christina Narwicz, Bart Vargas and more recently Larry Buller. Their fine exhibits are just short of the top tier’s emphasis on current work and/or ambition. Otherwise these are among the most polished, professional exhibits seen in 2021.

The newly revived Anderson O’Brien Gallery enjoyed two of these exhibits, both aptly named, Narwicz’s Natural and Vargas’ Icons. Narwicz’s mostly abstract paintings have always explored the natural world, but her latest series offers a more intimate point of view rather than her familiar grand, gestural style. Truly, one of Metro’s most iconic and prolific figures, Vargas offers a new and retro mix of 2D and 3D work that is instantly familiar and provocative.

The Garden of the Zodiac, a gallery with a more international flavor, hosted two very different established artists, Britisher Steve Joy with strong ties to Omaha and Lincoln’s own new provocateur Larry Buller. Joy’s Traces mixes his two ongoing series of Medieval-themed, colorfully abstracted paintings and more delicate, Mayan-based mixed media inspired by vacations on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

Larry Buller, “Flower Brick with Butt Plugs,” 2020, low-fire clay, decals, hand-built and slip cast.

Buller, on the other hand first made his mark in Omaha with a remarkable exhibit of homoerotic ceramics at Project Project which made the first tier of 2020’s A-list and should fare well in the next Omaha Entertainment & Arts Award night. Buller next moved from a niche market to the mainstream at Zodiac with Fetish in 2021, and while more of the same, his salty, satirical figures and vessels never fail to shock and awe. For more, enjoy Reader arts writer Jonathan Orozco’s review.

Other solo exhibits worthy of A-list’s 2nd tier are from a group of artists who are gradually establishing their reputations in the Metro. Casey Callahan had two very fine and different exhibits including Interference at Baader-Meinhof whose work I wrote “quickly moves one from the ethereal to the serendipitous, from the sensual to one of recognition with an element of pleasant surprise to heighten the discovery.” Callahan also showed at Project Project with Metronome, one of this venue’s best exhibits last year.

Petshop also contributed two very clever, creative solo exhibits: Occurrences and Emptiness from the collage artist known as Glue Pinella and the “sensory perception,” of Virgilio Rodriguez Reinoso with his glowing, fluorescent figures.

The next, a two-person show organized by arguably Benson’s most conceptual, experimental gallery, Maple St. Construct, was the titular Daniel Paul Schubert and Shane Darwent, who combined to create THIS WILL GET US SOMEWHERE which deftly lived up to the venue’s reputation. The “somewhere” in this exhibit may be somewhat esoteric, but for each artist, the work is all about the journey.

John Stillmunks, “Internet Expert”, acrylic on panel

The last exhibit in this tier, John Stillmunks: Dry-Docked and Brock Stillmunks: Tomorrow Will Be OK, a father-son effort at the little gallery and the adjacent Smith gallery at the Mansion in Blackstone district, has more in common. John’s colorful masked caricatures and Brock’s black and white photos combine to effectively riff on cultural effects of COVID-19.

The top tier of the A-list features no less than 11 significant exhibits from a list of dozens of eligible shown in 2021. These four group and seven solo shows raised and to a greater degree met expectations for both venues and individual artists on view. Please note that exhibits that opened or showed mostly in December will be considered in 2022’s list.

As explained, group shows need to be more than plastering ivory walls salon style. Two art centers met the challenge with scope and ambition. Gallery 1516 continued its commitment to Nebraska regional artists with its third Biennial. What it may lack still in experimental, provocative art it makes up for in quality, professional work and presentation in the Metro’s most sophisticated gallery.

Amplify Arts’ Generator Space gallery offered two of the most successful, conceptual small group shows in 2021: The People, The Human Beings, was curated by artist Sarah Rowe and comprised of Native artists Nathaniel Ruleaux, Steven Tamayo, Rowe and student artist Lyla Rowe and Elliana Sitting Eagle; and secondly, Celestial Real Estate, organized by Omaha-based choreographer Lauren Simpson and four additional collaborators, Nick Miller, Celeste Butler, Derek Higgins and Galen Rogers with installation work that traces the movement of sunlight within the gallery space itself.

Nathaniel Ruleaux, Thunjkasila, 2021, Hand built ceramic with black, white, oatmeal glaze and toothpick

But the group show that best realized its objective was Bemis X Center’s Intimate Actions, actually three new solos in collaboration featuring artists Maria Antelman, Joey Fauerso and Paul Mpagi Sepuya curated under the theme of well, physical, spatial and emotional intimacy and set a high bar of originality.

Meanwhile, though the seven best solo exhibits of 2021 represented familiar genres and media, artists were diversified in style and point of view even with ongoing subject matter. For instance, both Claudia Alvarez and Joseph Broghammer continued their curious portraits with her images of “children” at the Zodiac Gallery and his “flock of Joe” at Anderson O’Brien, two of the most polished, sophisticated exhibits seen last year.

“Untitled,” 2021, Graphite and watercolor on paper by Claudia Alvarez

But Alvarez’s haunted vision of innocence in bloom is even more vulnerable and displaced in the Year of COVID. And Broghammer’s now very familiar birds of a feather are Fatties, hummingbirds to be exact, and as always embedded in autobiographical set pieces, perhaps even more personal as he too spent the year coping with an isolating epidemic. Titles often offered clues as to just how personal.

Delita Martin, “Mirror Mirror,” charcoal, acrylic, decorative papers, hand stitching, 2020.

Two solos dealt eloquently with issues of race and identity. Joslyn’s Riley Cap Gallery featured an impressive mixed media installation of Native American memorabilia from Wendy Red Star following in the footsteps of her grand-uncle, Clive Francis Dust, Sr., known for his similar cultural keeping. And Delita Martin’s expressionistic portraits of strong black women at Union for Contemporary ArtConjures” up the equally bold spirit of late Omaha artist Wanda Ewing.

The remaining three best solos of 2021 eschew the personal in favor of a more detached, conceptual point of view. Project Project hosted several alternative exhibits, none more effective than Reagan Pufall’s creative, cerebral Archives of 3D busts and text panels that inform as well as inquire after “humankind’s Cosmic Remembrance.”

“Sanguine Ear”, 2021 watercolour and ink on paper by John-Elio Reitman

More micro in scope is the equally evocative Bowman’s Capsule from John-Elio Reitman. Baader-Meinhoff’s best exhibit of 2021 offered us a a striking, sculptural “Sinus Diagram” of watercolors that illustrated how the human body functions as a thing of beauty and wonder.

Yet, leave it to Travis Apel, Metro’s most experimental, conceptual sculptor, to bring us back to “reality” with “Earth Matters, with his unique grass roots installation, Fiber Position, that explored current environmental issues.

“Upheaval” by Travis Apel. 2021. Corn stems and husks, hemp twine, wax, paper pulp.

If you missed this exhibit at little gallery/Blackstone as well as others in the A-list, open up any link above for a little facetime spent with the best of the best in 2021.

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