In the less than two years of Baader-Meinhof’s existence, it’s already constructing networks of art history within its walls. The current exhibiting artist, Joshua Abelow, is not a stranger to Omaha. In late 2021, Abelow exhibited in Minor Rationalism, a group exhibition of several national and international artists. Though the majority of the work in this retrospective, Joshua Abelow 1982 – 2022, are quite distinct from the graphite drawing in the former show.
“In a lot of ways, this show is my version of the Truman Show, and I would be Truman,” Abelow says. “What I mean is that it’s a very personal show, but it’s also a very revealing show in certain ways.”
And it surely is a personal show. Included in this exhibition are a mix of personal memorabilia, like an elementary school report card, a rejection letter from the reputable New York City Matthew Marks Gallery, to a highly stylized childhood drawing of E.T.
Abelow took this image of E.T. and ran with it. “This is the earliest work in the show, from 1982, and it’s a drawing from E.T. that I made after seeing the movie. I like this one because it’s where I’m taking something from popular culture and making it my own, but in this case, I was doing that as a five year old.”
Not only does the artist draw from such things as pop culture, but also high art, like Andy Warhol’s approach to serial imagery, Agnes Martin’s grids systems, as well as Hard Edge abstraction in general.
Let me tell you now – this show is aggressively masculine, but not so much in a combative or show-offy way. It feels more so as a recognition, or playful toying with a phallus. But yes, there are still a lot of painted dicks.
Take “Fuck You” as an example. Abelow painted a stylized figure with the words “FUCK YOU” around the composition. The positioning of the “U” is highly suggestive, in between the figure’s two feet. Or “Masturbate Often,” a much taller composition of multiple concentric circles, a smiling face, and three erect penises with the phrase, “MASTU” “RBATE” “OFTEN” on them. (If I’m being honest, when I first saw them I didn’t get the joke and was trying to figure out what mastu and rbate meant).
On this, Abelow says “I think these paintings have a lot to do with frustration I was feeling as an artist. Making work was frustrating for various reasons, and at times, it could feel very masturabtory, so I was interested in making paintings that were self-critical, self-aware, and self referential.”
There’s also something to be said about how the gallery breaks boundaries that are considered sacred in the white cube gallery. Paintings are mounted in the first-floor bathroom, with a red, green, and blue striped painting with the words Way Beyond, welcoming you at the door.
At the exhibition opening, Baader-Meinhof’s curator made a spectacle of writing and placing a sign on the bathroom door saying something like, “Please use the second-floor bathroom.”
But ascribing certain values to spaces like this makes them sacred, or portals. The stairway to the second floor is one such portal weaving Abelow’s personal history throughout time. “In the hallway, we really wanted to mimic the vibe when you go to your friend’s mom’s house and they have old family photos or childhood artworks or personal memorabilia,” Abelow said.
Two memorable pieces say the following:
“This letter is a recommendation for Joshua Abelow. Since Josh has been an employee for the Holiday Inn, ‘Harrigan’s Restaurant’, his performance has been exemplary!,” according to Renee Pittman, the Dining Room Manager of this hotel, written in 1994.
“Thank you very much for sending us the information on your work and your interest in the Matthew Marks Gallery. Unfortunately, at this time, we cannot add to our roster of exhibiting artists. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.” Signed by Sonny Fitzsimonds in 2002.
Not only does this stairway act as a transition point between the two floors, Abelow tells us his history, artistic progress, as well as his achievements and failures.
The final floor is an exemplary example of the rules Abelow likes to make. One wall is mounted with 36 paintings in a checkerboard grid, all painted from 2008 onwards. Paralleling the multiple grids found on the gallery’s lower floor, the uniting factor of this series is size.
“One of the things I like to do is to set rules,” Abelow says. “One rule might be I’m going to only make paintings on 12 x 9 inch [canvases], and I stick with it over many years because I’m interested in how within that constraint, how much I can pull out of that.”
Within this grid system are even more grids, dots, side-profiles, and some smiling faces. Like the stairway, it’s combining time and flattening it out on a plane.
As a whole, the outcome feels like it’s pulled from high design, taking into consideration color theory, graphics, and 20th century painting precedents, as well as a preoccupation with the self. It’s visually practical and not overly romantic.
With the Joslyn Art Museum closing for two years, taking the Riley CAP gallery with it, and generally lackluster shows as comparable exhibition centers preoccupied with blue-chip artists, ego and legacy building, Baader-Meinhof has an opportunity to establish itself as the premier place for contemporary art in Omaha, alongside other wonderful DIY art spaces.
Joshua Abelow 1982 – 2022 runs until May 27th at Baader-Meinhof gallery, located at 1322 S. 6th Street and is open by scheduling an appointment via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.