Frank Rinehart (American, 1861-19280, “White Swan,” 1898. albumen silver print. Image courtesy of Omaha Public Library

(Read The Reader’s Annual A-list, the most significant art events and exhibits in the Metro, posted Monday Dec.29 at thereader.com)

“The late great critic Robert Warshow once wrote: ‘A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man’.” 

Forgive me for repeating the above intro to the 2020 list of Reader’s arts writers’ choices for their favorite exhibits of the year, but it is still true:  Warshow’s shrewd assessment could, should, apply to criticism of all media unless one’s appreciation and expression of art is self-serving, elitist or measured only by peer review writing. Art is a moving experience as much as an intellectual one, and it’s okay, de rigueur even, to express that as well. It’s even okay to play favorites. 

That is, as long as one doesn’t fall in love with the sound of one’s own voice or opinion, or worse, to have a critic think he or she is the show, a “selfie” of style over substance. A critic should put a fresh pair of eyes in front of every exhibit and respond to it as any viewer experiencing it for the first time, an enlightened viewer hopefully, and then share “it” with the reader.

That’s what Reader’s visual arts writers below did as a supplement to the annual A-list posted elsewhere that honors the most significant Metro art events and exhibits seen and/or written about in 2021, a year especially difficult to distance one’s self in more than one way, despite all the advice to the contrary.  Here are a few of their favorite exhibits from 2021.

From Jonathan Orozco: There were many exhibitions of note this past year, particularly those at the Joslyn Art Museum’s Riley CAP gallery, such as Wendy Red Star and Diedrick Brackens. What is so relevant about these solo shows is a reminder that Americans cannot escape their storied, yet often horrific history. 

Wendy Red Star’s eponymous show is a site-specific installation recounting the history of the 1898 Indian Congress during Nebraska’s Trans Mississippi Exhibition that celebration American Expansionism. It’s a haunting recapitulation of the past centuries in which land was stolen to enlarge the American Empire, and that millions of Indigenous people continue to be displaced from their lands by settlers. The process is ongoing, and we are all implicated in it. 

Diedrick Brackens recounted, tackled, and mythologized history with his figurative larger than life sized tapestries. What’s thrilling about Brackens is he focuses both on the miniscule but also larger scale currents. In particular, he centers the death of three Black teenagers while in police custody in his hometown of Mexia in Texas, while also paying homage to those that came before him through his primary use of cotton in his art. What Brackens captures are not isolated outbursts of racism, but the continuing problem of discrimination.

Joseph Broghammer, “Wee One 13” 2021, oil on canvas

From Kent Behrens:  So nice to have real people back at the galleries. Firstly, best of the year must include Anderson O’Brien’s recent September hosting of Joe Broghammer’s Fatties.

This exhibit married a few of Broghammer’s new, ubiquitous pastel works with several new oil paintings ­– the highlight for this reviewer. These oils were colorful and insane bird images, sans accoutrements, a less-familiar style for this artist. Here he clearly emphasizes the nonsensical birds as subject, as opposed to his notable reliance on them as secondary support for his quirky bangles and baubles. 

Next, time-travel back to February, as venues were just opening up, and with patrons champing at the bit (though hard to tell behind all those masks,) to Fred Otnes: A Collage, which marked Gallery 1516’s first post-pandemic, public offering.  (Another feather in the cap for the oft overlooked applied arts; thank you, 1516!)

Otnes, was raised in Lincoln, and his first job was with the Lincoln Journal. Through the 1960’s, Otnes went on to develop his signature multi-layered style. His complex collages combine old photographs with torn paper and fabrics, and drawn and found imagery, and incorporate a variety of innovative print making techniques. 

He made illustrations for the US Postal service, the Reagan Library, The Smithsonian, and several movie posters, album covers. Otnes won hundreds of awards, and much of his work appeared in magazines ranging from Penthouse to Saturday Evening Post, Colliers and Atlantic Monthly. 

Wendy Red Star (Apsaalooke, born 1981), “The Indian Congress, 2021, mixed media installation, Photo Colin Conces.

From Janet Farber: Joslyn Art Museum’s diminutive Riley CAP Gallery has history of serving an amuse-bouche to Omaha, introducing a diverse group of international contemporary artists whose works might not fit the platform of other area venues. Featured from Jan. 30-Apr.25, 2021 was a site-specific installation by the Portland (OR) based artist Wendy Red Star, which was one of my favorite exhibitions this year. Known for her recontextualizing investigations into her Apsáalooke (Crow) heritage, Red Star frequently explores intersections between Native American ideologies and colonialist structures. 

For this show, she reframed Omaha history as well, utilizing the public library’s extensive Frank Rinehart photographic collection of portraits taken at the 1898 Indian Congress during the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha. This unprecedented US Congress-sponsored event brought more than 500 delegates from 35 tribes to the area over the course of several months. Added to these are photographs by Rinehart from a subsequent trip to the Apsáalooke reservation in Montana.

The particular effectiveness of this rewitnessing is through its presentation, imagined as an Expo booth lined with hundreds of small standing cutouts of the Rinehart portraits. At the far end, a color photomural of Baáhpuuo, sacred rock to the Apsáalooke, is framed by red draperies, connecting these individuals from the past with the present. American flags and patriotic bunting complete the installation and underscore that the Congress in fact had been organized along an edge of ethnological goodwill and political/cultural theater. The sheer abundance of these portraits re-establishes a community of individuals in an exceptionally striking way that strips away the bounds of traditional portrait conventions and creates a new context for reframing both past and present. That Joslyn subsequently purchased this work for its collection underscores its resonance. 


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