These Referents Register, a new exhibition from painter James Bockelman currently on display at Modern Arts Midtown, is an architectonic exhibition with a twist of lemon.

This assertive yet quiet collection of paintings from Bockelman combines the studied authority of a well-traveled art history professor, raw obsessive mark making, and the cool color sensibility of a Brooklyn hipster, shaken – not stirred. His references can certainly be deceiving, yet don’t let assumptions of context fool you. This exhibition is smart. 

Bockelman is a Professor of Art at Concordia University in the small town of Seward, Nebraska. His “muse” for the past four years has been a 22 x 22 inch square piece of paper. According to Bockelman, “rather than the traditional landscape or portrait, the square, with its even, dynamic energy alludes to a non-site, a location that is in-between.” This idea of a non-site is one for extended discourse.

My background is in landscape architecture and I am usually skeptical of non-landscape architects using words/concepts like site, spatiality or even landscape for that matter. It usually, at best, comes off as forced.

Yet for Bockelman, it is an appropriate descriptor. His twenty-five tortured pieces of paper featured in These Referents Register are worked, and reworked, then worked some more in the prolific and detailed nature of a draftsman. What emerges is a site – a site plan. 

These plan drawings take on a quality similar to the renowned Brazilian landscape artist/architect Roberto Burle Marx. Working in the liminal zone of art and design, his work combines rigid modernist ideals with the ephemerality and color of the tropical climate. Color is his geometric interface to space making. Burle Marx’s landscape drawings and site plans articulate a flattened visual field where the dimensionality emerges in the built work.

Zooming back to the art world, Bockelman’s renderings illustrates spaces like the flattened landscapes of Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series. Diebenkorn’s paintings, however, do the opposite to Bockelman, refracting an actual site.  There is a scale in Diebenkorn’s abstractions, which lose the illusion of real space. Yet aesthetically and spatially the two are in tandem.

Bockelman describes a space/place/site in which scales shift. Not every painting appears to be at the same scale. Some may be at one sixteenth while others one sixty fourth. “Zipper”, for instance, is a black zigzag pathway in the middle of a hexagonal grey pavilion; while “Sequenced”, a Ben-Day dotscape, is a beautiful grid of aspen trees.

Painting, such as “Emerge”, “Mummer” and “Seamstress” act as concepts for the macro site with their larger abstract shapes of solid colors. Each painting gives clues to where they fit within set. Colors are repeated, shapes appear and disappear, marks are worked with a similar muscle memory.

This is no coincidence.

Bockelman says he, “trusts the process of painting and often works on twenty-five paintings at one time. [He does] this to bring all of them up together toward a resolution… and to measure how the images serve as an additional, critical space for one another.” It is not a stretch to think of these twenty-five paintings, in totality, as a proposal for a larger space or (non) site.

Yet with the series now at over 125 paintings, there are questionable moments/spatial proposals that arise. Paintings such as “Ikon” and “Device” lose a controlled awareness of mark making. They simultaneously appear as overworked, yet underdeveloped. In fact, most of the paintings done before 2014 are one-liners. These earlier paintings are, as it appears, requirements for the later work to come to fruition – like an evolving visual vocabulary.

As the series comes to a head, strong, more influenced works arises. These later paintings are developed and in a sense less “abstracted”. They take the  one liners, sprinkle in a huge range of influences from, what I am guessing could be everything from Yves Klein Blue to Gees Bend quilts to Bockelman’s consistent excursions to Berlin. There is a confluence in these later works that is stimulating as spatial proposals.

His dichotomies between small town Nebraska and a well versed girth of knowledge form an exhibition, like my Netflix queue, that is sporadic yet consistent. Within this exhibition there is one concrete element: twenty-five aggressive, worked paintings on 22 x 22 inch pieces of paper. Period.

Yet there are also vast spaces within these small paintings where personal bias, influences, and references can seep in. I see a nod to Richard Diebenkorn and a set of site plans; you may see something else. Nevertheless, Bockelman synchronizes his own references, his own hyper-meta ideas and his own highly articulated mark-making ability into a set of paintings ready for construction.

James Bockelman: These Referents Register is on display through April 25 at Modern Arts Midtown located at 3615 Dodge Street, Omaha. For more details, go to

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