‘A’ for Effort

Public art, pop ups and performance share spotlight with traditional venues on “A-list”, the best in Metro art in 2017


Another year has passed which means we are approaching award season in all the arts and field of entertainment. Yet while film, music, performance and theater will get most of the attention, the visual arts deserves time in the spotlight as well.

This is especially true as once an exhibit opens…and closes, it tends to fade from memory unless one purchased a catalogue when available or better yet, bought a featured work of art. A few venues provide links to past exhibitions, which is good for the sake of creating an archive, but it doesn’t provide the same experience a DVD, CD, cable broadcast or streaming can that allows one to relive the “moment” let alone remember it.

All the more reason to look forward to the next OEAA Showcase event, Feb. 18, which will honor the visual arts nominees along with music and theater, and to attend the former’s exhibit at Petshop which opens Jan. 13 and closes Jan. 27. But, in the meantime, take a look back in 2017 with the Reader and consider its annual A-list, the most significant art events and exhibits of the year.

Per usual, the A-list reflects the opinions of mainly yours truly influenced and aided by six additional arts writers, some of who have included their own personal choices in the online version of this review. And yes, our choices are subjective. That said our reviews are based upon not only considerable face time with the art, but with research, interviews with artists and curators where applicable to help gain perspective.

We cannot claim to have seen, let alone written about, all of the art exhibits in 2017. Many more than a dozen shows open monthly in the Metro, but from a list of more than 125 art exhibitions in 2017, nearly 50 were nominated for the A-list based upon the professionalism of the exhibits and work itself, their uniqueness—albeit always a difficult quality to measure–and how well each lived up to its artistic and curatorial intent.

Yet before going there, each year is also marked by a series of art-related events, some planned, some not. For the year 2017 consider these.

Beginning in January, The Union for Contemporary Art expanded its services and domain in its new digs in 2017 in the Blue Lion Building at the corner of 24th and Lake St. The location may have changed but not the Union’s commitment “to restore a center of culture and community within North Omaha while also providing access to arts services previously lacking in the area and city wide.”

UNMC Buffett Cancer Center opened its Healing Arts Program in May featuring installations by Dale Chihuly and artworks by Jun Kaneko, Mary Zicafoose, Matthew Placzek, Jennifer Steinkamp, Steve Joy, Rob Ley (NE 1% for Arts), Suzy Taekyung Kim (NE 1% for Arts) among others, all publicly accessible, demonstrating once again that significant contemporary art can be seen and appreciated outside the ivory walls.

Equally impressive was the community building effort of the South Omaha Mural Project to paint 10 more murals in its neighborhoods. Among the artists contributing to this multicultural project are Richard Harrison, Mike Giron and Rebecca Van Ornam. Completed murals include: A Lithuanian mural at 33rd and Q Streets, a Czech mural near 13th and William Streets, a South Omaha history mural on the Metropolitan Community College South Campus and a Mexican community mural painted on the side of El Mercado near 25th and N Streets.

Speaking of significant public art, Watie White began a new campaign in 2017 he’s calling 100 people, which consists of woodcut portrait murals placed in multiple locations in Benson, Midtown Crossing and the Park Avenue district. Most often, his public works are developed through a dialogue with current residents and by sifting through neighborhood histories, and thus look both forward and back.

At least one new arts venue opened in 2017, not coincidentally in the thriving Benson community. Entrepreneur and curator Joel Damon, instrumental in organizing various art exhibits and events of all kinds for nearly the past 10 years in the Metro, stretched once again with his newest space at 5603 NW Radial Hwy, the Citylight Arts Project, which opened in November.

Sadly, the Metro lost two of its prominent artists this past year, Deirdre “Dee” Heller, 81 and Dan Boylan, 77. Heller is a nationally known artist from Omaha, Nebraska. A fixture in the Omaha arts community for decades for her advice and inspiration to many emerging artists, she created art in a variety of mediums including watercolor, oil and acrylic. Her work varied from the more traditional floral landscapes to colorful, expressive abstract flourishes.

Boylan was a prolific artist whose most current series of single and multiple abstract figurative paintings on gesso panels as well as landscapes on canvas were last seen in exhibits at Gallery 1516 in 2016 and at the Sunderland Gallery in February of 2017.

The Metro and Reader also bids a fond farewell to one of its best arts writers, Alex Priest, who recently left his position as Exhibition Manager at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts to accept a position in Kansas City at el dorado architects to work as the Public Engagement, Marketing, and Curatorial Manager. The Metro will miss Priest’s fine curatorial work and writing.

No two years of art exhibitions in the Metro are ever alike, and consequently the 11th annual A-list reflects those differences both in quantity and quality. Thus, for 2017 the list below recognizes a greater number of exhibits than the previous year and includes a special category of such that succeeded outside the box. Out of nearly 125 exhibits, the A-list includes 10 solo shows, six two-person exhibits and four group exhibitions, six more than last year.

Plus an additional six best over-all exhibits that rose above the limitations of their category. It’s like saying that the “Maltese Falcon,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Chinatown” are not only great genre films, they transcend their type and become great cinema. But first, the A-list includes 11 exhibitions that deserve Honorable Mention. In virtually any other year they may have made the top tier.

Of the 10, Project Project can claim three: Holly Kranker was found making space/seeking comfort, a unique site and “time” specific installation; speaking of “space”, Josh Johnson reworked his found materials into a Manifestation of space both as material and conceptual; andRather by Kaitlan McDermott, a past product of the Kent Bellows Mentoring Program, whose large format, abstract expressionism is a gestural “yes” to social conformity and insecurity.

Petshop featured two honorable mentions: Will Anderson’s mostly monochromatic Furnish took a paradoxical “long look” at a series of chairs both empty and inviting; and Jeff King offered his own ironic but more personal vision with You’re Beautiful and Nobody Cares.

Moderns Arts Midtown featured James Freeman along with Troy Muller and Brett Witters in New Work as well as Jamie Burmeister’s marquee 3D effort with characteristically signature work from each. As did Corey Broman with his familiar, but always elegant Glass Works at the Sunderland Gallery.

But two artists, photographer Jim Hendrickson and Victoria Hoyt explored new ground of a more personal nature: the former exhibited dark and exotic photos at the Garden of the Zodiac that referenced Butoh, an austere form of modern Japanese dance, while reflecting his own ‘inner demons”; Hoyt interpreted her time spent with her newly born daughter with a “homemade craft” aesthetic revealing a childlike wonder of her own in the Michael Phipps Gallery.

The last honorable mention belongs to the Bemis Center’s exhibit Continuous Service Altered Daily that featured a disassembled and repurposed 1976 John Deere 3300 combine harvester by artist David Brooks. His timely sculptural installations comment succinctly on agricultural technology and practice and its relationship to ecology and the environment.

Once again, solo exhibits dominated in sheer numbers in 2017 and the A-list recognizes the following 11 that excelled above the ordinary. The Moving Gallery had three of these: the best of which perhaps was the original visual narrative of Berliner Brigitte Waldach and her inscribed prints of ambiguous human behavior; but local artists Joe Broghammer and Watie White also contributed fine solos featuring their familiar aesthetic, the former’s pastel domestic menagerie and the latter’s “triple play” of “absurdist narrative portraits,” his Omval series of urban woodcut prints and black and white linocuts from travel abroad.

Artists Bob Bosco and Richard Chung also offered mostly signature work in their solos at Gallery 1516 and RNG Gallery. Bosco’s exhibit, A Painter’s Yoga Journey, was a Herculean effort of 48 paintings focusing on a different Yoga posture. Chung filled RNG with his ceramic tactile figures and busts that all seem part of the same family “relative” to style and mood.

Two solo exhibits took a more socio-political POV. In Part to Part at the Wanda Ewing Gallery, Angie Seykora’s experimental organic sculpture in synthetic materials calls out industry’s impact on society and culture. L.A. architect Mike Nesbit also created a conversation about our “collective culture” with his site-specific installation called Flood in the Standard Oil Building downtown that commented on how and where we display art.

Two very different experiments with their mediums occurred at Project Project. In Rut, more a collaborative/solo exhibit, interdisciplinary artist Heidi Bartlett created a series of animal prosthetics worn by performers who interpreted mating rituals to question human sexual rites and gender roles. Less concerned with social practice and more interested in concepts, design and data transmutation is artist Alex Meyers whose exhibit This is Fine featured his mixed format digital works that lived up to his love of the surreal and seeming contradictions.

Maybe the biggest surprise in this category has been the emergence of artist Camille Hawbaker in the Metro who enjoyed two fine solo efforts this year, Veils of Voids, Lied Art Gallery and currently at the Fred Simon Gallery, Love is a Rippling Circle. In either case, Hawbaker, who made her mark most prominently first in Joslyn’s Nebraska Seen group exhibit in 2016 and recently in Gallery 1516’s Nebraska Artists Biennial, continues her reconstruction of text and graphic design to create the most delicate and positive embroidery on paper, fiber and fabric one can imagine.

Two-person exhibits are a popular format because of the opportunity for interplay and no one does this better than Darger HQ on Vinton Street. Last year they had three of the very best: Wedes featured artists Sarah Rowe and Angela Simione who interpreted the titled “mourning garment” to comment on self-identity within the current political environment; In Together Forever Peter Fankhauser and Jaimie Warren effectively created a multi-media experience to pay homage to the act of remembering and vagaries of immortality; and Ying Zhu and Angie Seykora form a more conceptual and visually powerful statement in Lines Forming about the very notion of art, proportion, space and cultural identity.

Swiss artists Hendrikje Kuhne and Beat Klein collaborated at Garden of the Zodiac with reimagined landscapes created from post cards. Runners-up in the two-person category included Matthew Kluber and Colin Smith’s “moving” artwork at Modern Arts Midtown and Sarah Kolar and Brian Wetjen’s abstract Interwoven at the Michael Phipps Gallery.

The best group exhibits each year are those with the strongest curatorial vision. Aside from those listed below in the best overall category, these four were among the best: Chimeras at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts featured work by Leah DeVun, Miriam Simun, Rashayla Marie Brown, Julia Oldham, Lucie Strecker and Klaus Spiess and Kate Clark; and Rivers, an interesting collaboration among artists Lori Elliot-Bartle, Marcia Joffe-Bouska and Tom Quest.

Two runners-up included Summer Stock at Gallery 1516 that recognized emerging or less familiar artists Brian Wetjen, Angie Seykora, Bridget O’Donnell and David Patterson and Seven Lenses at Petshop which focused on photographers Joe Addison, Alex Jochim, Anthony Licari, Tony Lonergan, Zora Murff, Laura Simpson, & Rana Young.

As fine as all of the above were in meeting their objectives, there were seven exhibitions in 2017 that were especially significant and memorable for reasons of their own, but most especially unity, originality and overall creativity. In no particular order, if you missed these seven, you missed the best in contemporary art in the Metro in 2017.

Far and away, the most outrageous and poignant piece of performance art took place in the Bemis Center and its neighborhood, an audience interactive work by Cassils titled Phantom Revenant and curated by Alex Priest on behalf of LGTBQI+ people in Nebraska.

The most satisfying, polished and sophisticated solo exhibit took place at Modern Arts Midtown when the “Nebraska Kid,” artist Bob Culver, rode again into town and brought with him clever, witty new Stories: Mine, Theirs, Ours via his mixed media scenarios and portraits.

A close second to the above just opened at Gallery 72, the equally creative survey of the late national artist Roy De Forest in Of Dogs and Men. And like the Culver show, De Forest’s sampling of Nut and Funk Art is just as entertaining.

Yet, the most significant exhibits in 2017 were group efforts, wonderfully curated, organized and/or juried. There were four that stood out. A fifth, Monarchs at Bemis, has yet to be reviewed and is eligible then in 2018.

Kinetic at Kaneko continued this venue’s creative collaboration of art and science on behalf of energy and the perception of movement, but what stood out were the popular, intricate and interactive sculptures of John Buck that comment on and celebrate history and culture.

Also with a view toward history and culture was the international group show curated by Berliner Matthias Harder who exhibited Drive Drove Driven at the Artists’ Co-Op in the Old Market. Futuristic at times, elegiac at others, this exotic photo expose examined the world’s love affair with the automobile as a symbol of power, wealth, freedom and desire.

Arguably the two most significant group exhibits in 2017, the Nebraska Artist Biennial at Gallery 1516 and the DIY pop-up Bear Hug, couldn’t have been at more opposite ends of the pole.

The NAB gets props just for resurrecting a regional exhibit that showcased mostly post-emerged and established artists in a polished well-organized juried exhibition. The latest edition bodes well for its future.

But Bear Hug, organized by Joel Damon and Josh Powell, was a one-of-a-kind, balls out, audacious and counter-intuitive answer to art on the ivory walls. In two empty, dusty and dirty buildings mid-renovation, just west of downtown, a mixed bag of artists let it all hang out, on the floor, walls and ceiling with abandon.

The results were also mixed but it mattered not, because it was an unfettered breath of stale air and fresh art. Bear Hug was yin to NAB’s yang. Together, they made the Metro art scene greater than the sum of its parts in 2017.

Reader arts writers respond:

From Janet Farber: Every year, Omaha’s visual arts brings a mix of the new and familiar, but the most memorable for me was witnessing the sheer scale, ambition and inventiveness of John Buck, whose work was exhibited at both Kaneko and Gallery 72. I thought I knew his art, but the scope of work, especially the automatons featured at Kaneko, was a revelation.

From Kent Behrens: I thought the inaugural Nebraska Artist Biennial, put on by various supporters and Gallery 1516 in November, was a thorough cross section of some of the best work Nebraska artists have to offer. Over 500 2D works were submitted for the jury to pick from. The quality of the work was a testament to the depth of talent this state has to offer, and I can’t wait for the next one.

As far as solo exhibits go, I must nominate Corey Broman’s Glass Works in the Sunderland Gallery at St. Cecilia’s Cathedral last spring. A stunning example of craftsmanship, and a fine gallery setting to show off this intricate and subtle art form to which Broman seems to have a natural connection.

Abstract Expressionists used to be a dime a dozen, but over the last several years that art form has taken a bit of a back seat to Post-this and Neo-that stylists. There are many still practicing Abstract Expressionism in its myriad forms, however, and Robert Allen’s work shown at Gallery 72 in March is one perfect example of this method of expression over subject, emotion over the concrete. His grasp of color and space brings his compositions alive with feeling and invitation.

From Melinda Kozel: The shows that stuck out to me this year strayed from traditional mediums and format. Sean Jackson’s They’re at the Door at The Little Gallery, The Kinetic Light Sculpture of Dave Goldberg at Petshop, Sarah Rowe & Angela Simone’s Wedes at Darger HQ combined video, found objects, space, history and time. Pop Ups were my prediction from last year and shows like Bear Hug at the Dakota Title Company Building certainly delivered.

From Alex Priest: Jamie Warren and Peter Fankhauser at Darger HQ as it was an exquisite display of digital work that warped space and time. Josh Johnson at Project Project as it found a way to navigate the OSB clad space in a though provoking and materially intense way. Runner up: Bob Culver’s exhibition/retrospective at Modern Arts Midtown not only made painting feel three dimensional, but also proved how contemporary pop art continues to be.


Category: Art

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