“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…”
So opened Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Flash forward from the French Revolution, and it’s not a bad assessment either of the Year of COVID-19, even if one’s “2020 vision” is really just hindsight. While you may wonder rightly about the “best” of last year, it’s hard to argue that things went from bad to “worst” thanks to 2020’s own polarities created by coronavirus-deniers and those who misplaced their faith in conspiracy theories.
Meanwhile, those who listened to science and medicine made the “best” of a bad economy and surging virus waiting patiently for the next stimulus package and the promise of a vaccine, both of which now either here or on the horizon. To riff on the end of Dickens’ opening…it is the spring of hope, after the winter of despair.
But before we anticipate 2021, it’s customary to look back and evaluate how we got here culturally, if not socially, politically or economically. The A-list that follows is a review of the most significant contemporary visual arts in 2020 that did indeed make the “best” of a bad situation. It’s a testament to the artists, venues and patrons that the Metro art scene survived, let alone thrived.
The A-list is based upon the arts events and exhibits written about and/or seen by Reader reviewers including yours truly and then narrowed down into a list of the best overall by myself that fit the criteria of most creative, unified and realized based upon original intent. No claim is made that all events and shows were seen by us, but the majority of them were and have been considered. If you disagree with the A-list or wish to add a choice of your own, please respond to thereader.com or at https://www.facebook.com/thereaderomaha/
Perhaps the three most significant visual arts “events” of the past year were: one, the COVID accommodations that many, if not most, art venues made shifting from live exhibits to virtual ones; two, the re-openings several galleries made, prematurely or not, with virus-aware restrictions for viewing; and three, a marked shift to socio-political themes and content by artists that included such issues as Black Lives Matter, coping with COVID, global warming and personal identity. Surprisingly, and disappointingly, in a particularly polarizing election year there was a relative dearth of political commentary or controversy based upon candidates and their platforms.
By March, once the reality of the pandemic finally sank in, Metro art also learned how to adjust. In fact, one could argue that the artful adjustments, events, continued commitments in spite of adversity and just sheer ingenuity displayed by artists and venues alike were as significant as the scheduled exhibits themselves. Shout-outs go to following:
Benson First Friday’s continued community building on behalf of inclusivity and diversity in the arts. Particular to 2020 were GenQ, which created LGBTQIA2S+ opportunities in the arts and the 7th annual New American Arts Festival – Reframed, a mix of virtual and live gallery events of the visual and performing arts of New Americans (Immigrant and Refugees) in Omaha;
So too the Union for Contemporary Art along similar socio-political themes. Following the killing of James Scurlock, The Union mass-produced screen-printed Black Lives Matter posters. By June 8, roughly 5,000 posters were distributed free to the community. An even greater example of UCA’s social conscience, however, is its Uplift and Elevate program, “an Evolving Exhibition Series Celebrating the Work of Local and Regional Contemporary Artists of the African Diaspora,” highlighting the work of a rotating community of artists, including poets, photographers, painters, musicians, and more. And while its main gallery is closed, the Union cleverly exhibits the above artwork via its street facing windows;
And Amplify Arts also rallied on behalf of the artist community it serves. Among its efforts is the center’s Alternate Currents blog that addresses issues surrounding the impact of arts and culture on climate security and environmental justice. But Amplify Arts is more than just talk as it ponied up Artist Support Grants, Generator Grants, Public Support Grants and Micro Grants in an economically depressed 2020. Interestingly, and perhaps not well known, is that these grants are not available to artists currently enrolled in a college degree program;
Two additional local art centers deserve recognition as they continue to serve as incubators for emerging art projects and often emerging artists. Millwork Commons commissioned emerging artist Anthony T. Peña and established artist Watie White to collaborate and create a mural on its building at 13th and Nicholas Streets in north downtown. Based upon their original civil rights poster that went viral, it features a drawing of seven-year-old Zuri Jensen, fist raised, holding a sign that simply reads and pleas for “HOPE”;
A second significant public art project was commissioned by Metro in partnership with Omaha by Design’s ART+ INFRASTRUCTURE program on behalf of the bus line’s new ORBT stations. The ten local artists chosen “to complement stations along this major transit line with vibrant, original artworks” in another of Omaha’s “in-between spaces” can be found at https://omahabydesign.org/art-infrastructure;
2020 also included several more traditional events/exhibits that nevertheless displayed ingenuity by virtue of their content or process. Chief among them were: Kaneko’s Creative Pairings, a sumptuous collaboration of local artists and chefs in pre-mask February to entice patrons with a match of art, wine and chocolate. A list of the inventive parings can be found at https://thekaneko.org/programs/creative-pairings/;
Two private galleries found a way to engage patrons either live or online under COVID conditions. RBR Gallery’s Visual Voices: Community of Ideas | Community of Prints, a workshop/exhibit, invited the public come in and produce a hand-pulled print of their own design inspired by a social issue of their choice.
As for virtual exhibits, Modern Arts Midtown moved outside the curve in September with its innovative exhibit Joyous Occasion, an interactive video featuring three artists presenting their new work on MAM’s Facebook page. The exhibit then offered a 60-day opportunity to view the exhibition at the gallery by appointment;
Meanwhile, while several other public and private galleries remain closed, Petshop, Project Project and Anderson O’Brien successfully reopened late 2020 and The Little Gallery re-opens this month in its new digs in the Blackstone area. Yet, opening a live new gallery in spite of the health and economic risks that remain, strikes one as a balls out endeavor. Who does that? Artist and raconteur Kyle Laidig did, that’s who, as he successfully opened his contrarian Baader-Meinhof gallery in November against all odds, with the first solo exhibition by American artist Lub Poeem;
Lastly, kudos to Metro artists whose special public art projects raised community awareness and pride. The UCA commissioned artist/illustrator Tianna Conyers to design five billboards for We Thrive in Middle Spaces, featuring local models of the LGBTQIA2S+ community “whose narratives often go unheard and unknown,” she said. And on behalf of Black Lives Matter, add the imposing mural of James Scurlock at 24th and Camden created by artists Hugo Zamorano, AD Swolley, Edgar Vazquez, Jair Rodriguez, Brandon Price and Joseph Davis.
2020 Annual A-list
The best 2020 exhibits recognized by the annual A-list are grouped in two tiers: Runner-up and Best Overallwith some additional Honorable Mentions. While subjective, the A-list is based on the criteria of creativity, unity and realization of artist’s intent. If the list is dominated by “live” rather than virtual and digital shows, it is understandable, due primarily to technical limitations creating an equally satisfying experience online for the viewer. Please note that exhibits opening after first week of December in 2020 will be considered in 2021 when they can be properly viewed.
Worthy of Honorable Mention include: The Little Gallery opened 2020 in January with its trenchant group show, Conditions, featuring work by and about artists with chronic medical conditions as their source of inspiration;
Ironically, Anderson O’Brien opened…and closed 2020 with two professional painting shows by regionalist artists, Peter Walkley and the late Judith Welk. Both shows, Walkley’s current Introspection and Welk’s retrospective Backyard View featured their respective stylized and familiar “comfort zones” in the neighborhood;
Another retro of sorts in 2020 honored the late Sam Mercer, an original Old Market founder, whose fanciful figures in storybook settings that commented in French on the human condition were shown in February in the Garden of the Zodiac gallery, which he himself designed to also display the astrological heads of wife Eva Aeppli;
Artist Kyle Laidig’s inaugural exhibit for his new gallery, Baeder Meinhoff, not only lived up to its conceptual premise, despite the tongue-tying, indulgent title, Repetition, Difference & The Time It Takes to Tie One’s Shoes, it indicates a promising new creative resource in South Omaha;
Metro’s two friendliest galleries of outlier art, as well as emerging artists, Petshop and Project Project, enjoyed creative exhibits in 2020 at several levels. In the former gallery, viewers enjoyed Remnants, the ordinary bits and pieces of everyday chaos found by artist Evan Stolar that he patterned into cosmic abstraction. The latter showcased painter Nick Clark’s Two Trick Pony, “shameless appropriations” of historical imagery and commercial logos to riff on pop culture;
While some local artists and exhibits are quick to hook up with whatever is trending in content and theme, others continue to perfect more traditional genres and styles. Prominent among the latter is landscape artist Lori Elliot-Bartle whose refreshing Ramble at The Little Gallery offered a pastiche of paintings and prints in support of her interest in preserving and restoring prairies.
So too for Tim Guthrie, best known for his past multi-media installations, who nonetheless created the year’s most moving exhibit, Vale, at the Fred Simon Gallery. A tribute to his wife Beth who passed in 2015, this closure of sorts was made more intimate by the ethereal beauty of Guthrie’s portraiture.
Two smaller group exhibits also enjoyed a spotlight. Amplify Arts 10-month long Works in Progress program provided artists feedback through critical writing, peer review and collaboration before exhibiting at Petshop. Artist list and details are at https://thereader.com/visual-art/work-in-progress.
Motion Blur opened at Michael Phipps Gallery before the library gallery closed for the year featuring Shawnequa Linder, Derek Courtney and Joe Pankowski loosely “connected by potential energy and tension, creative renewal and transformation.” Though their connection did somewhat blur, each singular effort did excel on its own.
The following artists and exhibits at the Runner-up level raised the bar a bit either in ambition or scope as well as realization. In the name of inclusivity and diversity, this level was dominated by large and small groups shows:
RBR G’s ETCH 20 invited 20 artists to interpret their personal response to the pandemic as the gallery covered the cost of the materials and even prepared and printed the etchings. ETCH 20 also included a variety of print related workshops, gallery talks and panel discussions for their patrons. Participating artists can be found at https://rbrg.org/exhibit/326-etch-20.
The Hillmer Gallery at College of St. Mary also jumped on the socially conscious bandwagon by adding the Voices of seven Black Artists in honor of Black History Month. It was a solid show as rich in content as its diversity. For a list of the artists and details, go to https://www.csm.edu/news/voices-exhibit-shines-spotlight-black-omaha-artists;
Another significant group show was found at Gallery 1516 with Spontaneity, 10 abstract artists who demonstrated a diversity of their own in an art form often stereotyped and generally misunderstood. Considered even passé by some, the exhibit proved abstraction still resonates. A list of the artists and images is at https://www.gallery1516.org/previous-exhibitions;
Two smaller group shows eschewed an ulterior motive and were satisfied to exhibit for their own sake and arguably had the two most successful digital exhibits of 2020. Benson’s experimental Maple St Construct, majoring in predominantly two-person, two regional contemporary art, attacked and adjusted as did many Metro galleries. The very visual and conceptual A High Disregard combined the creative efforts of Los Angeles’ Adam Beris and Omaha’s Will Anderson. For considerably more detail, go to http://www.maplestconstruct.com/a-high-disregard.html.
Secondly, Modern Arts Midtown upped the ante on digital exhibits with its own experimental Joyous Occasion, united three artists from its stable, Catherine Ferguson, Barbara Kendrick and Chris Cassimatis, who not only delighted with their work at MAM’s website, but gave artist talks in a video online at MAM’s Facebook page. Works on paper, sculpture and painting were pleasingly united by their free-flowing, organic motion, figurative shapes and forms, palette and the right amount of whimsy;
Three solo shows also left their mark in this runner-up tier and though highly personal each, they couldn’t be more different in aesthetic or intent. Barber, one of the Metro’s most prolific artists, continued his exploration of our shared humanity with his poignant Barber Paints People in Middle America at PACE Galley in Council Bluffs.
Project Project offered two of the most provocative solo shows of 2020 with Queerish and the disturbing LIFE IS TOO SHORT AND SAD TO WAIT FOR AN ACCEPTABLE EXCUSE TO DRAW SHITTY BOATS. The former is the year’s most outré exhibit as it showcased ceramic work of Larry Buller, domestic and ornamental at first glance but soon revealing issues of gay sexuality and fetish objects, all in the name of good taste. Show statement said it best:
“These new works are as lovely as they are brutal, they equally deserve being placed on a mantle as they do being sat on.”
But even more moving was Shitty Boats, which chronicled the personal struggle of Lincoln artist Christian Gauthier struggling to cope with his role as artist in COVID-19. His unique response? Darkly comic caricatures and figures in oil paint, charcoal and oil pastel …alter egos and scenarios for the mindset of this interesting reclusive artist.
As in 2019, separating the top tier from the runner-ups may be only a small degree of an exhibit’s unique vision and realization, unity of theme, subject and curatorial strength. In no particular order, these were the best of the best:
The Joslyn Art Museum organized one of the most sophisticated and realized exhibits of 2020. Fact and Fiction in Contemporary Photography, curated by the venue’s chief curator Toby Jurovics, focused on the credibility of photographs, especially when digital and print images are presumed to have been manipulated or altered in some manner. For details on this outstanding conceptual exhibit, Reader review by Jonathan Orozco at https://thereader.com/visual-art/is-it-real-or-is-it-fantasy;
Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts offered a similar degree of sophistication with Claudia Wieser’s Generations, curated by Bemis’ Rachel Adams and Smart Museum’s Jennifer Carty. Wieser’s modernist-inflected geometric constructions, set within a carefully designed architectural space, succeeded in “asking viewers to find themselves through the extended experience of looking;”
Conversely, sculptor Travis Apel also created a space in his marvelous Makes Know Since installation at MaMO container without any pretense of sophistication or polish. Reminiscent of Bemis’ past contrarian and deconstructed installations, Apel collected abandoned synthetic materials and combined them with organic matter to emphasize the tension of our imbalanced world, all realized with a breath of fresh air;
Two group shows also made the top tier in 2020, none more dedicated to providing “a positive reaction to this confusing, albeit revelatory pandemic” than Kaneko’s Community, as reviewed by Kent Behrens at https://thereader.com/visual-art/community-building.The four artists featured here exemplify action and advocacy in community-building, each in their own specific way as this exhibit continues until April 1, 2021. For more show details, hours and related events, go to https://thekaneko.org/seasons/community-season/.
Emerging Artists, the highly anticipated collaboration of Amplify Arts and Gallery 1516 that appeared in the latter’s venue, may have stretched the definition of its title, but in 2020 there was no finer exhibition of Metro’s promising “new” artists. For their identities and show details, see Behrens’ review of such at https://thereader.com/visual-art/very-becoming;
Several two-person exhibits also made an impact last year, and these two were arguably the most unique and unified. From a purely conceptual and visual basis, Above / Below, Nick Clark and Anne Dovali’s stunning collaboration at Generator Space, was the most successful exhibit of the year. Using found objects as well as painting, the duo revealed the middle ground, the “in-between time, in-between place, in-between being, that exists in ethereal’s relationship to the concrete.” Samples of their imagery and a virtual walk through can be found at https://www.amplifyarts.org/above-below.
Though a tad didactic but in a deconstructive manner, Panopticon, the duo effort of Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez and Charley Friedman that premiered at the Garden of the Zodiac, was a convincing, creative and complex comment on gun culture and surveillance. For more details, see Orozco’s complete review at https://thereader.com/uncategorized/got-you-covered;
Five superb solo exhibits round out the 2020 A-list, and true to form, you would not mistake the work of these artists for someone else in these signature shows. First off, defying all trends and issues du jour, ceramicist John Dennison, photographer Monte Kruse and textile artist Mary Zicafoose continued to do what they do best in their medium while making it exciting and fresh.
Dennison described his mix of dinnerware, teapots and bowls and thematic sculptural masks and large wall platters seen at Sunderland Gallery as “a dysfunctional marriage of the functional and the nonfunctional.” The result was polished perfection.
Kruse’s Night Light at the Zodiac Gallery was nothing short of the best photography exhibit of 2020. His nightscape vision of the Old Market transformed familiar day settings into an image of noir and the surreal. For details, go to https://thereader.com/visual-art/prints-of-darkness.
But just when you think you know Zicafoose’s splendid tapestries and prints she surprises yet again. This time at Creighton University’s Lied Gallery with a new series of ikat-inspired calligraphic mono prints as well as wearable’s and linens created for her new book, titled Ikat: The Essential Handbook to Weaving Resist-Dyed Cloth in released in May. Polished perfection, plus there is no more inspired artist in any medium in this region.
The final two soloists rely on non-traditional media to leave their mark on the best of 2020.
Thalia Rodgers’ paradoxical painting show, You make my heart smile but you also make my eyes cry, was double-edged as it opened and closed the exhibition season at UCA. Rodgers relied upon her organic and figurative expressionism in search of self-discovery. By year’s end, viewers found a creative force to reckon with. For more on her show, see Hugo Zamorano’s review at https://thereader.com/visual-art/memories-made-of-this.
Lastly, I wrote about Nick Miller’s Zebra with a Sunburn installation at Project Project that it’s always refreshing to see artists work “outside the box”… but when they recreate the box as well, the experience can be transformational. For the viewer, Miller’s wonderful “space oddity” of geometric abstraction distorts at first and then promises a rebirth, a reorientation.
Unwittingly maybe, but perhaps yet another cogent assessment of the year that was.