Recently, yours truly had the chance to see a list of all visual art exhibitions and shows that have taken place in the Metro since September of 2014. In the past, the arts community here has boasted a vibrant and active art scene, but for years it has also been fairly easy to argue against that claim.
We were a community of backslapping encouragers who loved to critique each other’s work but never to each other’s faces. We cliqued off, and sadly, many artists who fell through the cracks were relegated to honing their studio practice in relative, accepted solitude away from the general art-going public eye. It was a shame.
New artists are here, new faces are visiting Omaha and yet, for the most part, we continued to show up and support the same handful of the creative class showing the same body of work in Omaha three times a year.
Lately, something seems to be changing. In the last six months there have been over 100 visual art shows in Omaha. That’s an average of over 16 per month. Quantity and frequency aside, the calculable amount of new or returning participants to the scene is growing and the quality of their work is improving.
At the forefront of this trend in the Metro is, no surprise, Benson; and at the center of is Sweatshop Gallery, which has created a hub that other art-related activities in the neighborhood revolve around. Sweatshop is currently hosting an exhibition that is a fine example of this new activity.
Titled deviance teaches: charm will make you sick, it features four artists who, in all honesty, would have most likely never worked together without the curatorial intervention of Alex Priest. Guest curator Priest has been moving in and out of Omaha’s art community lines and unearthing new voices and finding ways to connect them within the existing pool.
For this show, Priest chose artists Angela Drakeford, Carolyn Falkner, Sara Sumnick Wamsat, all of Omaha, and Millee Tibbs of Detroit. All four make very different work: Drakeford’s sculptural blonde braided nooses with pink bows hanging from the ceiling evoke the trappings of being the pretty white girl and the dangers of wanting to be one. Sumnick Wamsat’s dense, food-based compositions create a surreal rabbit-hole of questions about what we consume and how it’s presented to us.
The final two need a little more space in this review. Tibbs brought five photographs to the table, all from the same body of work. They show the same woman, presumably the artist, wearing different horror-themed masks. In four of them grouped together on one wall the figure is bare-chested, the other sits alone on an opposite wall taken after she found her sweater.
These photos, like the rest of the work in the show, present multiple layers for investigation. The photos show one of two possible scenarios: the artist’s presentation of her public self versus the truth, or the risk of a possible negative perception on behalf of the viewer.
Either way, this is a tired vehicle. These photos have been presented all around the globe for a long time, just by other artists. Where these photos are coming from is understandable, the story they tell and the questions they ask are interesting, but as the masks press into the figures’ face and begin to corrupt what lies beneath they still fail to feel authentic.
The true joy of this show is in the fiber-like work of Carolyn Falkner. Each of her pieces is a hyper-meticulous needlepoint portrait of a beloved pet. By allowing the threads to drift off the work and combing them out she creates a completely accurate and surprisingly realistic image that begs to be touched if not for the glass resting atop deep shadow-box frames.
And, what is adhered to this glass takes these works to another level: pressed against the bottom corners of each work is a reference photo used to make the work and a label containing what can only be assumed to be the pet’s names.
The age of the photos, with all their sun-faded, shag carpet glory on full display, tells a slightly more bittersweet tale: these cute, little four legged friends are dead. It’s one thing to enjoy the craft of a talented artist; it’s another to find out that their work comes from pure heartache, and that his name was Sire and her name was Plush.
All of the work in this exhibition deserves extra attention and time. To see it for what it is and to understand that the proverbial 17 seconds spent with each piece would be just scraping the surface. That there happens to be more than just a dozen or more artists making/bringing quality work in/to the Metro is important when visiting this exhibition.
With an odd, small space like Sweatshop Gallery, it would be easy to place four artists in the room and force them to compete or to have one “shouting” louder for attention, but in this case they all hold their own while playing well with the rest of the group. It’s conscious decisions like this, made by curators and gallery operators that will continue to feed this community with exciting new experiences; this show is the amuse-bouche.
deviance teaches: charm will make you sick continues at Sweatshop Gallery in Benson through April 27. For details, go to sweatshopgallery.com.