Sorry, College World Series. You’ve captured the headlines and the heart of the Metro for two thrilling weeks in June, but the “Greatest Show on Dirt”? That belongs to Mother Nature.
For centuries, artists have been compelled to interpret the vistas found in local lands and far-flung places. Coastlines, mountain ranges, open valleys, meandering paths—all have provided fascination for those inspired by the earth. And approaches can range from the prosaic to the idyllic to the sublime, from the scientifically detailed to the evocatively abstract.
In the big sky country of nearly every state with flat, sweeping plains, you’ll find artists mesmerized by the light show created by the view above. Whether it’s azure blue heavens dotted with pillowy clouds, skies heavy with threatening storms or the blazing hues of sunset, nature provides an ever-changing array of visual delights.
Pastel artist Jennifer Homan counts among the above, and an exhibition of recent landscapes, Nebraska, Land and Sky, brings the seasonal skies near Kearney to Modern Arts Midtown where they can be enjoyed through June 26.
This show features 28 compositions emphasizing the low Nebraska horizon dominated by atmospheric conditions. Most of the views are clearly those from the driver’s seat, as Homan treks along the highways and rural roads near her home. These thoroughfares are often a prominent foreground feature, providing a simple path to determining the compositional vanishing point.
They also are a source of illumination, as Homan favors darkening skies, and the lamps of oncoming traffic or reflections of headlights on rain-slickened roads or road signs provide scale and brighten her paintings’ fore- and middle grounds.
In the distances, Homan traces the forms of farmsteads, tree lines, and water towers—those small vertical punctuations into the otherwise expansive landscape. The glow of light from a barn, a train or a distant city contrasts with the melting night overhead. Her renderings are selective, beginning with any of the thousands of cell phone photographs she takes, editing to create the most effective scene that retains its truth to the viewer.
The paintings in the exhibition reveal the artist’s preference for certain atmospheric conditions. Twilight is a favorite, whether featuring threads of red/orange sunsets against indigo night skies, those lavender and blue colors in the gloaming, or the last rays of the day through an overcast ceiling. Thick banks of cloud cover also appear in many works, particularly in her nearly black and white pastels where the reduced palette emphasizes the formations’ sculptural masses.
As significant as the content of Homan’s compositions is her current choice of a square format. This opens up the image to emphasizing the act of looking up against our custom of scanning across the landscape. The painted panels are framed edge to edge in simple white wood—a cleanliness of presentation that adds to the clarity of the imagery.
It’s also worth repeating that Homan’s medium is pastel. Some of the earlier paintings in the show are more typical illustrations of the use of these pigmented sticks, in which drawing technique and range of bright color are emphasized. The larger square format compositions that are her newest pictures take advantage of the blending possible with pastel and result in more plausibly luminous representations. In fact, framed under glass, the works appear at a distance to be photographs.
Frankly, it’s hard to look at any exhibition of Nebraska’s flat plains and scudding clouds without thinking of the reigning dean of its landscape, Keith Jacobshagen. This Lincoln-based painter has been a longtime observer of the environment around him, roaming the metro’s familiar rural roads and highways.
In the manner of pre-photographic artist-explorers, Jacobshagen also journals and sketches the view, from the roof of his pickup truck. Back in the studio, they are translated into pristine paintings emphasizing a low horizon dotted by farmsteads and big, alluring skies. It’s difficult to feel that Homan’s paintings aren’t indebted in some fashion to Jacobshagen’s approach, in addition to their shared communion with the Nebraska countryside.
In his south galleries, MAM director Larry Roots has also mined his stable of artists to offer comparative approaches to the landscape by other Nebraskans. Focusing more on the rural industrial landscape, with its buildings and equipment, are precisionist painter Edwin Carter Weitz and large-format photographer John Spence.
In what might be called lyrical abstraction, Stephen Dinsmore’s landscapes emphasize filtered light and broad brushwork. The seldom-seen pastels and paintings of Nebraska City artist Don Williams also depict the conjunctions of interstate and nature. Equally on point are the urban dark-sky paintings of Kansas City artist Jane Pronko, where the reflections of street lamps, auto head and tail lights against wet pavement illuminate city sunsets.
In her artist statement, Homan says “it is my calling to visually preserve the present state of our land by pointing out the beauty in the ordinary.” Her works remind us to keep an appreciative eye on the world through the window, out the door and away from the screen, because day for day, nature is the best show in town.
Nebraska, Land and Sky continues until June 26 at Modern Arts Midtown, 3615 Dodge St, Omaha. For details, go to modernartsmidtown.com.