Entering the RNG Gallery to view this year’s exhibition of nominees in the visual arts categories of the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards, one cannot help but be struck by the quirky diversity of objects populating the space.
Looming in one’s line of sight is a very large metal helmet from Littleton Alston’s “Hannibal” show, a complicated psychological and formal response to the ancient Carthaginian warrior with a contested racial identity who is known for successfully resisting the Roman Empire. Near the helmet is an even larger metal, weapon-like object by Paul Konchagulian, and between the two is a cluster of pedestals with smaller works such as one of Bart Vargas’s computer-key creations.
Finally, clinging to the wall on the other side of the gallery is a huge insect sculpture by the highly inventive Jar Schepers. Many of Schepers’ works sit somewhere on the spectrum between Marcel Duchamp and Martin Puryear in their use of natural or left-over materials to create objects that are simultaneously biomorphic and mechanical, detritus of some species of creature other than our own.
Perhaps because of my own phobias, this massive bug did not accomplish what its title, “Revelatory Catharsis,” holds out as a possibility. It does, however, suggest the experimentation that has brought Schepers three OEAA nominations, in the Best Visual Artist, Best Emerging Visual Artist, and Best Visual Solo Show categories.
Steve Tamayo is another artist who is well-represented in this show, with four pieces. He draws on his Sicagu Lakota identity to create assemblages of feathers, buffalo hide, and other materials that are ethnographic but also oddly abstract, Native American iconography serving him as a pathway to visual experimentation.
Tamayo also garnered multiple nominations, in the Best Visual Artist, Best 3D Visual Artist, and Best Two-Person Visual Art Show categories. He shares the last of these with Paul High Horse, an artist to watch in the years to come. (Full disclosure: I helped to organize “We’re Still Standing Here,” the show for which Tamayo and High Horse are nominated.)
One of the nominees in the Best Group Visual Art Show category is “All the Rage: Fashion Provocations,” which appeared at the RNG Gallery in the spring of 2014. The three artists from that show—Eliska Morsel Greenspoon, Eddith Buis, and Bonnie O’Connell—are effectively represented here by one piece each.
Hanging together on the far wall of the gallery and resonating with each other much more intimately than their large neighbors, these works push against the boundaries of medium, utilizing everyday materials such as sawdust and magazine illustrations to create wall-hung, sculptural pieces that ask questions about beauty, the body, and what we choose to value about each other. O’Connell’s alluring multi-media construct “Adoration of the Cuban Heel” is one of the highlights of this show.
One category that truly exemplifies the vitality and innovation of Omaha’s art scene is public art. Given its site-specific nature, this category is not easy to capture in a gallery show, although a photograph and an artist’s statement recount the process of community conversation that went into one of the nominees in this category, a mural on South 13th Street that draws on the rich history of the neighborhood.
Another public art project that was one of the highlights of 2014 is Watie White’s “All that ever was, always is,” his latest collaboration with Habitat for Humanity aimed at bringing an abandoned property back to life by filling it with images based on documents and research into the building, its community, and its past inhabitants.
There are too many other artists in this show to mention all of them by name, but suffice it to say that many elaborate on this theme of adventurousness in terms of medium to stretch the boundaries of personal expression.
Sometimes this theme is pursued with great delicacy, as in the piece “Guitar” by Riccardo Marchio, who shares with Mike Giron a nomination in the Best Two-Person Visual Art Show category. “Guitar” is not just a representation but the realization of its title, a seemingly playable object fabricated from six different types of wood.
From the cartoonish humor of Sarah Rowe’s “Pink Buffalo” to the fine brushwork of James Freeman’s “Lake and Mist,” the ingenuity on display in this show generate enthusiasm for the next year of great shows.
The Omaha Arts and Entertainment Awards will be presented on February 15 at a ceremony taking place at the Doubletree Hotel, 1616 Dodge Street, at 7 p.m.