Making the ‘A-list’: Best in Art in 2019

Reader recognizes year's most significant art events, exhibits in the Metro


Ed Ruscha (American, b. 1937), “Figure It On Out,” 2007, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 in., Courtesy of the Artist. Photographer: Paul Ruscha

It won’t take a crystal ball, Alexa or a Ouija Board to predict that 2020 will be an eventful year with post impeachment and a pending presidential election looming heavy on the horizon. Yet somewhere amidst all the Sturm und Drang that awaits, each New Year promises personal resolutions and the hope of better things to come at home, at work and even at play.

We can’t promise lower property taxes, Husker football fortunes or a full-service grocery downtown to accommodate the deluge of new rental property…but the Reader can give you something to look forward to  while waiting for miracles to happen via January’s preview of Metro’s music, theater, film and the visual arts.

But before you look ahead at our 2020 vision of the coming contemporary art scene, seen elsewhere at this website, we need to recognize many of these significant events and exhibitions in the Metro in 2019 via Reader’s annual A-list.

From Bemis Center exhibit Inner Ear Vision: Sound as Medium, alligned with its Sound Art + Experimental Music Program.

It was a very eventful year for art in the greater Omaha area, especially perhaps for Omaha’s major non-profit venues. Chris Cook, director of Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, reports he is especially proud of the new track within its international Residency Program designed for artists working in sound, composition, voice and music of all genres.

“The Sound Art + Experimental Music Program offers a new form of support for artists working in an expanding field that frequently goes under-recognized,” Cook said. “Access to free live performances aims to not only build greater appreciation and new audiences for experimental forms of music but also to liberate the artists on stage to take risks and present truly avant-garde work.”

In 2019, Joslyn Art Museum made significant acquisitions to its permanent collection including a major gift by American artist Ed Ruscha of 18 paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture spanning his career. In late spring, Joslyn unveiled five new contemporary acquisitions by American artists Rashid Johnson, Therman Statom, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker and Kehinde Wiley reflecting Joslyn’s commitment to diversifying its holdings of works by women and artists of color.

At the Union for Contemporary Art, Communications Manager Patrick Mainelli cites the venue’s exhibition season featuring five artists of color “who have all circled themes of home, sanctuary and life in a racialized body. The opportunity to continue making a home in North Omaha for ambitious, socially-engaged art like Vanessa German’s and all the artists we worked with in 2019, means everything to us.”

From Biennial 2 at G1516, “The Prairie’s Dreaming Sod,” Best Painting by Daniel Bruggeman,

Gallery 1516 founder Patrick Drickey is also pleased with its exhibition season and its mission to support the careers of Nebraska artists.

 We had four outstanding visual art exhibitions,” Drickey said. “The Biennial brought 750 people to the Member’s Preview and opening night to the gallery resulting in sales of 29 pieces, five of which found their way into the collection of one of Omaha’s premier corporations, bringing the dollar total for artworks sold this year to just under $200,000 with all proceeds going directly to each artist as we do not charge commission fees.”

Peter Fankhauser, program director at Amplify Arts, says its most significant accomplishment this year has been the launching of Alternate Currents whose blog is an online resource that links readers to topical articles, interviews, and critical writing that put a spotlight on artist-led policy platforms, cross-sector partnerships, and artist-driven community change.

But the passing year brought sad news as well for the arts community. 2019 was also eventful for its loss of four individuals who impacted Metro fine arts. The Reader remembers and marks the following:

Judith Welk: For over 40 years, artist Welk produced hundreds of paintings and serigraph prints in her familiar, signature style. The subjects were landscape, portraiture and still life. Her work is a reflection of her love of family, and the people and places in her beloved Dundee neighborhood as well as the family cottage on Green Lake, WI.

Mark Mercer: Artist, businessman and visionary who not only contributed to the building and sustainability of the Old Market through Mercer Management, but whose Old Omaha Association in conjunction with his wife, artist Vera Mercer, supported dozens of artists and exhibits in various venues for decades.

Howard Silberg: Patron and supporter of Opera Omaha, the Omaha Symphony and the Omaha artist community, Silberg was a prominent collector of fine art and a fixture at every exhibit opening at Modern Arts Midtown since 2011 where he served up wine, conversation and his famous, home made biscotti to appreciative viewers.

Sidney Buchanan: The former UNO Art Department Chair passed away Oct. 5, in Santa Anna, California. Buchanan, as a well-known sculptor, mentor and educator, touched the lives of countless students, teachers, artists and patrons as well as family and friends who fondly remember him as “Buzz”.

Tom Sitzman, artist and co-founder of Connect Gallery which enjoyed a seven year run  at its Leavenworth location.

While we are on the subject, the Metro Arts community laments the passing/closing of the Connect Gallery announced recently by owners and artists Tom and Jean Sitzman. After seven years and 73 exhibits of showing only Nebraska artists, this vital and vibrant venue on Leavenworth never quite recovered after being shut down in 2017 for eight months due to UNMC construction and expansion.

Before they too fade into history, the most significant art exhibitions of 2019 deserve their 15 minutes of fame. Though this list that follows is compiled and mostly written by yours truly, several arts writers have influenced and contributed to its making as well as made their own choices as seen below. Of course the A-list is always subjective, which above all references only those exhibits and events written about and/or seen during 2019.

The A-list is divided into two tiers of significance. Separating the top from the second tier may be only a small degree of an exhibit’s unique vision and realization, unity of theme, subject and curatorial strength.

Designed by Warren McArthur Jr. (1885-1961), Manufactured by Warren McArthur Corp., Rome, NY, Sling Seat Lounge Chair, c. 1935; Photo by Michael Koryta and Andrew VanStyn, Director of Acquisitions, Conservation and Photography

First, the second tier in no particular order:

  • Joslyn Art Museum relies on a variety “packaged” art exhibits, but the Art of Seating: 200 Years of American Design may have been its most unique. Functional and sculptural creativity at its best.
  • Bemis Center has two outstanding shows currently on display. TIMESHARE by Jillian Mayer may be less ambitious, but its series of satiric 3D “Slumpies” comment successfully on society and the environment.
  • The Kaneko’s multi-disciplinary Re-Purpose risks a bit less than its entry in the top tier, but its artists, especially locals Jamie Burmeister and Bart Vargas, live up to its premise of recycling and sustainability.

    From the Nebraska 8 Invitational  exhibit at G1516, Catherine Ferguson, “Del Castillo: Floating,” 2018, powder coated galvanized steel
  • True to its mission, Gallery 1516 offered Nebraska 8 Invitational  that welcomed such influential artists as Mary Zicafoose, Christina Narwicz, Karen Kunc, Jacqueline Kluver, Gail Kendall, Sheila Hicks, Catherine Ferguson and Wanda Ewing, who lived up to their calling in this fine exhibit (See writer Carol Dennison’s comments below).
  • Tempestuous Microcosm, by UNO art professor Jave Yoshimoto at the Union for Contemporary Art, was a stimulating exhibit of painting and sculpture even without its socially conscious theme of humanitarian crisis
Inspiration for Angela Drakeford’s Homecoming installation exhibit at The Union for Contemporary Art.
  • U-CA also enjoyed another exhibit at this level, artist Angela Drakeford’s Homecoming, a virtual installation of how her homegrown interior garden provided shelter from a storm of racial trauma.
  • Another non-profit, RBR G, the new kid on the block on Vinton Street, entertained with a week of Ringo Starr’s art of the caricature, but its most effective show was Reflections featuring photo-realism by national artist Jeanette Pasin-Sloan.
From group show Defiant Line at Modern Arts Midtown. “Galileo”, sculpture by Littleton Alston
  • The for-profit galleries also benefitted in 2019, none more so than Modern Arts Midtown which offered thoughtfully curated shows of its stable, best seen in Defiant Line, a pleasing sampler of some of the region’s finest mark-makers in 2D and 3D.
  • After reorganizing and re-emerging in Midtown, Anderson O’Brien also offered two impressive entries in this tier from established artists: first, Horizon Lines was one of the best two-person shows of 2019 as it featured the 2D and 3D aesthetic of Paula Wallace and John Dennison respectively in near perfect compliment.
  • “Untitled 3,” drawing by Christina Narwicz for her exhibit Drawings from the Mind of the Artist at Anderson O’Brien.

     

  • AOB also highlighted the Drawings from the Mind of the Artist from the fertile imagination of gestural abstractionist Christina Narwicz.
  • As a virtual swan song for both gallery and artist, Connect Gallery bid adieu with an impressive retro exhibit of the late, reputable Robert Klein Engler. (See writer Kent Behrens comments below)
  • Garden of the Zodiac Gallery offered several laudable photo art exhibits, but its most visually interesting was the visionary abstraction of Light Laid Asleep/Light Awoken from Hanns Zischler.
  • Michael Elizabeth Johnson, “Trans Boy Jesus,” from their Petshop exhibit, Gay Sex Heaven
  • Alternative venues also grabbed the spotlight in 2019, especially the hard-working Petshop in Benson whose Gay Sex Heaven by interdisciplinary artist Michael Elizabeth Johnson lived up to their show’s premise with its provocative work.
From Biennial 2 exhibit at G1516, “Fault Lines III,” Best Sculpture by Chad Fonfara.

Now, for the top tier, the most significant visual art exhibits of 2019 again in no particular order unless  indicated:

  • G1516 hosted its second Nebraska Biennial while extending its scope with the inclusion of 3D work. While a tad too traditional in style and subject, the work chosen and judged was largely exemplary.
  • Another large group Biennial across town with more attitude and even greater diversity was the collaborative Arte LatinX, OLLAS and El Museo Latino exhibit of self-identified artists, The Voice of Our Roots, which rang loud and clear.
  • Speaking of large group shows of great diversity and inclusion, there was none more significant than the timely and creative 30 Americans featured at Joslyn Art Museum (see writers Hugo Zamorano and Janet Farber critiques below)
  • Untitled, 2018–19, unique picotage on inkjet print with oil stick mounted on museum board, 84 x 60 in., © Paul Anthony Smith. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
  • Joslyn also enjoyed another of 2019’s best exhibits in its Riley CAP Gallery with its experimental “pictoges” of Paul Anthony Smith that celebrate hybrid identities.

 

From Human Condition exhibition  at Kaneko: David Helm, “Exhale,” ceramic, metal, lights and electronic media
  • The Kaneko is no stranger to large group shows of significant art, and its best example of its interdisciplinary mission in 2019 was its take on the Human Condition featuring local artist David Helm amongst notables John Buck, Misha Gordin and Jim Krantz.
  • Bemis Center is currently exhibiting two superior shows of a very different color and scope: TIMESHARE mentioned in Tier Two, and quite to the contrary, Look, it’s daybreak dear, time to sing, proving that social practice art can…and must be…as visually interesting and significant as its issue.

 

“2 Zebras”, 42 x 70 inches, Ink, Paint Marker, Gouache, Newsprint, Enamel on Panel from his solo exhibit at Garden of the Zodiac Gallery
  • Another major downtown gallery, Garden of the Zodiac, spent much of the year exhibiting interesting variations on photo art, but its most significant exhibit was also one of the year’s best solo shows in any medium, the universal sign paintings of emerging artist Jeff Sedrel.

 

Shawnequa Linder, “Awakening” 2019, Acrylic on canvas
  • In fact, in the top tier of the A-list, several of 2019’s most significant solo shows were created either by emerging or out of the mainstream artists, including: The Little Gallery exhibit of Remixing by Shawnequa Linder, one of Metro’s most gifted post-emerging artists;

 

From his solo Petshop exhibit Unite Us One Barber’s “I SEE myself in U, Nature”
  • Next, Unite Us One at Petshop Gallery by 2019’s most prolific artist, Barber, who consistently lived up to his mission in several venues;
  • And, in Blemished, true to Project Project’s alt calling, Lauren Scheele, an underrated star of Biennial 2, created life-like erotic, flawed and vulnerable sculpture in one of the year’s best exhibits of any kind.
  • Two additional superior solos came from more established artists, one local, the other national: The Lied Gallery at Creighton University offered the year’s biggest stretch in photo art with Michael Flecky, S.J. and his Spirited Space: Figure and Form;

 

From her solo exhibit Sometimes.cannot.be.with. our. bodies at U-CA, a thumbnail of Vanessa German’s installation.
  • And U-CA welcomed the reputable Vanessa German and her exhibit, Sometimes. we.cannot.be.with.our.bodies on behalf of marginalized people everywhere.
  • Not all the best were solo efforts. For Generator Space on Vinton, its best effort came in threes, this one a trio of artists who created the wonderfully odd and estimable OOOze which “examined’ the impact of drastic plastic by artists Barber, curator Angie Seykora and Adam Roberts (See writer Jonathan Orozco’s comment below)

Along with the above several staff arts writers add their voice to the above with comments about the year’s best in art:

From his retro exhibit at Connect Gallery, Robert Klein Engler, Untitled, 2018, oil on canvas

Kent Behrens: This past February, Connect Gallery brought us a retrospective of works by the late Robert Klein Engler, who passed away in late 2018. A prolific artist, writer, poet, and teacher, his quiet, unassuming demeanor belied the erudite narrative in his visual art as it did in his writing. Engler’s colorful paintings always seem accessible and genuine, possessing a surface naiveté that often obscured a deeper socio-political or cultural analysis and commentary. A bittersweet exhibition featuring quite a large collection of his visual works.

Barkley L. Hendricks, “Noir,” 1978, oil and acrylic on canvas, Courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection, Miami. Photo by Chi Lam.

Janet Farber: Exhibitions of important contemporary work by nationally recognized artists are always a treat, and 30 Americans: An Exhibition from the Rubell Family Collection at Joslyn Art Museum last spring was no exception. A broad and sweeping show of 40 years of largely narrative art by African American artists, it was visually arresting and widely informative on a range of issues touching on race, identity and culture. Works were included that have rarely had a regional platform and it is pleasing to see the museum follow up with related additions to its collection.

From exhibit OOOze at Generator Space, “Flesh II, wall sculpture by Angie Seykora

Jonathan Orozco: OOOze at the Generator Space stands as one of the most significant shows in Omaha this year. Angie Seykora, who curated the show, mixed eco-friendly anarchist consciousness with formalist concerns, focusing on the climate crisis that could potentially destroy the opportunity for organized human life by the end of the century. The focus of the show, microplastics and its effects on the human body, is reflected in Seykora’s, Adam Roberts’s, and Barber’s work, who all used found plastics as materials. As serious as Seykora’s thematic approach is, the works are visually pleasing to the eye and easy to engage with.

Wangechi Mutu, “Non je ne regrette rien,” 2007, ink, acrylic, glitter, cloth, paper collage, plastic, plant material, and mix media on Mylar, Courtesy of the Rubell Family Collection, Miami. Photo by Chi Lam.

Hugo Zamorano: In my opinion and memory, 30 Americans was the best show of 2019.  It had quality work and was diverse in mediums showing painting, drawing, sculpture, and installation. 30 Americans encompassed a narrative about social and political issues in America, specifically how they affect Black Americans. Works such Kehinde Wiley’s “Sleep” consumed the viewer in its 132×300 inches of paint and pattern. Seeing a Basquiat in person is always a breath of fresh air since his style is always being imitated.

From exhibit Nebraska 8 Invitational at G1516, Jacqueline Kluver, “Overture,” 2018, acrylic on canvas

Carol Dennison: In January this year, Nebraska 8 Invitational at Gallery 1516 gathered recognized women artists from Nebraska for a show of mostly large-scale works in painting, tapestry, printmaking, and pottery. I was captured by the vibrant color, the energy of pattern and line, and the warmth that enveloped the space. Karen Drickey of 1516 demonstrated her perfect eye for hanging a show to its best effect. These exceptional women—Mary Zicafoose, Christina Narwicz, Sheila Hicks, Jacqueline Kluver, Gail Kendall, Karen Kunc, Wanda Ewing and Catherine Ferguson—kindle pride in the hearts of Nebraskans.

There you have it. If you viewed many or even most of these exhibits, than you saw much of what the Metro had to offer by way of significant contemporary art in 2019. If not, you can browse the art link at this website for reviews of several of the exhibits with images. And be sure to look for Reader’s preview of art in 2020 written by Janet Farber so that art can share its rightful place in social media during what promises to be a most eventful year.


Category: Art

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