Metro Arts patrons will find no end to the number of openings each month from a vast array of venues, both familiar…and unfamiliar. If your idea of an art center is Omaha’s Big Three, Joslyn Art Museum, Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts or the Kaneko, you are missing out on dozens of gallery openings nearly every month.
Yet, if you are a patron of only the more mainstream or established galleries such as Modern Arts Midtown, Garden of the Zodiac, Anderson O’Brien, RBR G, Fred Simon, Connect, Cathedral Cultural Center, Artist’s Co-op, Michael Phipps, El Museo Latino or Hot Shops, you may be living in a bubble.
If you have never heard of any of the following alternative venues–let alone patronize them—your appreciation of the Metro arts scene is indeed narrow. Generator Space, Project Project, Petshop, 402 Collective, The Little Gallery, The Union for Contemporary Art, Split, The HideAway, Maple St. Construct, Cali Commons, B Side of Benson Theatre, Artifact and many more like them do their best to burst that bubble, though they too risk creating one of their own. Art need not be a generational thing. If it is only enjoyed by habit, fashion or in-crowd, then the picture is incomplete.
Despite their diversity, what do virtually all of Omaha’s public and privately owned art galleries have in common? Collectively, what do they create that is greater than the sum of their parts? Simply put, they are devoted almost exclusively to Nebraska artists and their work, a composite of which might just give an avid patron an accurate portrait of art in this region.
No venue in the Metro is more committed to this goal than Gallery 1516 whose avowed objective is to “change the dialogue about our community’s artists,” said Patrick Drickey, gallery founder and director. “They aren’t ‘local’ artists but Nebraska artists. It is our mission to showcase the talent and scope of our state’s artists and provide a stage from which they may achieve greater recognition.”
That commitment climaxes every two years with the venue’s Nebraska Artist Biennial, its second edition that opened last month and continues through August 4. Artists in eight categories were awarded $500 each in this juried exhibit along with a Best in Show prize of $2500. In addition, an Artists’ Choice and People’s Choice award of $500 each will be announced at a closing reception, Sunday, Aug. 4.
The Biennial, which G1516 resurrected in 2017 after it folded in the Joslyn Art Museum in 1988, is open to any living artist from Nebraska whether currently living/working here or anyone who lived and worked in the state past or present and living elsewhere. It’s a wide net, but Director Drickey is pleased with the event’s growth thus far, certainly in quantity and value, especially for the artists who enjoy a three-month exhibition priced without commission fees.
“In 2017 we had 64 pieces on view and sold 27 I believe,” Drickey said. “This year we have 99 pieces and have already sold 16 so far and have sales pending for four more. An Omaha based corporation purchased five to add to their collection of Nebraska artists work.”
Drickey said he is also pleased with Biennial 2’s quality, a conclusion that the panel of four judges, Curator Anne Pagel, Linda Rajcevich, former deputy director of Joslyn Art Museum, Russ Erpelding, ARTreach Curator for the Museum of Nebraska Art and John Thein, artist and former Creighton University art professor, would no doubt agree with.
It’s a conclusion hard to argue with if based upon judges’ choices for the “Best” awards as well as the exhibition’s overall degree of polish and execution, particularly with its sampling of Nebraska’s more established artists along with just a smattering of its more emerging ones. It is an impressive and enjoyable array of art, a cut above the Biennial’s inaugural event in 2017.
Yet, is Biennial 2 a complete or even accurate portrait of Nebraska artists past work or present, representing not only themselves but the current “state” of art being created? Has the Biennial squared the circle, as it were, and given us a picture of the best and brightest Nebraska has to offer?
In a word, “almost,” or if you prefer its more positive, less pejorative synonym, “virtually.” But the Biennial is a work in progress for such an undertaking, and B2 has already made a huge improvement with its inclusion of 3D work to the mix. In fact, as fine as the exhibit’s painting, drawing and photography are, with a few exceptions, the mix of sculpture and ceramics dominates this time around.
And while, B2 has grown in numbers and quality, it can be argued that the variety or balance of aesthetic, genre and style has not. The exhibition leans heavily toward the figurative and the representational, landscapes and portraits, realism and the traditional. There is fine work here once again, but there is a dearth of abstraction, surrealism, conceptualism or provocation. Few if any pieces can be called avant-garde or experimental, and there is little evidence of work with socio-political themes.
The latter exists in Nebraska. It’s being shown in venues of all sorts as indicated above, and it’s being created by Nebraska artists at all stages of their careers or education, but many, if not most of these practioners, are absent from B2’s portrait. What then do we surmise for this lack of representation? Was it a matter of judge’s preference, or simply a matter of low entries or interest on the part of some artists who chose not to enter? Or, if they did enter, perhaps the work was not up to par with more traditional work?
Despite the homogenous nature of B2, credit G1516 for requiring that work be viewed and judged blindly to avoid favoritism or preferences–let alone familiarity–with artists or types of art. All that’s left then is for the Biennial to hire judges outside of the region to create a more level playing field.
But it would be a mistake to assume that qualified judges such as these are unable to judge superior artwork of any type. To riff on the axiom, you play (judge) the cards you’re dealt. It’s in the hands of the non-traditional artists to change the dynamic. You can’t add to, let alone finish the portrait, if you don’t participate.
More than 630 pieces were submitted and nearly 100 made the cut. Overall, the show is inviting and will reward multiple visits. There is no way an event of this size and potential can be grasped in one viewing. That said, the judges singled out nine pieces as Best in Category and then further spread the good tidings in the show catalogue with runners-up and honorable mentions. The following may not have been yours or my choices or favorites, but their recognition was earned:
Best Student Work: Mark Sabaliauskas. Somewhat reminiscent of early work by Omaha artist Jeff King and the less controlled work of Kim Darling, this more gestural abstraction—one of only a few in this exhibit—hot, not cool variety, appears to be more spontaneous, as if created in the moment. Favoring a dark rich palette of reds, oranges and purples, perhaps Mark was inspired by a jar or canister of overflowing paint utensils and oil in this pleasing not so still life.
Best Printmaking: Watie White. Bringing his well-deserved reputation in this region as one of its premier artists in several mediums — printmaking arguably his best — White impresses with his precision and detail of this work, “Holy Island: The Nokien.” This piece is among his most abstract as even the most obvious figure, a heron or crane, is nearly lost in the dense imagery of this wetlands scene with lily pads overlapping with other flora rising up to a shoreline of mangrove and thicket, all in hypnotic black and white. White may have more interesting narratives and subjects in his oeuvre, but there is no denying his mastery of the woodcut.
Best Sculpture: Chad Fonfara. Hands down one of the most creative and accomplished works in this exhibit, Fonfara’s mesmerizing wall sculpture, “Fault Lines III” features three blackbirds, part Mother Goose, more so Beatles. Made of sculpted glass and bronze, these virtual museum pieces of lightness and dark, grace and menace, “were only waiting for this moment to be free” even if their flights of fancy were “into the light of a dark black night,” such is the paradox of Fonfara’s imagination.
Best Photography: James Scholz. Though the word “spectacular” is often over-used, Scholz’s large bronze-tinged landscape, “Alone”, successfully captures the spectacle of a billowing plains rainstorm as it looms heavily over the titular figure, presumably a lone rail car, perhaps filled with coal. One wishes that the railcar didn’t split his composition in half, but “Alone’s” worm’s eye view further enhances the vulnerability and inevitable outcome of this narrative. One is tempted to view this ominous scenario as Mother Nature rising up to revenge herself against “clean” coal, but is Scholz really that didactic or political? Instead, enjoy this image for its power and beauty, alone.
Best Mixed Media: Mark Hartman. The title, “Symmetria,” foretells it all with its mix of paint, print and text dominated by its key figure, a print portrait of Albert Einstein. Carefully chosen words such as “complete”, “unity”, and even a lower case “god” are but a prelude to Hartman’s didactic collage best summed up in the just discernible listing of “intellectual, physical, emotional, spiritual.” This is the stuff of enlightenment and perhaps Humanism, but is it great art? “Symmetria” lives up to its premise, but once grasped, its message may linger longer than its tasteful composition.
Best Drawing: Tie between Joseph Broghammer and Gabriella Quiroz. Once one gets over the irony that both artists have drawn essentially the same figure, an owl, one can appreciate the considerably different aesthetic of each drawing and why the judges decided to award each rather than compare “apples and oranges.” Broghammer offers up “Elke House,” in chalk pastel and pencil, figuratively one of his signature birds from his otherwise known “flock of Joe.” That phrase is particularly apt here as this may be the closest thing to a self-portrait in his aviary.
No longer surrounded by his iconography seen normally as an accessory or accomplice to the portrait, this owl is bent over by the weight of what he has to bear in life, flight out of the question: 10 iconic houses embedded in a pale orange bubble that wear heavy on his back and brow, both his burden and perhaps his muse.
Comparisons may not be fair, but unlike Broghammer’s freer-style and lighter touch in tone and point of view, the judges must have been impressed with Quiroz for her precise mark-making and uncanny attention to detail with a color pencil. For a start. Closer look reveals a darker narrative as her owl is nestled quite comfortably against the skull of a toothy predator with the a paper wasp nest in its mouth and another smaller skull at its feet. “Acceptance” is a wonderfully macabre still life and death, exquisitely rendered and aptly titled.
Best Painting: Daniel Bruggeman. There are any number of landscapes in this exhibit – Roberta Barnes’ impressionistic “Autumn Mist”, the expressionism of Shelly Bartek’s “After the Storm” and the more effective photo-realism of Jennifer Homan’s “Violet Canyon Skies.” But Bruggeman’s watercolor and gouache “The Prairie’s Dreaming Sod” was a pleasant surprise and well worth some extended face time. Impressive technique aside, take notice of his deliberate placement of horizon that splits his canvas in two, the fallen bridge section to the left, the distinct distortion of his vignette framing at the bottom of the frame and the preternatural yellow and whitish palette. Not to mention the title’s operative word, “Dreaming.” All of which contributes to the work’s disturbing, yet captivating surrealism. It’s a subtle yet trippy milieu.
Best Ceramics: John Dennison. Known throughout the region for his expressionistic, multi-layered ceramic masks and his functional pottery, “Adagio Black”, is a departure. Not that this large circular plate or platter couldn’t be used as such, but it would obscure Dennison’s lesson in minimalist graphic design highlighted by levels of texture, finish and palette: black, egg shell and white tile gloss geometrics served on an elegant tawny leather matte. Understated elegance, it belongs on a wall.
Best of Show: Jennifer Homan. Photo? Painting? Impossible to tell at any distance, but that alone is not enough to qualify “Violet Canyon Skies” as the best of the best. There is much more to this oil pastel than its photo-realism or technique. All the “best” must exhibit some mastery of their medium and process, it’s de rigueur. It’s the results that matter. And what matters most is the purple mountain majesty of this singular landscape on a rainy afternoon. This year simplicity wins out. So humble is this work one could pass it by easily, despite its title. Stop, spend just a minute in front of it and you will be lost in that brief moment it so artfully captures.
Can a single exhibition ever claim to paint Nebraska’s masterpiece, will “someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody” for this huge undertaking? An unfinished one perhaps, yet, hopefully, Biennial 2 will always be a work in progress. For that reason alone, it deserves participation and recognition every two years by artists and patrons alike.
Biennial 2 continues until Aug. 4 at Gallery 1516 at 1516 Leavenworth St., Omaha. For details and gallery hours, go to gallery1516.org or call (402) 305-1510.