All artists have an origin story—the things that lit their creative spark, paths of education and experience, formation of their POV and style. For some, it is just backstory, biographical details that do not obviously inform the work for the viewer.
For others, personal narrative is blended on the palette into the context of every composition. So it is for Bob Culver, whose exhibition Stories: Mine, Theirs & Ours of current and retrospective work opened at Modern Arts Midtown on October 6.
As the show title indicates, Culver is sharing his brand of visual storytelling, a delightful blend of studied portraiture and playful fiction. His subjects include himself, family and friends, and a host of heroes from a cultural milieu ranging from local leaders to pop icons.
Culver’s artistic backstory, as outlined in the catalogue accompanying the show, is rich and charmed. An arts camp at UNL interested a small-town Nebraska teen, who later enrolled in its BFA program. A pair of summer residencies featured leading figurative painters Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein and Wayne Thiebaud. A visiting artist from New York—the charismatic and satiric painter Red Grooms—led to a formative stint as a studio assistant at the moment in the art world when Pop Art was king.
After a few years, Culver made his way back to UNL to finish his degree and went on to start his own ad and marketing agency. This road took him down a different path of endeavor in the realm of leadership development. Passion for the arts took the form of patronage and board service, with some plein air landscape painting on the side.
In 2013, Culver retired full-time to the studio with pent-up energy, the results of which are the main focus of this show. It features 15 paintings and a selection of 17 earlier drawings and small paintings. For Culver, the exhibition culminates a kind of reawakening of his visual expression, and for the public, little acquainted with this aspect of the community leader, a fresh discovery.
Pop Art’s lasting influence has been to free artists to reach deep into folk art, comic books, Hollywood, media and consumer culture for subjects worthy of elevation or satire. Culver grew up with a love for cartoons and TV serials featuring an array of larger-than-life heroes, who found a home in his work.
He also loved the license to create dimensional paintings that extended beyond the plane of the canvas with which Culver and other artists in the 1960s and ‘70s experimented. Grooms in particular was the leader of a nearly assemblage-style painting in deep relief, the developer of so-called sculpto-pictoramas, which were large-scale painted constructions.
These aesthetics are encapsulated in Culver’s works such as “All of my Heroes Have Been Cowboys: Portrait of Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger”. Complete with silver bullet and detachable mask, Moore’s visage floats in the clouds surrounded by a halo of silver stars, smiling on us from Good Guy heaven.
Sometimes Culver incorporates characters into fabulist narratives, as in the road trip imagined in “NE Kid forms a coalition to save the day while driving across a proverbial Nebraska landscape”, in which the artist drives a ’57 Chevy with Gandhi, Mighty Mouse, Beanie and Cecil, and Felix the Cat. Here they come to save the day.
“Nebraska Kid”, it should be noted, is the artist’s alter ego, based on a nickname bestowed by Grooms. We see it fleshed out in Culver’s cosplay as “Gary Cooper in High Noon,” and in the duded-up portrait of he and wife, Debra Reilly, in “Bob and Debra’s Other Story,” which portrays the “country mouse” version of this cosmopolitan couple.
Despite the nostalgic overlay, Culver’s setups are not just fun and games. “The Kid and the Sailor go to Washington to Round Up Bad Guys” features our protagonist on horseback, wielding a lasso while galloping across the front lawn of the White House. Popeye is there to add extra muscle. The cartoonlike artwork is also a functioning automaton, operated by a hand crank.
If elements of social commentary in “Roundin’ Up” seems too subtle, then look to the large scale sculpto-pictorama that is “Minimal Collateral Damage.” Fighter jets loaded with missiles strafe downtown Omaha. It’s Culver’s effort to underscore the terrors of our current wars by bringing them to our doorstep.
Other stories that Culver tells are close to home as well, delineated in portraits he creates of familiar figures in the Omaha arts and philanthropic landscape. He prefers to think of these as “emotional portraits” rather than images that shorthand biographic details.
Take “Susie’s Story,” depicting Susie Buffett, the founder and spirit behind the prominent social justice Sherwood Foundation. It begins as a formal seated portrait, but quickly develops into something richly endowed with symbolism and dimension. Details are charged with meaning specific to the sitter, from the flowers in her headband to her ruby red slippers.
The background is an homage to Sherwood Forest and the visual style of NC Wyeth, whose illustrations of the Robin Hood tales became classics. The compositions is also far from static, not something often said of portraiture: back, middle and foreground are all separate sections painted on shaped MDF panels, and assembled into a continuously read image.
Though life portraits are something of a collaboration between artist and subject, Culver and sculptor Catherine Ferguson quickly determined they wanted to work on her portrait as a true partnership. The result is a sculpture that summarizes Ferguson’s wide-ranging oeuvre. This portrait reads at first like a chess piece—a queen, of course—until you realize that the pedestal atop which the image of her head sits references her set designs for Opera Omaha’s Aida.
Similarly, the gold wings relate to her “Live Canaries” installation at Creighton, her “crown” is derived from drawings and willow twigs from female torso sculptures. Inscribed verses are Ferguson’s own haiku, in her hand.
Culver’s artworks limn stories that meld observation and commentary, recollection and personal relationships, origins and adaptations. They are curious and fascinating without being superficial in tone, detail or dimension. They invite you to continue to tune into the next adventure of the Nebraska Kid.
Stories: Mine, Theirs & Ours—new work by Bob Culver opened on Friday, October 6 and continues through November 24 at Modern Arts Midtown, 3615 Dodge Street. For further information, contact 402/502-8737 or visit www.modernartsmidtown.com