Art Seen: A Juried Exhibition

Art Seen: A Juried Exhibition of Artists from Omaha to Lincoln was curated by Karin Campbell and Bill Arning at the Joslyn Museum in Omaha, June 21-October 11, 2015.

Note: I saw this show on Sunday, June 21, two days after the opening; this note was written  on June 22 to make a record of impressions had in the gallery at the time. - Robert Mahoney

Art Seen, a juried gathering of over 30 contemporary artists from Omaha and Lincoln, now up at the Joslyn in Omaha, is a solid survey of what is going on in a number of different areas in the arts in Nebraska. The exhibition profits from a robust installation with lots of color, height, movement and open spaces. Things get off to a good start with a "look up!" moment in a tie-straightening formal presentation of various geometric abstractions on paper by Jim Bockelman. All the drawings benefit by almost boxlike framing in white that sharpens the introspection in his search for meaning in abstracted intimacy. Bockelman’s geometries then hand off to a floor-to-ceiling carpet by Mary Zicafoose, whose triple red X’s on fabric are bright and high indeed.  Glass work by Therman Statom picks up (in the next gallery) on this geometricality, to set up a kind of mental space of order overhead.

One gets an inkling that a shift to a gothic tone might be in the air as Joshua Norton’s cutout zombie figure stands vertical up and down the entire next wall. I liked the antique labels and that the zombie was apparently related to lore linked to Lincoln’s Robber’s Cave, but the work itself is entirely illustrative -- it’s appearance not benefiting from a wall any more than from a comic book.

In the space in front of Norton's cutouts are two vertical steel trusses by ceramic artist Jess Benjamin in Towers. The ceramic treatment makes them resemble strange antiquated towers, inspired by Hoover Dam, with revealed intricate inner workings, all of which gives off a faintly Tolkienian air. The overlaying of narrative or reference on abstract forms is an element of a revived need for order in younger art after postmodernism, possibly influenced by the gamer imaginary. For me, this work gave off model-building vibes going back to the Poiriers, Charles Symonds (70s work), and even to Clyde Lynds -- I liked most that their ceramic-ness was the least of it.

Above: Watie White, Therman Statom, Holly Kranker

Above: Watie White, Therman Statom, Holly Kranker

Another large objects placed center stage is Holly Kranker’s enormous white corn cob, which at first view looks like a roadside attraction in that vast section of art country, which might as well be called Oldenburgdingnag. But on reading the artist’s statement, it zeroes you in on the fact that this corn is made of materials used in garbage bags etc., and thus Kranker is making an albeit somewhat pat environmental statement. That said, I always look for the work to speak for itself, so there is somewhat of a disconnect here, as only a hint of that critique is spoken by the work itself. (Benjamin’s work, on review, also had an environmental statement cast over it but, again, the theme is not spoken by either material or form in the gallery.)

The theme of environmentalism or, at least, the notion of living in the agri-industrial environment of Nebraska, is picked up by Sarah Berkeley, in a video from her I Just Work Here series, where she gets all done up in her officewear war paint, then sits with her legs and red high heels up on her desk by her water cooler out in the middle of a devastated, deforested terrain. Berkeley’s work may well be talking about the land but, if so, that land is also intersected by issues of gender in the workplace. There is even an inkling of critique of the fact that most of the “country” folk of a place like Omaha or Lincoln, however much they have internalized agricultural rhythms in their sense of self, are in fact paper pushers, not farmers. The long-duration nature of Berkeley’s performance is critical to her work and lost on short viewing. While Berkeley’s piece here is fine, I’ve seen this piece projected large scale where the tableau-photography aspect of it greatly adds to its absurdist pathos.

Above: Michael Burton

Above: Michael Burton

As installed, Berkeley also has to go up against Michael Burton’s On the Knife’s Edge, and that too is problematic. Standard size TV video presentation, because it more comfortably hosts animation, to the viewer’s eye, tends to take the viewer out of gallery and into sit-down viewer mode. Burton’s video, as video, also happens to steal the exhibition as a whole. It’s a story of a Sioux Indian in wintry duress -- the historical and family nature of the text and story is wonderful, but even more so is the animation itself -- how it appears to be all painted on cels, then slowly dissolves from shot to shot, in a pacing that is grave and involving, with truly beautiful music and moments. It is a terrific animation and maybe the best work of art in the whole show (certainly the party of folks I went through with spent the most time with it -- you can see it on vimeo). 

In the next gallery, Peter Cales’ Ark (2009) tried to buoy up overly impractical arty furniture, a chair with wings too whimsical by far to take flight, though it does at least introduce the theme of dreaminess into the materialism of the art of the area.

Of work I have also seen previously, Josh Johnson’s resituating of a roadside billboard skeleton into some ruderal place beside some highway in his mind, where billboard merges by night vision or heat imprint with bulletin boards remembered from childhood, is again magically weird, placed right on the razor’s edge of his particular Umwelt (sensed surroundings). (Museums being museums however, they did ensnare the work in a taped “do not walk” line on the floor, reinforcing its materiality as work of art, meriting an objective as opposed to subjective appraisal. 

Above: Josh Johnson, Charley Friedman

Above: Josh Johnson, Charley Friedman

The curators gave Lincoln’s Charley Friedman a whole corner and a floor-to-ceiling spread to display (repeating an installation in Miami in January) his Western Code, a graphic alphabet that Friedman has developed. Originally based on marveling to see Yiddish condensed to punch code at the entrance to a mikvah bath in Brooklyn , but which seem (to me) to be letters rising up out of some state of hypnagogy, then morphing into amazing zooms and swerves of letters with such graphic punch they can hold up against any modernist constructivist font out there. The Code cuts its own edges as it scours every which way and all over the wall, and then sprays overall in a way that all but feels like a going-crazy sequence in a movie (I literally saw one viewer spin, taking it all in) -- but then it looks even better. If you cross back, as the far semaphoric backdrop to Johnson’s depleted surreal billboard-bulletin board, from which perspective and distance Friedman’s letters seemed to all but chant.  It’s the best installational corner of the exhibition.

 The “height” of the show, in the sense that the curators seemed determined to reach up to the height of the gallery’s quite high ceiling, is carried on by looking up at 80s-style punkish painter Kim Darling, who takes you from rock bottom to way up top in her large all-over work. (I zoomed through it from bottom right, up the left side, to top right, then parachuted down in.) The piece is by two large canvases with the same aura by Sarah Rowe -- one canvas with a large black eagle emblematic of her half heritage as Native American being particularly impressive, acting as a semaphore, but then which does swoop forward and down at you too with undeniable graphic punch. 

There was also some decent abstractions in other materials by Laurie Kay and others, but they did not seem grabby enough as graphics to command their spaces, or interject themselves into the gallery conversation (for possibly the same reason, I departed my tour having missed a few other abstract painters). The show also had a good amount of purely ceramic and fabric work, but in both cases those disciplines have become so highly specialized I defer from putting my foot in my mouth by commenting, where aesthetic judgments seem so technique-based. Jun Kaneko, for example, with such a dominant downtown Lincoln presence since the installation of his fabulous lighted column last year, I all but passed by without notice -- with modest ceramics, they were red.

But there were two examples of how either materials-based or small-scale work can hold its own against the larger predators. Recent UNL graduate Camille Hawbaker, in work I saw last year at her thesis show, benefits, as Bockelman earlier, by respectful presentation. As shown in a glass case, her tattered and burnt what appear to be pages of ancient manuscripts -- which are in fact fabric (sometimes stitched?) word-based art -- exude a rich aura of authenticity, reinforced by title, Date Unknown (2014) and patina, as you might see an actual page of a Dead Sea Scroll in a case like that.

Aaron Holz has been exploring figural elements floating in a space of indeterminate depth in recent small-scale painting. But here, in addition to two of those works -- in a sort of mini-salon spray of three or four small paintings -- he also has entered in Everyone Knows this is Nowhere (2015), where his descent to wherever it is in that painterly depth he seeks begins to tingle and sparkle into, perhaps, the emergence of a still deeper hypnagogy -- perhaps even the advent of the onset of a whirlpool effect, at which point he has sparked up an array of bright abstract triangular blips or sparks, signals of something about to happen. For a small work, the sudden change of direction to seek somewhat deeper space made the work go zoom. (I witnessed it garner a good deal of attention, proof again that small things can still manage the larger stuff by other artists). 

I tend to look for little curatorial spins of ideas in these large shows, to trace my way and make sense of things. Another little plaintive-nostalgic trace begins with a home video of old times seemingly cast from or through a spinning child’s dress placed four feet in front of the screen by Mo Neal. Then a whole “laundry line” as it were of tiny frayed somewhat creepy children’s dresses by Joy Ude, and finally, a curious little Chinese box of nostalgia by Jaimie Burmeister. In the Chicken Dance, Burmeister has set up one of his rotary toys with figures, in a type of playful material deconstruction of media style going back to East Village days (Greg Barsamian and others in a well-conventionalized genre in art), inside the body of a furniture-style early-60s color tv -- the kind kids used to sit on the floor to watch. As the TV comes to represent TV itself, the Chicken Dance resounds as the anthem of ‘boob tube’ days gone by (it was played often as a joke on the Gong Show). Then the reduction of TV of the variety show quality in the days of Ed Sullivan back to a midway device with a vaudeville chorus line, it’s like a Nam Jun Paik turned inside out, nostalgic retrogressively sucking the media out of media, but fun.  I guess if there was a theme in this later section of the show, it was summed up by Nancy Friedemann-Sanchez’s Self Portrait with Papaya (2013). I saw it the summer before last at the Sheldon read as a work of modern surrealism, but by suspending a wall sconce restrung with a pendulous form of pearls redolent of memory in front of a sheer black lacquer, somewhat glass, darkly reflective surface, it allows the cautious viewer to pass as through a haunted space -- the space between lamp and panel -- creating a little chill just in back of the heat. Oddly, in a work of a body of work I have not seen, Friedemann-Sanchez also put what looks like a chunk of driftwood (if related to other work, Close Enough (2014), then from the Platte River) way up on a high plinth, perched on by a store-bought carved wood bird on the real object -- a confusion of nature and culture that again indicates a kind of haunting and a reminder that some places are just translations of others ever after.

All in all, if I could pick out any broad theme in the show (always all but impossible in juried exhibitions), it is clear that artists in the area are influenced by the material culture of the region -- some seek to comment on the agricultural world so close outside urban centers, a few peel back to a consideration of it all as pure landscape (Keith Jacobshagen was given inclusion, but I can’t say I labored over a longtime favorite of mine this time out), others make art just about the fact that life in daily life seems to be about dealing with things, and art about it should be based on things. It might be said there is a kind of materials-based claustrophobia in heartland art, if one might venture to call it that. This focus also accounts for the fact that more often than not the art is “material culture” based (even when about media) rather than predominantly conceptual (which would explain the odd 70s Americana vibe in a lot of work). 

Also, the same thingness of life in any potential collecting base has tended to favor artists seeking reinforcing support for an art of ideas in an art of craft or technique, and thus the proliferation of fabric, ceramic and other ancillary arts or design. For all of that, a certain vibe of constricted dreaminess also comes up time and time again, burrowing under, not quite making it out, as if formally bespeaking Thoreau’s famous description of modern daily life pervaded by “quiet desperation.”

Finally, in an active scene, everyone is talking to each other and working off each other, creating circulation and critical mass: this exhibition, Art Seen, presents a visual front of togetherness, but the fine print reveals rather a patchwork of practitioners from all sorts of different disciplines, none of whom are talking to each other or even talking the same language, leaving one with the suspicion that the curation as a whole is a bit of prestidigitation. That left me like a hunt dog, then, to instinctively sniff out the path of the “contemporary” (working without a net, as one might say), which I have tried to do here. But it is not easy -- and at the end of my tour I could not help but hear Friedemann-Sanchez’s strange little artificial bird echo in my mind as if chirping an inaudible “where to now?” 

Nancy Friedemann-Sanchez

Nancy Friedemann-Sanchez