What I saw at the UNO student art show
The annual juried exhibition of work by arts majors at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) held its closing reception, and awarded prizes to the best artists, on Friday evening, April 14. This also coincided with the first heavy rainstorm of the year; it was a real “gully-warsher,” as they say, complete with copious thunder and hail. The coincidence of the hailstorm and the show’s closing exhibition is entirely irrelevant, I’m sure. Still, it was interesting to be in the gallery, looking at art—usually an entirely cerebral activity—and simultaneously being aware of the truth that, if I were only about two feet away on the other side of the wall which held up the pictures, I would be getting soaked through and possibly bruised by falling pieces of ice hurtled from the sky. Truly, the atmosphere is entirely indifferent to our petty human concerns. Have you ever noticed the difference in scale when even a small thunderstorm is hovering over a city? But I digress.
The show was open to all UNO art majors and did not limit itself to students who were about to graduate; work from sophomores and juniors was shown alongside seniors’ work, which was refreshing in that it allowed art of all kinds, types, and skill levels to be seen together and compared / contrasted in the mind’s eye. Really, the only common thread among all these artworks (besides their provenance as output of the UNO arts program) was their existence, their being-in-the-world (I’m sure there is a fancy German or French philosophical word for that concept; didn’t Heidegger say something about that feeling somewhere?). During the awards presentation, no specific artworks were cited by name; awards were given instead to the artists. I thought this was entirely fitting—how do you judge a specific piece of art, anyway? How do you compare a pen-and-ink drawing, a lithograph, a painting in oils, and a textile work? There are so many varied disciplines, media, and techniques available to the artist; the only fair way to judge such an exhibit is by noting the artist’s skill in general. Also, if certain artworks are singled out for particular merit, a system is established where particular styles or media are promoted above others, and the process can be easily gamed by future exhibitors producing art in what is seen as the judges’ favorite categories. That wouldn’t be good. Instead, by focusing on the skill of the artists, the judges are sending a message of “we really don’t care what you do, as long as you do it well”—which should always be the sentiment of every artist, everywhere, at all times.
Now, on to the artworks.
As is fitting, a wide diversity of media were represented in the show—ceramics, assemblages of found objects, photo collages, watercolors, oils, prints (litho and lino), projections of digital imagery, interactive sculpture, &c., &c. The art students at UNO are an inquisitive bunch, obviously willing to experiment with their craft and work with exotic and unusual materials. One interesting piece was an untitled painting / assemblage by Laine Knowles of four birds done in watercolor on some sort of plastic sheeting—the paint seemed to float above the surface and had a very striking semi-translucent effect. I’m going to have to try that myself sometime.
Another piece I enjoyed was this watercolor by Dylan Clute. I’m not a good painter, and I’ve never been able to master the greens—especially the difficult phthalo dyes. But here, Clute seems to have met with success handling his palette. He doesn’t mix the greens very much; instead, he modulates them with the addition of black. This is a very practical approach, and it makes me want to break out my paints and get practicing.
I also liked this small acrylic by Hayden Johnson. The brushwork is very evident here, especially in the background; it’s reminiscent of Cézanne, and excellently delineates the different layers of space in the painting (apologies for the reflections; the painting was framed and under glass and there was nothing I could do).
Another artist who has evidently been paying attention during art history class is Alyssa Schmitt, whose large painting They Are Not was one of the highlights of the show for me. Schmitt is updating the visual language of painters such as Basquiat, mingling words and numbers, squiggles and patches of pure texture, into her more-or-less figurative composition. The imagery borrows from Chagall, with floating blue suns and bodies of different colors inhabiting a dreamlike ambiguous space—the richness of the colors, also, owes much to Chagall. Picasso famously said that Chagall was “the only painter left who understands what color really is;” but perhaps Schmitt will be Chagall’s heir in that regard? Another work by Schmitt, titled Home No More, reminds me of some of Turner’s works, especially Interior at Petworth, in its evocation of a place which then dissolves into an abstracted exploration of the picture plane. Schmitt’s picture gives hints and glimpses of space and location, teasing us with narrative possibilities yet not easily revealing its secrets—or it could just be a purely two-dimensional composition of colors and forms. Intriguing!
Perhaps my favorite piece in the show was the elaborate and impressively conceived collage Growing Pains, by Kennedy Wallman (the same artist who created the tiger rug from the beginning of this essay). This is a splendid work, full of honesty and boldness, fascinating to the eye and filled with sensitivity and sober-minded reflection. The individual pieces of the collage reference an astoundingly diverse array of images from the last three years of the contemporary American moment, an era which it might be tempting to try and forget. But Wallman doesn’t let us do so—these last few years, painful as they might be, are important for our national consciousness. Whose growing pains is she referencing in the title? America’s? The entire world’s? Her own? (Again, sorry about the reflections.)
I choose to interpret the title as America’s growing pains. And Wallman’s work is remarkable in presenting no overarching narrative or perspective which we are obliged to share—as in Dostoevsky’s novels, there is no normative authorial voice in Growing Pains. It is simply a record of three tumultuous years; as such, it asks us to reflect upon these events and how our own lives were impacted by them. Like a journal or diary, Wallman’s collage collects scraps and memories to be analyzed later. Will they ever make sense to us? Will the early twenties be given a settled interpretation in the history books of generations hence? All we can say for certain right now is that these memories are still too fresh in our minds to have a definite meaning yet. So much happened during the last three years, and as we move away in time from these events, their ideological rough edges (“White Only” T-shirts, public figures wearing masks) become blurrier and harder to define. Slowly, all the differences and ideologies which seemed so certain and crucial fade in importance, and our overall impression is of a time that was just . . . complicated.
Wallman’s focus constantly shifts and darts about in Growing Pains. There are protesters and white nationalists, but there are also crying children and soldiers being laid to rest. There are farm workers hauling bananas and symbols of the American cultural mythos. There are flowers—many, many flowers. Scattered throughout her collage are people who are not Americans; their presence as observers of the American drama indicates to me that the rest of the world is continuing to watch the American experiment with a wary interest. Will America get through its growing pains intact, or will it collapse upon itself? Will the developing nations of the world experience the same growing pains in their future, and what will they learn from America’s conduct during one of the most challenging periods of its recent history?
But as much as I liked Growing Pains, I can’t say unqualifiedly that it was my favorite work at the show because of this little panel by Hana Brock. It’s a perfectly charming painting of a scene which we all have probably seen hundreds of times if we hang out in the built environment enough . . . but which takes an artist’s eye to notice. I like Hana Brock’s picture for its composition and its sense of depth, which draws the viewer in—what is just beyond that right edge of the picture? Is there another building connected to the wire on the left?—but also because it evokes the rundown and worn out side of city life, which can be so easily overlooked but which so often has a stark beauty about it, well worth noticing. This is the sort of scene I like to take photographs of in my walks around the city, so Brock’s painting has a personal connection for me as well.
It was quite a crowded event at UNO’s gallery—I was told that the official count of attendees was over two hundred. That’s four times as many as could fit inside Boston’s Poet’s Theatre in the fifties—and from that matrix was born an entire literary movement. Will the artists represented at UNO’s student show be the nucleus of a new artistic movement of their own? Nothing would make me happier than to see Omaha’s art scene develop even further—but I don’t want that scene to become some sort of “art capital of the world,” like Rome, Paris, or New York. Omaha ought to be cultivating its local scene for the purpose of staying local. It enriches artists to be in each other’s presence, but it deprives local communities when those artists all choose to go off to some art-magnet city and leave their roots behind. I sincerely hope that the artists whose work was on display will choose to stay in Omaha and find sponsors and patrons within the city. Several of the pieces on display had already been bought. That’s a good thing.
If the UNO artists stay in town, they don’t need to generate a new style or movement like New York’s abstract expressionism. The Omaha artists will be fully able to explore their craft and develop their own unique perspective on the world while still making beautiful craft objects, without having to make up new styles along the way (but they can if they want to, of course). There was so much beautiful, thought-provoking, or just plain old cool-to-look-at art on display; much more than I could talk about in this review, and much which I would have liked to hang on my walls. Consider this grouping of very diverse pieces (one woodcarving, one print, one watercolor, and one ceramic sculpture); they blend together quite harmoniously, but any one of them would make a fascinating and pleasant addition to anyone’s collection.
If the UNO artists continue on the path of technical excellence which they have demonstrated they are already on, I am confident that they will be a vital addition to the culture of their city. Will the people of Omaha provide the necessary support, financial and otherwise, which these artists will need?