RSVP/MONA: Contemporary Art Invitational

May 17 – August 31, 2008 —

In its third installment, RSVP/MONA: Contemporary Art Invitational, on viewat the Museum of Nebraska Art, once again brings together both diverse and engaging artwork created by accomplished artists at various stages in their careers. First conceived as an invitational exhibition of Nebraska-based artists, this year’s RSVP/MONA now looks toward “expatriates” – those who hailed from Nebraska at some point in their career or lives and have gone on to make an impact in the art world regionally, nationally, and internationally. As in the two previous RSVP/MONAs, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue present established and burgeoning styles and trends with this group of 27 contemporary artists working in media ranging from painting to video.

At first glance, history and geography alone simply tie the artists together, yet definitive connections can be found throughout the works. Of course the artists and artworks were all selected for the exhibition so there obviously was curatorial thought, but a great effort was made to emphasize diversity in styles and subject matter. Nonetheless, when seeking artists that fit the criterion (“ex-pats”), it was apparent that, quite noticeably, there was a lack of figures or even allusions to the human figure and a greater concentration on land, space, and scale. While this could easily be dismissed as incidental, it can’t help but be asked how life on the Plains, albeit of short or long duration, influences artists and their work and perspective.

The population of Nebraska is sparse and the sky that comes to meet the land is vast – as anyone on the Plains knows. One mile outside of a city or town (if the town even exceeds a mile), the horizon is clear and cut and seems to go on and on. Pieces by artists Larry Schulte, Barbara Takenaga, and Joan Waltemath specifically investigate space and order – abstract geometric and organic forms on a flat two-dimensional plane and appear to be snippets of an on-going, further pattern, a portion of something larger. It is an allusion towards infinity which, in turn, can be analogous to the great Nebraska skies they grew up under and that can dwarf everything else.

Scale also has to be influenced by living with this sense of limitless space. Such examples areAngel Cascade, a large fiber piece by Sheila Hicks that hangs from above with falling tendrils; the abstract, commanding, and beautifully gestural painting by Dona Nelson where the brushstrokes and use of pigment are larger than life; and the large-for-its-medium wood-turned vessel by Steve Sinner. Another example is the seven-foot Q-Tips by Charley Friedman. Although the work leans very much more towards humor, a conscious choice with the q-tips, even if funny, was made to have these objects (these dirty, used objects) make a statement. Size is important.

The land and all that is within makes a strong presence with this group of artworks. Marcia Goldenstein, Lawrence McFarland, Harry Orlyk, Robyn O’Neil, Tom Riesing, Charles Timm-Ballard, and Maggie Tobin all investigate earth, animal, tree, or sky in a realist and semi-realist aspect. This would be the most apparent tribute to time spent within a massive scape, yet each artist has tweaked his or her perspective of the land and alludes to and focuses on it in varying ways. In particular, Robyn O’Neil veers away from the pack with her large-scale drawing of an appearing/disappearing horse in A Disharmony where she incorporates flora and fauna as objects in a greater body of work that has an apocalyptic narrative.

When figures are utilized in the artwork, they are highly personal. Stories are shared, such asHome #3 by Aaron Hraba, a biographical short film that recounts the artist’s visit to a place where broken ties and relationships occurred and he is attempting to revisit and offer reconciliation and reconnection. Edgar Jerins’ drawing of Daina and Doyle at Home with Anita’s Children is a depiction of the artist’s cousin, Daina, and her now non-traditional family that has had to adapt to the circumstances of a troubled sister and the eventual raising of her children. Finally, in Jessie Gifford’s Autobiography, the artist shares fragmented thoughts and experiences of her life through text, print, and photo and includes the tragic account of the death of her brother in a mental facility. Did life on the Plains have an influence on these intensely personal uses of the figure? Much as two of the characters in Kent Haruf’sPlainsong, a novel that concentrates on life in western Nebraska and eastern Colorado, Raymond and Harold McPheron are two elderly brothers who “…live a simple, hardscrabble life where they know no one so well as each other and their livestock and oh, the skies of the Eastern Plains of Holt, Colorado,” the artists utilizing figures also have an extreme focus. Quite possibly the isolation that is often felt in this modestly populated state and the societal limitations that can sometimes accompany this dynamic could cause an intense and concentrated focus on self and those directly around.

Within this exhibition, there are other works that do not necessarily fit into any of the above categories, such as Fred Otnes’ elegant collage Mirifici, Rebecca Sittler Schrock’sphotograph The Touch, or Garth Johnson’s ceramic, blinged-out vessel Pain/Free.Nonetheless, each work in this exhibition emphasizes beauty and craftsmanship, and the fascinating aspect of such a conglomeration is the dissimilarity alongside the similarities.

Other artists represented in the exhibition are Kate Bingman-Burt, Don Christensen, Myron Heise, Rudy Pozzatti, Jacquie Stevens, Lynn Veitzer, and Tad Lauritzen Wright.

RSVP/MONA: Contemporary Art Invitational is a collection of artwork that challenges, amuses, entertains, and provides pleasure with the knowledge that each artist is tethered together, somehow, by this land. The group of works serves as a reminder that some of the most interesting, innovative, and desirable artwork created in our lifetime has found some type of genesis within this state and has made an indelible mark. While artists currently working in Nebraska are accomplishing the same, this exhibition is an example of how far the reach of the Nebraska experience extends.