’81 works’ exhibition at Kiechel marks Jacobshagen’s 81st birthday

by: L. Kent Wolgamott for L Magazine, via the Lincoln Journal Star

With a light blue sky split by bands of clouds, a pink strip just above the horizon, white elevators in the center of the dark division between sky and land that sits low on the canvas, and a foreground covered with groupings of round, dark green trees, tan and green passages of earth and a tiny barn, “Haybarn with Greenwood in the Distance” is a Keith Jacobshagen masterwork.

The centerpiece of the Kiechel Fine Arts exhibition “81 Works by Keith Jacobshagen,” “Haybarn” is the fully realized synthesis of everything that the region’s foremost landscape painter has brought to canvas in his five-decade-plus career.

The clouds are essentially an abstraction. The low horizon line is derived from the view of the earth from airplanes that Jacobshagen experienced flying as boy with his father in Wichita. The details of the landscape are rooted in the drawings that he has regularly made outside Lincoln. And it evokes a sense of place – in this case Greenwood from a distance – even though the image is created from pieces of different locales and times and memory.

“It’s Nebraska, but there’s always a little Kansas, a little kid in it,” Jacobshagen said in a conversation as he walked through the show for the first time.

The exhibition, which marks Jacobshagen’s 81st birthday – hence the 81 works – is made up of seven new paintings along with drawings, watercolors, oils on paper and a few older paintings, some that date back to the early 1980s.

But “81 Works” isn’t a retrospective, nor is it chronologically presented. Rather, it is a “process show,” demonstrating how Jacobshagen works through the drawings that serve as preparatory work to the finished paintings.

The drawings are torn from sketchbooks. Some 5 x 6.5 inches, some 9 x 12 inches. Some are done in pastels, some with graphite alone. Some are brown paper, some on white. Some are simple depictions of the features on a horizon. Some are filled in with colors of skies, trees and ground.

Many are labeled with their precise location, time and atmospheric conditions – e.g. “From N. 134th St. Looking NE 5:00-6:00 87 degrees Light South Winds.”

All are created on drives into the country surrounding Lincoln, their years indistinguishable when viewed as a group. “I think the process of drawing has remained pretty much the same, even going 20, 25 years. No doubt about it,” Jacobshagen said.

When they’re being made, the drawings aren’t intended to be framed under museum glass and shown in a gallery or hung in a collector’s home.

“I don’t think of them as being exhibition material, necessarily,” Jacobshagen said. “But I think as I’ve matured, I began to realize how really important these are and that they’re very much a part of forming a painting. Now, the painting might be two months or two years down the road. But it’s always a pleasant surprise.”

Nor are they done as a template for an entire painting, or even transformed onto canvas at all.

“It (a drawing) can inform something that is a very, very minute thing in the painting in terms of an element, because I go back and look at my drawings all the time,” Jacobshagen said. “I’ve tried not to make drawings with the idea that I’m going to make paintings from them. I think they stay fresher if I just don’t worry about that and just make a drawing.

“And (when looking at drawings) I respond to that material. It’s in front of me and what’s in my head because, often times, that’s also firing memory for me.”

Then comes the painting process that, Jacobshagen said, always starts with a challenge and, hopefully, yields a struggle before the painting is finished.

“I always want the language of the painting to be on the one hand subtle and at the same time dynamic, which just sounds impossible,” he said. “But that’s kind of always what I’m aiming for … I kind of want it to make me struggle. I don’t want to become complacent, even though I’ve been doing this for 40 years. I want to be comfortable, yet every once in a while be uncomfortable.”

Were there uncomfortable moments in the year that he worked on “Haybarn”?

“Yes, many of them.”

Two of the new paintings, “Glimpse of the Havelock Elevator” and “Valley Power & Light” unintentionally share a passage – the tree-lined horizon slants from left to right, then reveals the tiny elevator and power plant of the titles.

That’s the most obvious element in what I told Jacobshagen was his continual painting of “the same thing only different,” finding infinite variety from the subject matter he has mined since he came to Nebraska in 1968.

“I remember some years ago, I told somebody that I’m painting the same painting over and over and over again, with just subtle relationships,” Jacobshagen said. “And I think it kind of feels that way because I don’t intellectualize it until after it’s all done. And then that’s how I began to start thinking about whether I placed forms together in a way that’s interesting.”

“81 Works by Keith Jacobshagen,” which is on view through Nov. 23, also isn’t anything close to a retirement show for Jacobshagen, who was headed out into the country with his pastels on that windy Wednesday afternoon. He has no intention of putting down the brushes anytime soon.

“I’m pretty lucky,” he said. “I’m still pretty healthy, and I’m still excited about what I’m doing. So what’s not to like? I mean, the alternative is not there for me yet.”

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