At Kiechel Fine Art: “Hal Holoun: Farewell Exhibition 1.0” non-traditional retrospective of work by Nebraska master artist

By Kent Wolgamott, Lincoln Journal Star

“Hal Holoun: Farewell Exhibition 1.0” is not a traditional find-all-the-best-works retrospective. Nor, given Holoun’s artistic nature, could it be.

“I don’t fit the mold of the artist who’s wanting or trying to be ‘important,’’’ he wrote in an April 2013 letter to Linda Welsch, which she included in her 2017 book ‘Hal Holoun on Oil Painting: Living an Artist’s Life.’ “One of my gallery owners kept pushing me to get museum shows, and pare my work down into two or three major themes. I told her at the time this isn’t why I was painting.

“I don’t keep records of where my paintings have gone. In fact, Creighton U. offered me a retrospective a few years ago and I told them I don’t have a clue as to where my paintings are sited. Nor do I care. When I do die, those works will all come pouring out of the various corners and woodworks, and maybe some grad student can do a paper on that.”

So the paintings, drawings and lithographs in the show were drawn from the artist’s archives, the holdings of Kiechel Fine Art, and include several 2023 works by the now 84-year-old artist.

A farm boy from Ord who went to Hastings College on an athletic scholarship and switched to fine art, Holoun got a master’s degree — and really learned to paint — at the University of Wyoming. He did some time in the military and wandered the country before settling in Grand Island, where he worked at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer before taking the leap to become a full-time artist in 1980.

While wisely not hung chronologically, the Kiechel exhibition traces the evolution of Holoun’s art from Hastings College, represented by “Nude Study,” a 1960 hazy side view of a nude woman against a background of loosely painted background that, minus the figure, could stand as an abstract expressionist piece.

A black-and-white drawing of a cow “Skull” from the 1970s and “Goya 1,” a ‘60s-’70s lithograph of four horses, show Holoun’s pre-landscape work, as do the semi-nude dancer of 1970s “Eos Rising” and the woman standing on a promontory of 1974’s “Sweet Georgia.”

A trio of small paintings – the total precisionist abstraction of 1970s “Laundromat” along with a 1967 Wayne Thiebaud-like study for that piece that includes small figures of Holoun and his wife Mary, and “Restaurant II,” also from 1967, that has the head and shoulders of four figures, including a football player inside a precisionist depiction of the restaurant – show Holoun working his way through another artistic style.

And “B-M Bar,” a 1980 cityscape that focuses on the bar with a pickup and car parked in front, reflects the work that he was doing while working at the Grand Island museum. That approach is also informatively echoed more than 40 years later in “Near Dakota City (Variation II)” from last year, a winter night view from above a house and surrounding buildings “lit” by a street light.

As for the landscapes for which Holoun is best known, the exhibition again shows something of the evolution of his views, mostly of the Loup and North Loup Rivers to which he has repeatedly returned.

The exhibition includes, among many others, a small 1970 traditional landscape of a stand of trees sloping down a hill that feels preliminary to his ever larger, more dense interpretations of the Loup, often relatively tight spaces of river, banks, trees, foliage and sky.

The gathering of the landscapes, from the ‘70s and ‘80s to last year, also shows how Holoun’s techniques and to some degree imagery have echoed through the decades.

In 2008, for example, Holoun returned to his roots with a suite of abstract paintings that were based on reflections off water. But, as in “Afternoon Study, Fremont Lakes,” those paintings contained few distinct references.

Fast forward to 2023’s “Homage to Thela” and the reflections return, this time more distinct – the sun reflecting off the water in the foreground of the large sunset scene with yellows, oranges and purples in the sky above darker passages below.

Throughout the exhibition, particularly in the 21st century works, Holoun’s mastery of color jumps out. He mixes his own paint, finding shades that don’t come out of tubes or aren’t easily combined on the palette. Those colors attract and hold the eye. So does his rendering of clouds, which have a billowy naturalness but also contain an abstract quality.

The latter separates Holoun’s landscapes from photorealism or, in fact, reproduction in any form. These are landscapes seen and interpreted by a painter who is using the subject to create a composition of color, light and pigment, not take a “picture” of the valley, field or sky.

And those landscapes are resonant works in what might well be the final opportunity to see a full exhibition by one of the true masters of Nebraska art of the last half-century.

“Hal Holoun: Farewell Exhibition 1.0” is on view at Kiechel Fine Art, 1208 O St. through Feb. 16.