Kiechel exhibition asks ‘What is Landscape?’

What do Aaron Holz’s dynamic, flag-covered abstraction “Turtle Island 1-22”; “Solstice,” Jenny Kruger’s painting of a barn with the sky filled with flowers, birds and vines; Keith Jacobshagen’s “Valley Power & Light”; and Eddie Dominguez’s “Nebraska Landscape Tile” have in common?

Beyond the fact that they’re all Nebraska-based artists, the answer to that query raises the central inquiry of the current exhibition at Kiechel Fine Art – “What is landscape?”

The gallery answers – or doesn’t – by showing about three dozen works from its holdings – some classic views of trees, hills, roads, horizon lines and skies, a few urban views and some abstract and minimalist works.

And it does so in multiple media – from painting to Dominquez’s ceramics, photography, etchings and digital prints.

The most surprising piece in the show, and the object that gives greatest life to its broad definition of landscape, is Alexander Calder’s “Untitled – Black and White with Striated BG.”

The 1967 ink-on-paper from the acclaimed mobile maker depicts a smiling sun and quarter moon over a field of black stripes. Is it a landscape? Read the lines as an aerial view of fields and, sure, it is. But viewed outside the exhibition’s context – let’s just say I’d have never called it a landscape.

Calder is just one of the “big names” in the exhibition – the others being regionalists, Kiechel’s specialty. Those works include a pair of gems – Grant Wood’s 1926 painting of “The Young Artist” sitting with his canvases under a tree, looking down into a valley that stretches out into the distance; and Thomas Hart Benton’s 1960 “Buffalo River,” a watercolor and pastel that looks early 20th century modernist.

The exhibition’s oldest piece is, appropriately, near classical – a “Hudson River School Landscape.” Undated, with no identified artist, the painting is clearly from the 19th century school that presented idealized romantic visions of the Hudson River Valley and environs at the beginnings of westward expansion.

That landscape is, in fact, no more “real” than Kruger’s barn, Holz’s abstraction, Terence Duren’s undersea ’40s sci-fi fantasy or Merrill Maffhey’s “High Mesa,” which has a faint depiction of a landscape under a stack of lines, inserting some “figuration” into a classic mid-’70s minimalist piece.

That unavoidable deception continues across media – with, for example, Michael Burton’s digital print removing much of the detail from its view of a barn, and, hanging next to it, Birger Sandzen’s 1939 deeply carved, black-and-white linocut “River Sunset.”

Throw in Chloe Iossi’s “Embittered Experience,” a reversed view of a Shell station that brings to mind Ed Rusha’s “Standard Station” given a contemporary, brightly colored, worn-out twist, and the notion of landscape takes yet another turn.

All of this could well be over-intellectualizing things. The exhibition, as does any show, also functions as a means to consider individual works regardless of theme and, when multiple pieces by the same artist are included, provide a look at either an artist’s development or sample of a body of work.

That’s particularly the case for Jacobshagen, the region’s foremost landscape painter.

With the aforementioned “Valley Power & Light” with its tree-lined horizon slanting from left to right, revealing a tiny elevator and power plant near the canvas edge, taken from last year’s “81 Works,” Kiechel’s show shares a wall with “Salt Valley Lake Spring,” a far larger, square, very low horizon and expansive sky from 1985-86.

And a series of drawings torn from his sketchbooks show something of the process Jacobshagen has used throughout his five-decade-plus career, as well as standing on them as fresh, “instant” impressions of the landscape that he views on his trips outside of Lincoln.

The exhibition, which runs through March in Kiechel’s first floor gallery, makes no attempt to answer the questions it raises.

Its “What is landscape?” thesis isn’t explicitly presented – there’s no wall text or gallery statement that tries to explain the exhibition or make connections between the works.

That, commendably, leaves the interpretation of the show entirely up to the audience, who, as they consider the seemingly unconnected works, will begin to suss out the idea that lies at the heart of the show – that “landscape” is landscape by designation alone.

-L. Kent Wolgamott