Minimal, abstract spin on Nebraska landscapes in Chad M. Olsen’s Kiechel Show: Wolgamott

Landscape is a fixture in Nebraska painting. But it is rarely seen in the manner presented by Chad M. Olsen in “What’s Nebraska Like, Babe?”, his Kiechel Fine Arts exhibition.

Olsen’s paintings, some done on large canvases, others on tiny panels of transparent film and still others on acetate, aren’t filled with fine details. Rather they are, in his terms, “formalist minimalist atmospheres” and “abstract landscape atmospheres.”

The former is found in its extreme pieces like “Switchgrass” and “An Ocean in between the Grasses,” two of the large works in which the landscape has been reduced to a pair of rectangular fields, light blue over green and blue over yellow.

The titles imply landscape. But without the words, the paintings become pure abstractions — pieces about color, paint, brushstroke and, if there’s any injection of the landscape into the work, light.

In case that wasn’t minimal enough, there’s a grid of a dozen 12-by-12-inch monochromatic paintings with a color gradient that begins with a near-black dark brown at the bottom of the grid and ends near-white at the top.

The color differences don’t fit classic minimalism. But the rest of the presentation — the uniformly sized pieces, standard painting technique and grid hanging — certainly does.

Even in “Sandhills Thunderclouds,” with its hint of the land and sky, the painting primarily remains a showcase of the wave-like brushstrokes Olsen used to create the dark, vague image.

More detail comes into the picture with the paintings on acetate. Working on both sides of the transparent support, Olsen incorporates marks that in, for example, “Alone in the grass waves” create hints of stands of grass in an ochre field while a dark band of purple, seemingly clouds, hugs the horizon below a blue field.

The earth becomes even more detailed in “Grandmother’s Land,” which finds scrabbled browns and bands of white and gray becoming hazy depictions of Sandhills land with a multiple-blue-colored sky with clouds above.

Hazy, however, is the keyword — created by the two-sided painting technique that eliminates precise details in favor of atmosphere.

The smallest pieces, which are all in the 4-inch square range, are similarly atmospheric, a slash of dark color or a roiling green mark serving as the land with sky above or, conversely, dark lines becoming clouds in the small fields.

“What’s Nebraska Like, Babe? apparently takes it title from a question raised by a former girlfriend of the 2002 Lincoln Southeast graduate, who moved to New York after receiving his BFA from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2010.

On a wall label, Olsen, who now lives in Omaha, writes: “There is a place that has a feeling that is personal to me. I wish I could take her to this place, but she is no longer in my life. The best I can do is to show her that place and my feelings through these paintings.”

Olsen’s feeling for Nebraska does indeed come through the inviting paintings. The details of the place, however, are largely missing, turning it into warm atmospheres that blend realism and abstraction that still convey the essence of Nebraska’s land and big skies.

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