The Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper kicked off its “Year of the Woman” with a flourish in January, filling its entire gallery space with solo shows by six veteran women artists from different corners of Wyoming. According to curator Amanda Yonker, the Nic will host 21 shows by women artists during 2020, in honor of 100 years of women’s suffrage in the United States.
By mid-March, the museum had closed its doors due to COVID-19, with a tentative re-opening date sometime in April. (The museum has created an online gallery of one of the current exhibits — Neltje’s “In the Family of Things.”)
In addition to the usual vicarious experience, I hope this review sharpens readers’ appetites for experiencing art in person. When our museums and galleries reopen, please go wherever you can, and take in whatever you can. Being with art is always better than reading about it.
Collectively, the six current exhibits are the most professionally mounted ones I have seen at the Nic for some time. Moreover, the artists’ varying media and contrasting genres are equally strong and complement each other. Each artist makes a cogent personal investigation and poses worthy questions.
With large-scale acrylic and mixed-media works ringing the enormous main gallery, Neltje of Banner stands as the senior artist and centerpiece of the spring program. A formidable personnage in the Wyoming arts and literary community, Neltje is also profiled in Lindsay Linton Buk’s “Women in Wyoming” multimedia project currently at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
Neltje has described the primary task of the artist as a twofold challenge: to hone a skill by doing something over and over, yet also to preserve the playful spark. Here Neltje uses her mastery of paint to express “feelings about summertime and the outrageously happy colors of [her] garden.” In her brief talk during the exhibit opening, the word “joy” came up many times. Joy is an emotion seemingly at odds with the grit-and-determination lifestyle of the serious artist. No wonder it’s essential.
The unframed, gallery-wrap canvases comprising her exhibit, “In the Family of Things,” are very recent works ranging from four to about seven feet square. The sizes approximate the body-scale of most viewers, inviting one to enter and immerse.
Summery hues dominate each abstract-expressionist painting, but without the density of brushstroke seen in earlier works. The pieces on exhibit are concise explorations of line and color that leave large areas of the canvas exposed, and culminate in massive central forms. The paintings are fresh and lively partly because the unpainted areas suggest spontaneity and speed. But the real evidence is the dynamic application of the paint itself, coming from the artist’s whole arm working the brush in wide loops, arcs and built-up blocks. Thin washes run; colors smear and thicken or become transparent; a brush drags a line over and under layers to define space. The fact that these paintings are about paint, and about the sensory delights of paint, doesn’t conflict with their concurrent message of existential joy in nature.
In contrast to Neltje’s modernist acrylics, Ginny Butcher of Glenrock has pursued her moments in nature through the older tradition of plein-air oil painting. Her Nic exhibit, “Chasing the Light,” is the evidence of over 20 years in the field, and demonstrates why her work is recognized and loved by so many Wyomingites.
In this selection of modestly-sized oils, loose brushstrokes and careful daubs coalesce into familiar scenes of rural roadsides, ranchlands and backcountry. Butcher’s approach is freer and less detailed than many artists in this genre. She describes soft forms with just a hint of texture, reserving her greatest attention for the effects of sun and shadow on land and sky. These landscapes will remind many of us to take a moment longer to appreciate the play of light in our everyday, and will resonate for viewers who want to be comforted by the West they know well.
Cynthia Weed of Cody has built a studio practice upon found-object constructions. Her exhibit, “For Those of You Who Missed Your Last Connection,” fills the long hall just outside the main gallery with compact wall sculptures that reveal tiny worlds based on vintage containers, figurines, tools and ephemera.
Weed writes, “Be wary of art’s power to transmute junk into treasure. But be wary of being too wary of this power.” Duly noted: found-object art can inspire intense eBay-envy (fascinating vintage artifacts cleverly obtained and deployed), and its objects’ unknowable history can overwhelm. Fortunately, Weed’s wry sense of humor lightens the viewer’s load and maintains interest.
“Lost Object Art #93,” for example, is a weathered metal tray designed to hold 21 tiny half-pans of watercolor paint. A different paint color is named beneath each receptacle, but there is no paint in any of them. By hanging the tray on the wall, each of these concavities becomes a niche. Within each niche, the artist has placed a tiny toy, button, or other object of a bygone era, which by means of color or other attributes reflects the color title printed below. With niches fully inhabited, the watercolor tray becomes a shrine. Since a small paintbrush reposes in the center slot (like remains in a sarcophagus), I read this as a shrine to artmaking and the challenges that sometimes vanquish us in its pursuit. But it could also be a visual metaphor for the tricks we use to remember (or not) a myriad of things.
The circus is a repeated theme in this exhibit, handled with a knowing intimacy that suggests the cost and glory of abandoning regular life for close proximity to clowns. Found-object art requires the artist, like a circus performer, to walk a tightrope between the trite and the obscure. Cynthia Weed can walk that line with skill.
“Surrounded” is a bountiful selection of ceramic sculpture by Elaine Olafson Henry of Big Horn. Occupying the central hall of the wing leading from the Nic’s main gallery, this exhibit consists of two major components. Ewers and traveling vessels (previously reviewed here) are displayed on pedestals in the middle of the space, while Henry’s “50 Bowls/50 States/50 Woodfires” ring the walls (“surround” us). This is a rare opportunity to view the “50 Bowls” project in its entirety, and in Wyoming where it originated. An open-hearted, conceptually compelling project with plans to travel, “50 Bowls/50 States/50 Woodfires” consists of 50 porcelain bowls which Henry built from the same clay body, threw and shaped the same way and glazed with the same formula. Henry then shipped each bowl to a different wood firing ceramist in a different state. The results show how interventions and experiences, planned and by happenstance, change the individual. Each bowl is uniquely imperfect and uniquely beautiful, like all vessels made of mortal clay.
Technically, the series is incomplete because a wood firer has yet to be found in Delaware. If you know of such a person, Henry would like their contact information.
“Before Forgotten” is an exhibit in three parts by Mary Jane Edwards of Banner. All three segments flow into each other visually and thematically: the artworks are generally monochromatic; all peel away the surface of everyday life to mine somber layers of memory, identity and doubt. Nearly all are titled in the Esperanto language (that radically optimistic experiment in world peace), with English translations. They comprise bas-relief, collage and sculpture in the subdued hues of book pages, newspapers and maps, combined with the absolute black of burnt things. The instantly recognizable shape of a house — pyramid atop cube, or triangle atop square — repeats itself in nearly all of the teetering 3D constructions and layered 2D patterns.
The wall-hung works in the series “Caged Memories” and “In the Shadow” suggest personal narratives about home and especially girlhood, while the freestanding pieces in the “Homeland Security” series are evocations of change in the American psyche and culture since September 11, 2001. This series is the most transparent in its message and confident in its delivery. Archetypal house forms carefully wrapped in tinted or printed paper balance within, among other things, a palisade of burnt sticks, heaps of plastic army men mired in glue and paint or a tangle of toy chairs wired together as if to prevent anyone from “taking” a seat. The sculptures make a triangular connection between the horror of 9-11, the grievous and endless violence in Afghanistan and the Middle East and recent upwellings of overt hostility toward selected groups: a powerful tripod grounded in fear.
“Specimen: inquiry + insight” features Leah Hardy’s exquisitely crafted and materially precious small metal sculptures, mostly based on fantastical insects. Some of her interventions on nature — hybrids of recognizable life forms, usually accessorized with mechanical parts — are solitary pieces that resemble designer jewelry, while other works present multiple figures interacting. These are titled as if participating in human projects like sending each other sensitive mail (“love letter, en route,”) or engaging in warfare (“(h)armed race”).
One way to read these works — as scientific experiments driven by humans — suggests our quotidian cruelty. The other way, and the artist’s stated intention, is for us to read them as metaphors for our preoccupation with mortality, desire and modifying our own bodies inside and out. Thinking about what drives us gives the sculptures an entirely different, and deeper, meaning. “Crossing Borders,” for example, appears to be a moth on an unusual migratory mission. Among its travel accoutrements are wings made with map fragments from our nation’s southern border.
In this suite of exhibits, the Nicolaysen demonstrates a level of excellence I hope it sustains and grows. The museum represents high-quality infrastructure and an enormous community investment. Yet ups and downs with its funding, staffing, and programing have recurred like the tide for many years. At its best, the Nic is the cultural jewel in the center of our state, where well-designed, well-promoted programs from across the Rocky Mountain region excite and enlighten us, and where every Wyoming artist aspires to have a solo show. This is not a small thing. In this role, it could help Casper and Wyoming weather the future.
Check the Nicolaysen Art Museum facebook page for current information on the museum closure. Visit the artists’ websites for more information about their work.
Studio Wyoming Review is supported in part by generous grants from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, a program of the Wyoming Department of State Parks and Cultural Resources and the Wyoming Arts Council with funding from the Wyoming State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts.