Bemis Center unveils its 13th annual art auction exhibition
By Augusta Olsen
“Contemporary art is a place of both ecstatic spectacle and intense introspection,” commented Hesse McGraw as we surveyed the new Bemis Center Auction Exhibition. The ecstatic spectacle of nearly 400 art pieces in this year’s exhibit is palpable in every room. McGraw, the chief curator at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, met with me Monday to share the collection that will not only generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in the annual art auction, but also stands as a defining canon of American contemporary art today.
“Ultimately, the auction becomes a representation of the breadth of activity taking place not only at Bemis but also certainly within the local art community and more broadly, the international community. It’s a kind of kaleidoscopic moment to look at the variety of works that are being produced in the world,” McGraw said.
“These rooms and this auction, it’s a glut. It’s a huge body of information, knowledge and energy,” he said.
Of the approximate 270 artists with work in this year’s auction, about 100 are former Bemis Center residents, about 100 are local artists and about 50 are internationally acclaimed artists.
“I think one thing we are trying to do is break down some of the hierarchies that would normally exist between artists’ careers. So you see instances of very young, emerging artists that are showing directly alongside a very dense installation of internationally renowned artists,” he said.
The gala auction event on Oct. 15 will feature a silent auction and a live auction event. The live auction features major works from renowned artists, and those 25 pieces will also be offered simultaneously in an online auction. The works featured in the Bemis Underground will be sold in a separate auction on Oct. 13.
McGraw describes the popular art event as “a frenzy,” and encourages people to become familiar with the available works in the month leading up to the auction, starting this Friday, at the exhibit’s opening reception from 6 to 9 p.m..
The Bemis Center is also hosting free artist and curator tours every Thursday at 6 p.m., starting Sept. 22 and continuing through Oct. 6. “It’s a moment to look in-depth at certain pieces and certain artists’ practices,” said McGraw. “When you walk into the room and see 100 pieces on the wall, it can be really daunting. When you zoom in on one piece and have a conversation with the artist about that work, what it means for them, what its context is…I think the tours are a moment to impart the depth of the artists’ energy to anyone who is interested.”
Famous names represented in this year’s show include Betty Woodman and Jun Kaneko. Two buzz-generating Kansas City artists make a large contribution to this year’s auction, with several photographs from Jaimie Warren and a sizeable painting from Aaron Storck. Leslie Shows, a former Bemis Center resident based in San Francisco also makes a notable contribution with her abstract paintings. Her technique creates Rorschach-type impressions from which a surprising amount of subconscious stimulus and imagery leaps forth.
Of the many familiar local artists included in the show, Christina Narwicz represents impressively with two smaller paintings in the silent auction, and a large, two-panel painting in the live auction. Joe Broghammer offers two appealing drawings featuring his well-known birds, “Tightrope” in the main auction, and a smaller piece in the Underground auction. Thomas Prinz presents a vibrant example of his color-block, abstract paintings that are at once architectural and intuitively organic. Also, Bart Vargas delights with his polyhedronic sculpture.
Other standouts include the engaging, textural color studies of Colin Smith, who has perfected a unique technique of exploring color variation through “a studio discovery” involving a proprietary resin medium. Two of Smith’s large pieces will be included in the silent auction, while a third will be sold in the live auction.
The Underground, as usual, is a bevy of experimental explorations, reinforcing the center’s reputation as an “artistic laboratory.” Selections including Iggy Sumnick’s sculpture, “Pipe Wrap,” and Nolan Tredway’s dark landscape, “Algebra” well represent Omaha’s artistic wealth.
Artists have the choice to donate their work, or submit their selections on consignment, with up to 50 percent of the auction sale price returning to the artist. “It accommodates a huge amount of artists, many of whom cannot necessarily afford a full donation,” said McGraw.
“The starting bid is always at least 60 percent of the retail value of the piece. The intention there is that we’re protecting the artists’ market, that it is not being undercut,” he said.
“We’re extremely honored that so many artists choose to aid this mission and choose to essentially gift their work and support of other artists.”
The proceeds of the auction will benefit the Bemis Center, directly supporting program expenses including the residency program, exhibitions and community programs. McGraw said the gross proceeds of the 2010 auction totaled approximately $400,000.
“It keeps the organization pushing forward. It allows us across all programs and in so many ways to provide direct support to artists,” he said. The residency program supports 36 artists annually to live and work in Omaha at the Bemis Center for a three-month period to develop their work. Hundreds of artists from around the world apply for the program each year.
“In the economic climate we’re in, on one hand, it’s very difficult for an artist to make a living off their work, but our goals are very much to compensate them for their process and create structures to allow them to reimagine what their process is,” said McGraw.
“We are thinking structurally and systemically about what are the things we can do to aid a process which is mysterious, which is uncanny, which has surprise and failure and ultimately trying to connect that process with a public audience,” he said.
“Contemporary art is at a place of expansive possibility,” said McGraw. “In the last several decades there’s been so much growth in contemporary art practices that’s not about hegemonic direction, but rather, many, many factions moving ahead simultaneously. It expresses a multiplicity of thinking and looking at the world. It’s not linear but it gets you to a point where you can be really engaged with where the artists are now and where they are going. It’s not nostalgic.”
McGraw’s last words of advice to prospective buyers: “Buy what you love.”