OMAHA, Nebraska — The prevailing aesthetic of the Midwest is one of spaciousness; it is a good place to expand the parameters of art — to introduce it, so to speak, into a larger field of play. This is the premise of an impressive, provocative and somewhat vexing exhibition entitled FLOOD. Billed as a collaboration between Los Angeles artist and architect, Mike Nesbit, the Omaha, Nebraska branch of the American Institute of Architecture, and local businesses, FLOOD was conceived to thwart conventional expectations in terms of content, expression, authorship and, to some degree, visual art’s need for viewers.
FLOOD is one of two large-scale installations by Nesbit in which he functions more as catalyst than maestro, operating well along the fringes of institutional art. The second, The Blues, is scheduled to be installed on remote farmland in central Iowa this fall. Neither will be easy to view. The Omaha installation occupies two floors of a gutted office building and it is open by appointment only. Passersby can’t even peek through a window due to old reflective film. Nevertheless, this setting was important for Nesbit, who seeks to interact with the people and history of locations well outside of the typical exhibition space. The building, constructed in the early 1920s as a regional headquarters for Standard Oil, is rife with history. The lack of electricity, and water was secondary for Nesbit.
Ross Miller, an architect and associate director of Omaha’s AIA, became intrigued with Nesbit after seeing his artwork on Instagram, subsequently inviting him to address the AIA on his practice as an artist/architect. When Nesbit suggested a collaboration, Miller — with no venue, budget, or clear idea of what he was getting into, but ample curiosity — agreed. Shortly thereafter, a large scale installation was envisioned involving heavy equipment, almost fourteen tons of concrete and a fair amount of high-octane machismo.
The installation would require the fabrication of concrete panels upon which, within an ultra-compressed space of one day, Nesbit and a group of volunteers would produce six large artworks. This was a self-assigned challenge, amounting to an endurance test but, importantly, one that necessitated collaboration at every step. “There was a goal from the beginning to produce work at a scale that required an interdependence with the Omaha community,” he said. It would also call for spot-on planning, including a detailed architectural model and a comprehensive set of technical drawings. As each concrete panel would weigh in at 2,300 pounds, there was no room for error.
Nor would there be significant funding. $7,000 was scraped together, but 90 percent of the budget came from in-kind donations, including the large concrete panels. “I had no idea where these would come from,” said Miller, “but soon Tom Egan of Enterprise Concrete was onboard.” Like Miller, Egan was keen to test some limits and, not incidentally, grab some limelight for a newly developed, ultra-thin precast product. Nesbit worked with building measurements and Egan’s engineers on determining a final size of 9 by 12 feet, which would just barely — but thrillingly — fit through the space created by removing a large window.
As Miller and I entered the building, its interior was revealed as huge and desolate. It was extremely cold and eerily silent; not even the humming of fluorescent lightbulbs could be heard. Six panels, now transformed into six artworks, hung unlit and unlabeled, asserting their presence with a slow reticence completely at odds with the dictates of contemporary display. While alternative venues are often used for contemporary art exhibitions, there was something unexpected and a bit uncanny about the scene. The dim, stripped-down layers of banished décor had a cinematic glow, reminding me of a Tarkovsky film. Light refracted off particles of dust. Old paint, fiberboard, and wall coverings were decaying before my eyes and little of the building’s internal structure remained, other than the stairwell and the long defunct elevator shaft. Nearby a curled chip of paint detached from the crazed wall and landed with soft aplomb onto a growing pile below.
The concrete panels are smooth, grey, and at only one and a half inches, impressively thin. Each one hung from its steel girder by barely noticeable cables, seeming to defy gravity. Within a neat 12-inch border, each slab was covered by a thick black substance apparently pulled across the surface. In some places, the rubbery material is as thick as the slab itself while in other areas it bubbles up, skips or fades out entirely. Its smelled faintly of motor oil.
The substance, Miller informed me, is Trimco, a waterproofing material used in construction. Nesbit, a graduate of SCI-Arc and a project designer with the innovative Morphosis Studio, “fell in love” while watching it being poured along the foundation of a building site. A widely used petroleum-based product reeking with pungent off-gassing until it has completely dried, 180 gallons of the stuff was poured and pulled across the six slabs, yielding a surface unexpectedly rich in detail, tracing movement like an impasto and revealing an organic process of oxidation that continues to change. “It’s so beautiful,” said Nesbit during a later visit. “And of course, it fits in neatly with the history of the Standard Oil building. Looking back, there’s an irony, though, creating paintings with a material designed never to be seen.”
When the day came to execute the paintings, Nesbit worked with a handful of volunteers to flood each panel, then pull the viscous substance across the surfaces. Their simple but heroically scaled gestures channeled the grandiosity and high drama of midcentury action painting. But, rather than expressing emotion through gesture, Nesbit kept focus on the standard repetition of this purely functional movement. He described the process in terms of the rhythm, precision, and utter lack of meaning outside of a specific goal. While some might see such repetition as mind-numbing, he finds it inspirational, so much so that crucial movements like “swipe” and “flood” became key concepts as well as titles. Contextually, FLOOD refers to the shifting banks of the Missouri River, but the primary physical movement of spreading Trimco, repeated over and over with varying degrees of success, provides the formal basis of the work. On the very first pull Nesbit realized he had underestimated the amount of waterproofing needed to cover the slab but decided to carry the movement through anyway, leaving a diminishing calligraphic trail of Trimco over much of the slab. “I wasn’t going to make romantic decisions,” he stated.
By necessity, FLOOD’s spatial calculations went through numerous iterations played out online and through CAD drawings developed during the planning process. Separately these drawings have taken on what Nesbit refers to as an “abstract technical” life of their own. A series of prints from his Phlatness series (2014 to the present) are growing increasingly complex. Visually, they are Turner-esque frenzies of calculation, algorithms for approaching the sublime.
FLOOD will remain open through the end of the year. Meanwhile, the relationships fostered through the project have developed into a number of new projects. Nesbit and Miller are working with artist/architect Thomas Prinz, another SCI-Arc grad, on a Midwest-LA exchange that so far has produced several exhibitions and a short residency at Prinz’s Maple Street Construct gallery. However, the most challenging project on the boards is one that will give Nesbit an opportunity to test his calculations on 39 acres of unincorporated farmland.
This installation, tentatively titled The Blues, involves three more enormous concrete panels, their size determined by the height and weight restrictions of bridges along the way. This time the panels will weigh over 10,000 pounds each. Working with an 86-year-old farmer and a host of farm equipment, the panels will be dragged, slowly, to their positions atop three gently curving swells. They’ll leave deep drag marks — huge drawings across theh open field. “That scale was terrifying at first,” said Nesbit with a certain amount of pleasure. Lifelong city dwellers, he, Prinz and Miller are enthusiastic about the synergy being created with the 140-year-old family farm. Nesbit, however, will have to adjust his inner timetable to the dictates of rain and crop conditions. The Blues is scheduled to be installed sometime in October, as soon as the soybeans are harvested.
As for FLOOD, Nesbit refers to its concrete panels as paintings. They are, of course, but I’ve come to think of them more as monolithic glyphs, enigmatic symbols of process and visual expression. But while the panels are purposefully distanced via repetition and analysis, the overall effect of the installation is, paradoxically, quite moving. Like many site-specific installations, Nesbit’s panels find meaning through the personal and metaphorical relationships of their making.