OMAHA -- Keith Jacobshagen did a painting for every day of 2010, each a landscape based on his observations that day.
That's right, there's 365 of them, and they're all on the walls of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in the pivotal new exhibition "Keith Jacobshagen: A Golden Year."
How do they fit in a single gallery? They're 3.5 inches by 5 inches each -- little pieces that are fully realized works by Nebraska's landscape master.
They resemble, in both scale and execution, Jacobshagen's field sketches. But the little paintings feel more finished and resolved than the drawings, in large part because of the support. That's art lingo for the material onto which paint is applied.
They are on copper, a new support material for Jacobshagen, who had previously done a painting on sterling silver. The cost of creating 365 small silver plates was prohibitive, so Bemis and Jacobshagen settled on copper. It was a brilliant choice.
The copper, Jacobshagen said, was very accommodating to his wet-on-wet painting technique. Critically for both the artist and viewer, it adds a new, visually significant element to the work.
In some pieces, Jacobshagen uses translucent paint. That allows the copper to come through and create new colors -- soft variations of reds and pinks -- that couldn't be made by mixing paints. In others, the copper is left uncovered. That adds an expected punch to the paintings, a metallic shimmer that replaces what in the sketches would be white space.
To all of the paintings, the copper adds a luminosity that I've not seen previously in any Jacobshagen work, a glow that somehow brings additional life to the familiar landscapes.
But not all of the pieces are taken from his observations of fields, river valleys, the edge of the city around Lincoln and eastern Nebraska. There are images of rolling New Jersey hills, a couple from New York's Central Park and an impressive, detailed skyline looking across the Hudson River to the industrial cityscape of New Jersey.
That the Jersey warehouses are instantly identifiable is testimony to Jacobshagen's mastery of detail, which pervades all the paintings.
Given their scale, you have to get up close to see them -- I looked, at most, from about 3 inches away. But when you do, the details are astounding: Power plants billowing smoke, birds flying over stands of trees, power poles, the lights of a city at dusk and individual trees. They all pop out and, as always, create "how does he do that?" wonder.
Those tiny details linger along and below the low horizon that is Jacobshagen's stock-in-trade. The skies in the small paintings, as in his wall-sized works, are exercises in abstraction, combining explorations of color and movement into what appears to be representation but is more a studio creation than representation.
I was taken by several of the paintings, chief among them: the across-the-Hudson piece; a couple in which the copper represents water; and one in which a thin red-orange line runs above the ground horizon and below a darkly overcast sky.
But the paintings of "A Golden Sky" weren't intended to stand alone.
Hung nearly edge to edge around the gallery, the 365 paintings become a single piece, a line of colors that divides the light gray wall at about eye level. As such, it becomes an horizon line of sorts, reflecting the defining element of Jacobshagen's paintings throughout his career.
Curated by Hesse McGraw, the Bemis' chief curator, "A Golden Sky" is presented with minimal text -- one label and then dates that indicate the start of each month. That minimal presentation forces the work to stand on its own -- always a good thing -- and further removes the paintings from the realm of near-journalistic recording of nature to art.
Jacobshagen, who is now professor emeritus of art at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is far from retired as a painter. The stunning "A Golden Year," a project like none he's previously attempted, painted on a new-to-him support, dramatically proves otherwise.
I'm planning to have more on "A Golden Year" and Jacobshagen while the exhibition is on view -- it's there through July 30. If you're in Omaha, don't pass up the opportunity to see the show.