The tall, twisting, gaunt figures stand in the middle of the Gallery 9 space. One of them, carved from driftwood using a chainsaw, then ever smaller tools, is titled “Martin Watts,” the grandfather of Patrick Rowan, who came to the U.S. from Ireland.
Another, “Martyr,” finds the figure crossed with lines, as if it has been beaten, an anguished look on its face, next to a truncated arm.
On the walls surrounding the figures are paintings of the “Last King of Ireland,” and “Saint Edna,” “O Irishman,” and “Patrick,” a self-portrait of sorts along with a series of abstractions that powerfully resonate with the figurative work to capture the theme of Rowan's exhibition "Irish Eyes."
“The images represent memories of my Irish Catholic heritage ... visions of death and leaving, anger, fear, guilt, isolation and alienation,” Rowan writes in the artist’s statement. “The combination of sculpted & painted works present personal revelation/interpretations, in my attempt to express the relationships between God, man & self.”
In doing so, the images and abstractions convey a sense of spirituality. But, as has long been the case with Rowan’s work, that spirituality isn’t of easy, reassuring "religious art” variety.
Rather it is a spirituality of angst, searching for meaning and finding one’s place in the world, giving the work a universality that connects with the viewer, regardless of their background and religious belief.
Conveying the spirituality, autobiography and Irishness is possible only because of Rowan’s artistic skills honed over a lifetime. Professor emeritus of studio art at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Rowan taught painting in the art department for 33 years, beginning in 1971 — the year after he received his master of fine arts.
Not surprisingly, his mature work remains connected to the mid-20th century, the time of his study and artistic emergence.
The sculptures, for example, are exquisitely crafted, adding a polished rawness and facial expressiveness to elongated figures like those created by Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti in the 1940s-1960s.
The figurative paintings, like “Old Man,” which finds its subject walking with a cane, are, like the sculptures, expressionist — drawing on early-20th century German expressionism to depict the inner feelings as well as the exterior of its subjects.
And the abstractions are expressionist as well, rooted in the work of the mid-20th century New York abstract expressionism. That quality begins in their making.
“I work fairly spontaneously and wait to see what I’ve done in the painting,” Rowan said. “I try to build one thing on another.”
Those things — thick black lines, scumbled passages of blue, stripes of red, circles, slashes and drips — are repeated and rearranged across the paintings that hang in a group of eight in a hallway next to the main gallery, “talk” to each other, delivering a master class in negative space, visual movement, contrast and color.
Clearly thought out, the abstractions — with their strong vertical lines, nods to cruciform and vibrant tension — reverberate with the sculptures and figurative work, connections made even stronger with titles such as “Bloody Sunday,” “Descent” and, again, “Old Man.”
Notably, nearly all of the work, save for the large, 1992 painting “Irish Boy,” was made in the last few years, as Rowan worked in his home studio until he ran out of room about six months ago. The paintings and sculptures in “Irish Eyes” make one hope that Rowan finds a place to store his finished work so he can return to the studio and create more.
That said, “Irish Eyes” stands as a true art show, a richly layered, meaning-filled exhibition of the work of a fine artist in his autumn that is one of the best in Lincoln in years.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or email@example.com. On Twitter @KentWolgamott