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For his solo exhibition at Large Medium, Adrian Armstrong she takes over a corner of the gallery for “Goodies,” a recreation of the corner store near her great-grandmother’s house in a historically black neighborhood of Omaha, Nebraska.
The fully-functioning store offers a small stock of a few necessities (baking soda, dish soap, paper towels), as well as drinks and snacks. Some of the candy is clearly old school: Mickey Mouse Pez dispensers, candy buttons and necklaces, Big Chew Bubblegum.
At the opening of the exhibition, I bought a bag of Gold Mine gum nuggets, simply out of nostalgia. I don’t really like gum, but I haven’t seen the weird sack of yellow nuggets in years. Armstrong autographed my purchase with an inked thumbprint, just like he did for other customers that night.
When I asked her where she found all the now-obscure candies, she told me that her mother had largely provided them for her in the Omaha neighborhood.
Armstrong moved to Austin from Omaha seven years ago, and every time he mentions that he is met with surprise, usually from white people.
As he explains in his artist statement, “The number one question I got (when I first moved to Austin), and it still sticks with me to this day, is, ‘Are there black people in Nebraska?’ This took me by surprise because throughout my life, I had always been surrounded by mostly black people. Like most cities, Omaha is segregated by historically oppressive laws that concentrated the black population primarily on the North Side.”
Just like his great-grandmother’s neighborhood, Armstrong surrounds his recreated store with a gallery filled with portraits of black people.
His portraits show family, friends and acquaintances. He also intriguingly portrays himself as something of an everyman, appearing alone or in groups of various figures. From outside the gallery, a larger-than-life-size cropped portrait of a shyly smiling young man greets visitors from inside Goodies along with a neon “open” light and a red-and-white business hours sign.
Welcome to the Armstrong neighborhood (reimagined).
Armstrong begins his portraits by drawing with a pen, then adds layers of paint, colored pencils, and collage of fabric, paper, and digital images. The process creates captivating textures that reward prolonged and repeated gaze.
The portraits are full of energy, affection and expressiveness. In “All in the Family” (2022), a foursome stand in a close and friendly pose, Armstrong’s mixed denim to represent the jeans worn by the woman in front of the group. In an untitled portrait of two women huddled in an armchair, one a woman’s toe sticks out of the canvas in a playful move.
Ten works of art are currently on display, and the plan is that before the exhibition closes on January 8, new paintings will replace some, others will remain.
Big Medium curator Coka Treviño, who has worked with Armstrong for several years and who organized the current show, notes that a shifting lineup of portraits is meant to evoke the comings and goings of a community gathering place.
“As people come and go from the cities and neighborhoods, we imagined how the exhibition could portray different people, some passing through, others giving the place an identity,” says Treviño.
Adds Armstrong: “Just like a store changes and restocks, this show will do the same. The works will interchange and add to and further reveal the black community in Omaha.”
“Are there black people in Nebraska?” continues through January 8, 2023 at Big Medium, 916 Springdale Road, bigmedium.org