Contemporary Definitions 

Disjecta's Biennial Portland 2012

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What is contemporary art? This question has emerged over the course of several conversations concerning Portland2012, interdisciplinary art center Disjecta's multi-location biennial of regional art.

The exhibition, which saw its first wave of openings at the Marylhurst University's Art Gym and PDX Across the Hall in the final days of February, is billed as "a major survey of visual artists who are defining and advancing the contemporary arts landscape" here in Oregon.

Like all biennials, it's intended as a review of art, here, now. And like all biennials, it's a subjective affair that's as much a picture of its curator as it is its mother city.

In its inaugural Portland2010 iteration, Disjecta's board brought on Linfield College's Cris Moss as curator, generating some of the most compelling installations I've seen around town in the last four years. For Portland2012, former curator of American art at the Portland Art Museum (1987-2000) and current Portland Community College art history instructor Prudence Roberts took on the job.

As with Portland2010, the curatorial process started with an open call for submissions in the summer. Of the 280 artists who applied, 24 artists made it into the exhibition, spanning from social practice to video to painting, and beyond. Additionally, Roberts solicited applications from a handful of folks who hadn't initially put their names in the hat, two of which—Arnold Kemp and Ben Rosenberg—were selected for inclusion.

Portland2012 spreads across the city in multiple locations. Disjecta serves as the main hub; satellites include not-yet-open nodes at the White Box (University of Oregon) and Helzer Art Gallery (Portland Community College's Rock Creek campus), as well as the aforementioned early risers, Art Gym and PDX Across the Hall.

On to the art. To speak briefly: so far, so good. The works at PDX Across the Hall by Ben Buswell and Akihiko Miyoshi are well worth the trip: Miyoshi's photos, generated with a large-format camera, mirrors, and strips of red, blue, and green tape (representing pixels), feature the artist and his camera trapped in blips of color and blurry field depths, attempting to capture abstract but photographic space. Buswell's sculptures, while varied between scratched photos and shrine-like, chin-to-chest busts, deal with the "disappearance of self." Likewise, the Marylhurst arm of Portland2012 is a strong installment, featuring up and comers like multidisciplinary collective Future Death Toll, as well as old-timers like Cynthia Lahti.

Roberts says she wasn't as concerned with highlighting emerging artists as she was with featuring contemporary art—work that is "looking at the present [rather than] the past, and pushing or looking forward." While much of what I've seen from Portland2012 clearly strives to do just that (in particular, contributions from Future Death Toll and Dustin Zemel), it doesn't necessarily create a comprehensive representation of "Portland right now" as much as it explores a specific aesthetic sector. It's one curator's stab at defining "contemporary art," and it's full of vision and thoughtfulness and particularity. The incidental expense is that some art gets left behind—namely comics, street art, and other outsider genres, creating a degree of dissonance between the biennial's mission and its outcome.

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