Over the history of the Oregon Biennial, the Portland Art Museum learned that it's impossible to please everyone. When the museum announced that it would eschew the ever-divisive Biennial for the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards, the prospect of a show that would whittle down its participants to five artists and expand its geographical reach to include Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming in addition to Oregon hardly seemed like the solution. Yes, it would provide visitors with a richer experience, allowing them to dig more deeply into the work of a handful of artists. But it would also shift the focus from homegrown talent. (In fact, only one of the five finalists, Marie Watt, is an Oregonian; the rest hail from Washington.)
Somehow, walking through the museum during opening weekend, these quibbles disappeared. The inaugural exhibition may have slighted Oregon (and local luminaries such as James Lavadour and Storm Tharp), but curator Jennifer Gately has brought together a group of artists whose work is fresh, exciting, and unfettered by loyalty to any single medium: Watt, Dan Attoe, Jeffry Mitchell, Cat Clifford, and Whiting Tennis, who received the Arlene Schnitzer Prize and attendant $10,000. More importantly, while the exhibition is undoubtedly preoccupied with issues of regional identity, it serves to show that the Northwest's best artists can capably compete with those in major art markets in the US and beyond.
Watt's monolithic "Forget-me-not: Blossom"—a raw pillar of basalt, barnacled with hand-stitched, woolen "blossoms"—stands as a gateway to the exhibition. A rustic monument to the Northwest's "wild" terrain and spirit, it is also, literally, Watt's memorial for Oregon soldiers who have died in Iraq. It leads to an enclosed circular chamber made of pieces of wool blankets called "Forget-me-not: Mothers and Sons." Populated by hundreds of cameo-style portraits of fallen soldiers (the sons) and historical forebears (the mothers), from Joan of Arc to theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore, the installation builds on Watt's use of blankets both as family heirlooms and as a metaphor for the fabric of personal connectivity. In short, it's the best work of her career.
Attoe's luminescent oil paintings split the difference between high-art historical reference and mass cultural flotsam like comic books, heavy metal album art, and a menacing Twin Peaks vibe. Many of his paintings are miniature dramas, tiny vignettes about foresters and drifters set against the Northwest's gray skies and Douglas firs. But Attoe's most ambitious canvases are flat-out jaw-dropping. "Accretion #38 (This has been coming...)" is a disorienting swirl of visual information. As a group of policemen conduct a midnight flashlight search of a forest floor, numerous panels superimposed on the scene reveal flashes of tangential plotlines. One senses that Attoe has handed viewers a complete narrative, but flattened its chronological arc in pictorial space.
Tennis' folk art-damaged paintings and sculptures narrowly focus on his interest in, as he described at a recent panel discussion, the liminal "belt between the urban and rural." As such, his sculptures—which are roughly human sized and made entirely of discarded wood and home improvement supplies—could either be functionless constructions or eerily sentient beings (implied by titles like "The White Nun" and "Boogeyman"). His enormous "Bitter Lake Compound," though, is the most compelling investigation of this phenomenon. Splicing collage and painting, Tennis recreates the rearview of an outbuilding, finding poetry in its textures, circumstantial geometry, and washed-out palette.
If the show stumbles, it's the works of Jeffry Mitchell and Cat Clifford that don't quite measure up. Both artists are strong conceptually, but, somehow, the objects themselves feel unfinished. Mitchell's largest work to date, "Sphinx," vaguely recreates the titular monument with wooden boxes and decorated canvas cloth. Approaching the sculpture's rear, Mitchell reveals the mystery of the Sphinx to be an elaborate display case of white ceramic bears and elephants (and several nods to queer subculture). It's a thoughtful and provocative piece, but remains aesthetically underwhelming. The work of Clifford, which ranges from pinhole camera photographs to videos of site-specific performances, is similarly stuffed with ideas. Most interestingly, Clifford uses projectors to insert her animations within groups of drawings, creating a jarring spatiotemporal tension between static and time-based art. Still, both Mitchell and Clifford make welcome additions to the show because they err on the side of the cerebral. Like Watt, Attoe, and Tennis, their work is driven by thought and an intense awareness of what it means to be alive now. Of course, that's a concern that isn't unique to the Northwest—and the show's all the better for it.