Regionalism 

Parsing the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards

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THE CONTEMPORARY NORTHWEST ART AWARDS has something for nearly everyone: monumental art, interactive work, color-field paintings, ceramics. It's the third edition of the show (which replaced the Oregon Biennial in 2008), and arguably the best. That being said, what may be most striking is the cohesion of the dissimilar work, and how well the show holds your attention.

Curated by Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson, there are six artists total (plucked from 235 nominations). The first piece you encounter is "This Land Is Our Land," a poky mass of gold vinyl strips, zipped together—somehow this doesn't look like a mega craft night disaster, but more like a terrain, like sparkling sandstone cliffs. The work is by Abbie Miller, who is the youngest artist in the exhibit and hails from Wyoming. You can't help but infer a sense of ruggedness from her sculptures—like the rough landscapes of Wyoming, put through the filter of fashion. One notable piece called "Squeezed Arch" is created from vinyl, steel, and zipper; it's just over 10 feet tall and cherry red, with a shape that suggests either a rocky arch or a warped high heel.

Matching in color and farther back in the exhibit is the interactive work of Seattle artist Trimpin. It's composed of a fire engine-red piano hanging vertically with a tripod below, with included instructions about how to activate the piano by using a conductor-like swing of the arms. (Trimpin is the most recognizable name of the group: there's a documentary about him; the New Yorker profiled him, and he's won a MacArthur "Genius" grant. He was also the recipient this year of the Portland Art Museum's $10,000 Arlene Schnitzer prize.)

Less straightforward are the photographs by Isaac Layman of Washington: macro photographs of a sink and an ice cube tray. They're images of domestic items—more specifically, containers. They seem simple at first glance, but the images are actually composite photographs that Layman has taken at different focal lengths and vantage points. Their power hinges on their size; printed at 10 feet, they become sublimely overwhelming. More directly related to the sublime is the art of Nicholas Nyland, also of Washington, whose work recalls the mishmash of West Coast Spirituality: pyramids (created from glazed stoneware), psychedelic colors, occult-y candelabras. His objects have a talismanic quality.

Karl Burkheimer is the only Portlander represented in the show. The head of the wood department at the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts, he creates large, wooden sculptural structures, which suggest Earth Art indoors, or a thoughtful but nonfunctional skate park. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Anne Appleby, who hails from Montana and creates the quietest work of all, with soothing color panels created from oil and wax. Get close enough and you can see brilliantly subtle, botanical textures, almost like ferns; they provide a pleasant resting place in the show.

There's no performance or video work at the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards, which is somewhat surprising, given regional events like the Time-Based Art Festival and the strength and heritage of performance art on the West Coast. The uniting theme of the exhibit seems instead to be objecthood; all of the work has a strong attention to the act of making or craftsmanship at its core—some of the work is downright labor-intensive (see: the video of Abbie Miller zipping one of her sculptures up). The question of regionalism remains: in an age of interconnectedness, do regions still acquire an identity? If the diversity of this show is any indication, all bets are off.

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