The fifth edition of Disjecta’s Portland Biennial is both a narrowing and an expansion of the exhibition’s original vision. The Biennial is a curated survey of Oregon contemporary artists that takes place every two years. But for the first time since Disjecta started organizing these regular events, all the work and the majority of the planned events will be featured in or around Disjecta’s gallery on North Interstate, rather than scattered across the city or—as with their ambitious 2016 edition—the state.
By contrast, the scope of the 2019 Biennial is wider and more far-reaching. According to the statement announcing the exhibition, Disjecta’s co-curators Yaelle S. Amir, Elisheba Johnson, and Ashley Stull Meyers looked for artists and works that “address the continuous migration and erasure of communities from the Oregon landscape and, in some cases, serve as an act of preservation and remembrance for their stories.”
We can get some sense of what’s in store by considering a few of the 18 Portland Biennial artists and their previous work. Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, for example, takes inspiration from her research into Oregon’s indigenous natives and the history of her tribe, the Klamath Modoc. She funnels their artistic practices into startling and colorful abstract paintings and large-scale installations. Rubén García Marrufo, a filmmaker and installation artist from Mexico, fuels his very prescient and experimental work with questions about borders, and how cultures can—and cannot—easily blend together. I’m also particularly excited to see what local artist Lynn Yarne will bring. Her work tends to be spare, with ample use of blank space, giving her paintings and drawings of solitary animals or half-remembered houses a haunting quality.
The Biennial curators are also keeping an eye on the artists and curators of the future with the inclusion of the Harriet Tubman Center for Expanded Curatorial Practice. Under the guidance of Portland State University professors Harrell Fletcher and Lisa Jarrett, a group of students at Harriet Tubman Middle School will learn about the practice of curating and writing critically about art, while dipping their toes into the local art scene. It’s a welcome project and more than a little adorable.
In September, the kids from Harriet Tubman will be on hand to participate in a performance with Biennial artist Lou Watson and musician Finnian Peck that seeks to create “a live musical score of Kenton commuter traffic along N Interstate Avenue.” Watson has created similar sound scores in the past, with her album Take Interstate 5, which featured four pieces whose structure and volume were determined by the flow of traffic on an eight-lane stretch of the West Coast highway.
That project may embody the “continuous migration” element of the Biennial’s mission statement a little too literally, but the larger statement about the environmental and social impact of gentrification on the diverse North Portland neighborhood is a welcome and necessary addition to what looks to be an impactful exhibition.