A biennial is an argument, even when it is an argument about wishful thinking. I've never been to one that hasn't seemed, on some level, to be making a case for something: what the art world is, what it should be, which media are most appropriate to the times, which are unfairly neglected and so on. So it is that every two years, a curator or group of curators gets to wrangle the unruly art world into a tidy little thesis.

The argument proposed by Bruce Guenther, the chief curator of the Portland Art Museum, is most clearly put at the end of his essay in the show's catalogue, after he has described the process of choosing Biennial artists, and provided a pert paragraph on each one. The works of all these artists, Guenther says, "manifest the primacy of form over the now-oblique and secondary place of content in contemporary art making."

Form over content is a modified rallying cry of such conservative critics as Jed Perl, and even of Clement Greenberg and of Tom Wolfe--critics for whom conceptual art raises the suspicion of chicanery, of having had the wool pulled over one's eyes by clever-boots artists who probably can't even draw. Guenther, to be fair, seems a lot less paranoid, but when he speculates about "the lack of innovation in the current moment in contemporary art," he rather unfortunately tips his hand. It simply isn't true.

This faulty summation, as I understand it, is partly due to this particular biennial's selection process: by submission instead of by curatorial legwork. Doubtless some very good artists come in over the transom, but if you want the truly innovative, you have to work for it, look for it at the margins, in the underground, where you find the people who aren't inclined to submit to big institutional cattle calls. This is where you find the new; the innovative forms that don't photograph well, that don't transmit their power via slides.

I know little enough about the Oregon arts, but I know that there's a lot of excellent work in video, performance, and installation. That there isn't even a single video work in the Biennial is partly about the jurying process, but is also partly about a kind of blinkering, which harks back to the wrangling over form over content. Somehow it's painting that has become the Maginot line of art--a curator who puts together a painting-heavy show is seen as retrograde and somewhat wishful. This show, although it includes a handful of photograph-based works and three sculptures (much of it quite good), is more of a dialogue on the state of abstraction in painting than anything else.

Guenther is partly right about form over content, because in art, how something is said is as important as what is said (or else it might as well be anything else--a song, a skit, a page in your journal). On the other hand, all the formal properties in the world can't animate a painting that has no philosophical or conceptual backbone. Old-school abstraction, such as Jan Reaves' and G. Lewis Clevenger's works, mine last-century ideas about at what point a table no longer looks like a table; and Scott Sonniksen's chains don't seem to be about much of anything. I quite liked James Boulton's explosive large-scale mash of competing patterns--doing exactly the opposite of what patterns are meant to do--and Liz Cheney's big charcoal drawings of what might be animal tails, feather boas, or something infinitely more creepy. Boulton's and Cheney's abstractions are conceptual, created in relation to an over-stimulating visual landscape, examining the unstable edge between knowledge and imagination.

And then there's James Lavadour, whose landscapes manage to be at once photographic and drippy-abstract and sometimes look like photographs of abstractions. I have logged a few good hours standing in front of Lavadour's landscapes, trying to figure out exactly why they're so thrilling. He works a middle place between representation and abstraction, a bit of fooling the eye, a bit of coaxing the eye, a bit of just plain confounding it. His work has such stature that I don't understand why we can't close the book on mediocre abstraction once and for all. And let biennials do what biennials ought to do. EMILY HALL