The Northwest may be absent from the Whitney Biennial (as usual), but the region reconciles the blind spot with self-awareness. On display at the Tacoma Art Museum until May is the 10th Northwest Biennial, a survey that includes 11 Portland artists (nearly half of the show’s line-up). Even more massive is Portland2012, a sizable though scattered exhibition of 24 of the city’s artists. To give it the benefit of the doubt, let’s just say Portland2012 reflects the city’s ever-changing cultural landscape.
The work is spread across five venues and across three months, in part out of necessity (no venue is large enough), but also out of intention (with the hope that the work might reach a more varied audience). Prudence Roberts—a former curator at the Portland Art Museum—is this year’s guest curator, and her curatorial statement would seem to apply to any contemporary artist, e.g. “these artists evince an interest in aesthetics and in making sense of an increasingly incomprehensible world.”
In place of thematics, the artists in the show stand as tokens for Portland’s perceived strengths: social practice, a deep-rooted design tradition, and a devotion to craftsmanship. Some work leaves a stronger impression than others. At the Art Gym, illustrator/fine artist Ben Rosenberg has made a model of what resembles a Portland neighborhood using scraps of cardboard, foam core, and other bits of paper waste. Northwest native Cynthia Lahti uses cast-offs in a similar way, though with more care and consideration, creating paper sculptures from the pages of vintage ‘50s magazines, crumpled into abstracted, elfin shapes. Their pedestals are ceramic and pearly white; like an Agnes Martin painting, they seem flawless, until you look closely, and see the slight bumps in the attempt at perfect geometry. By contrast, to the immediate right of Lahti is a brutish yet lavish and expensive-seeming sight: a piece from the collective Future Death Toll featuring a construction-colored orange target on the wall and a human cast from beeswax suspended above the floor, like ‘80s excess risen from the dead.
Up north, at Disjecta, the exhibition has more coherence. Mack McFarland’s video piece “A Composition for Your Peripheral Vision” consists of two monitors, positioned to the left and right of a viewer’s head when seated in a cubicle. Staring straight ahead at a black wall, geometric objects whiz by your periphery, with an animation inspired by the work of early 20th century ethnographer Felix von Luscahn, and addresses questions of perception and the art of looking. In the same space, Arnold Kemp presents photographs-cum-drawings in a series called “WHO’S AFRAID OF SOMETHING REAL?” Minimalist, large-scale prints of wrinkled foil, there are three holes cut from the foil, making the loose suggestion of two eyes and a mouth. The prints’ formal relationship to an earlier work of Kemp’s exploring the formalism of the Ku Klux Klan hood adds gravitas to the already stunning images. Other works informed by conceptual and postmodern practices are the photos of Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen, as well as an overwhelmingly enormous sculpture/installation by Brian Gillis.
One venue, the White Box, has yet to open as part of Portland2012. Still, to truly reflect the city’s scene, a few more inclusions would be necessary: namely more comic artists, and a nod to contemporary dance (tEEth, Linda Austin, or even NWDP would’ve been great additions). The range of work is already huge, however, and difficult enough to digest as a whole.
Despite being missing from a major survey like the Whitney Biennial, national awareness of Portland has picked up in recent years; Fox News ran a post March 19 titled “Ten Reasons to Fly to Portland, Oregon Right Now.” The New York Times’s love affair with Portland is extensive (look here, here, and here); last fall the Times ran a piece labeling Portland as the “capitol of West Coast urban cool.” This national coverage has surfaced primarily within the last few years, as the city has been deemed a hotspot for youths. Portland has changed unspeakably, largely due to a rapid influx in young creatives, and Portland2012 only serves as proof that the city’s pulse is a hard one to take.