Go see the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards at the Portland Art Museum if you want to see some big strong ambitious works by artists of the region. There are seven artists’ works in this exhibition, which continues through May 28 (one of the artists is a two-person collaborative):
Victoria Haven is the conceptualist in the show. Her largest piece, Subtitles, is made up of ninety-eight woodblock prints installed seven high across a wall over forty feet long. Each panel contains juxtaposed black rectangles, each containing a single word in white. The paired words might have been selected dada-like, at random, for example: wow/ever, fun/closer, goodnight/pennies. Her works here are cryptic. Is the intention poetry or puzzle?
Lead Pencil Studio is the artist duo. The works here have a basis in fantasy architecture/urbanism. Lead Pencil Studio is known in Portland for the huge works titled Inversion Plus Minus at the east ends of the Hawthorne and Morrison bridges. In the awards show they are represented by a 25-foot-tall leaning tower built of a variety of materials, two huge framed drawings and a couple of curio cabinets containing crystalline objects reminiscent of souvenirs.
Dana Lynn Louis is the installation artist here. She has two large works contained in rooms partitioned from the overall space. They are made up of suspended objects, mirrors and wall drawing. The viewer is immersed in an overall decorative experience—in the good sense. (Back in the sixties, Frank Stella said that he wanted to work with “decorative painting…Decorative, that is, in a good sense, in the sense that is applied to Matisse.”)
Helen O’Toole is the painter. An ambitious painter she is. The four paintings here range up to fourteen feet long. These are abstractions that continue the tradition of abstract expressionism without in the least feeling derivative. In his essay The Abstract Sublime (1961) Robert Rosenblum explored “how some of the most heretical concepts of modern American abstract painting relate to the visionary nature-painting of a century ago.” He began by referring to 18th and 19th century writers for whom the concept of the Sublime “provided a flexible semantic container for the murky new Romantic experiences of awe, terror, boundlessness, and divinity.” O’Toole’s intense stormy works (which she relates to her youthful memories of rural Ireland) brought this to mind. In the catalog she refers to her “investigation of the land of sublime beauty and haunting sadness.” Her works are reminiscent of the 19th century tumultuous atmospheres of J.M.W. Turner, or the troubled skies above scenes painted by John Trumbull.
Akio Takemori is a painter/sculptor working with clay. In his catalog statement he refers to children, mountains and clay. He makes sculptures in clay and paints them with the light touch of a watercolorist. As we enter the museum galleries we are greeted by a series of small sculpted and painted mountains with hovering clouds at the peaks. Further into the gallery are two four-foot-tall naked toddler boys in painted ceramic and a forty-foot-long shelf containing about ninety shallow vessels presented vertically to reveal paintings of children. Takemori combines the solidity of the clay objects with just enough color and line so that we consider what the works might suggest, without telling us exactly what to think.
Willem Volkersz is the pop artist here. His representational paintings have a flat paint-by-numbers look and include neon light line drawings. The paintings are big, bold and well conceived, but the neon feels gratuitous.
Samantha Wall makes big drawings on paper. They are often really big: five, six, seven feet tall. In her works here she depicts shadowy figures—head and shoulders, sometimes with torso. The information is edited down to the minimum, mainly the outer edge of the darkfigure shape (no line), perhaps a tiny bit more as in Limbo I, where there is slight modeling of the neck, cheeks and ears (no eyes, no mouth). The dark figures stand out on bright white paper, like meeting a backlit person in a doorway. It is every nuance of the edge, and every decision about just how much to include that draws us in after we are first grabbed by the big scale. (Wall is scheduled to have an exhibition at Laura Russo Gallery in September.)
The artists’ works are ambitious. The Museum’s effort, not so much.
Some version of these biennial shows have been occurring for a long time and they always have the same problem: What’s the point?
The Museum says:
At the opening reception one artist will receive the $10,000 Arlene Schnitzer prize selected by the Museum’s curatorial staff. From nomination to final prize, the biennial awards process delivers a two-fold benefit: It allows the Portland Art Museum to identify a number of the Northwest’s exceptional talents, and it provides the museum with a far deeper understanding of the new work taking place in the region by both established and emerging artists.
First, giving an artist $10,000 is a good thing (congratulations, Samantha Wall!). Perhaps that’s point enough.
But after that: It allows the Portland Art Museum to identify a number of the Northwest’s exceptional talents. In this case the number is seven. In 2013 it was six. No case is made for why it is important to “identify” these folks. In this political season, here’s another example of empty rhetoric.
“And it provides the museum with a far deeper understanding of the new work taking place in the region.” It might be good for the museum to educate itself, even if that happens only once every two years. But what does it do for the museum audience? Does this show provide a “deeper understanding?” No, it provides a thin potpourri (to reiterate: the works in this exhibition are really worth seeing!), a casual glance, not a deep look.
In the Curatorial Advisor Comments in the catalog, Jessica Hunter-Larsen (curator, InterDisciplinary Arts Program, Colorado College) says, “So when thinking about curating an exhibition that showcases the contemporary production identity of the Northwest, what does that mean exactly?” Exactly. What does it mean? We are not told. Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson, curator of the show (and the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Northwest Art at the Museum), outlines an excruciatingly involved process for selecting the artists in her catalog comments. But we do not find out what was learned from the process except that there sure is a lot of great diverse art being made hereabouts. Not a surprise. Instead of a consistent study of the art of the region we are presented biennially with a triage quick study.
There’s more to mounting an institutional exhibition than just hanging art on the wall. If there was to be any deeper understanding for the viewer, then the museum might have spent some time providing some insight. These artists are from the Northwest. Where in the Northwest? Just as a matter of curiosity the viewer might want to know if a particular artist if from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana or Wyoming (the Northwest as the museum defines it). And do they live in a major city, or in the rural expanse? This information is not on labels in the exhibition, nor is it in the catalog.
Nowadays museums are often overburdened by wall text explaining everything. Not in this case. There is no wall text to tell the viewer what this show is, only a big title on the wall. So, given the general audience for the Museum, we can imagine viewers wondering what the “Awards” are, why they are, what’s it all about? By contrast, should the Museum exhibit “the greatest cat painting ever made” (downstairs on the way to the modern/contemporary galleries) you will find a nice big explanatory label. Infer what you will.
Every two years, the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. But in this case the stuff is really tasty, even if the box itself disappoints.
Addendum: I wrote in Willamette Week about the Oregon Annual at the museum forty years ago, and about a couple of Oregon Biennials after that. Two score years of disappointment. Nothing new.