Evoking Eero Saarinen’s iconic Gateway Arch in St. Louis, which leads symbolically into the Great American West, Abbie Miller’s Squeezed Arch beckons viewers into a symbolic distillation of artistic practices in the Pacific Northwest. Miller’s arch, made from shocking red vinyl and myriad zippers stretched over a welded steel armature, makes an effective point-of-entry for the third installment of Portland Art Museum’s biennial “Contemporary Northwest Art Awards.” The Wyoming-based Miller joins five other artists from four other states: Karl Burkheimer from Oregon; Isaac Layman, Nicholas Nyland, and the single-moniker artist known as Trimpin, all from Washington; and Anne Appleby from Montana. The museum’s curator of Northwest art, Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson, worked with guest curator Apsara DiQuinzio to whittle an initial field of 235 nominees and 176 applicants down to 28 finalists, with whom Laing-Malcolmson conducted studio visits. Those artists, in turn, were narrowed to the six artists selected for the exhibition.
On September 20, one day before the show’s opening gala, Laing-Malcolmson–joined by the museum’s six other curators, curatorial assistant Jennifer Harper, and the museum’s director, Brian Ferriso–gathered for a final winnowing: to choose from among the exhibitors the winner of the $10,000 Arlene Schnitzer Prize. Each juror assigned each finalist an overall score from one to five, with the highest averaged score determining the prizewinner. Laing-Malcolmson says the scores “were extremely close, and there were no ties,” reflecting a high bar of quality and much common ground between the artists’ concerns. “When I did my studio visits the last time,” Laing-Malcolmson says, recalling the 2011 Awards, “the whole economic picture was so bad that a lot of artists had lost their galleries and studio spaces and started making work they wouldn’t ordinarily have made for commercial galleries. They told me, ‘This is the kind of work I’ve wanted to make for years. This was in my heart.’ And so this time around, we’re seeing the continuing fruits of that with some really experimental work.”
Ultimately, the jurors tapped Trimpin to receive the $10,000 prize, but all six artists–born variously in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s–contribute to a generation-spanning show that simultaneously embraces and transcends northwest regionalism’s association with earthy, ecologically-driven work. Trimpin’s bizarrely modified baby-grand piano, Red Hot, is a case study. The piano’s exposed inner workings–a veritable Rube Goldberg toolbox of saws, files, gears, and scrapers–have a rough-hewn aesthetic that many would consider archetypically Northwest. But conceptually, Red Hot is anything but regionalist, taking inspiration from the “prepared pianos” of avant-garde 20th-century composers John Cage and Conlon Nancarrow. In a nod to 21st-century technology, however, the German-born Trimpin has included an interactive, computer-controlled element. When viewers raise their hands like would-be conductors before a movement-sensitive panel, the saws and other tools begin assaulting the piano’s strings, “playing” one of 18 pieces, among them loose arrangements of Weill and Brecht’s “Mack the Knife,” Beethoven’s “Fur Elise,” and the prelude to Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Sporadically filling the space with music, sounds, and just plain noise, the piano undergirds the exhibition with a tinny, tinkly note of Weimarian decadence.
It’s an effective Continental counterprogramming to Miller’s Wild-West arch, which evokes the sandstone formations and lonely, whistling winds of Moab, Utah. One of Miller’s three vinyl-and-zipper sculptures in the show, Squeezed Arch complements another Western fantasia, the gold-fabric/Vegas-chintzy This Land is Our Land; and the cheekily titled Currently Untitled, a sweeping duet of white vertical and horizontal gestures that bears no small resemblance to the Winged Victory of Samothrace. The monumentality of Miller’s works is echoed in Karl Burkheimer’s Setting a Corner, a curved plywood sculpture counterbalanced by a rectangle of concrete blocks. At the mouth of the plywood, a bevy of rocks lies scattered, as if vomited in a barrage of volcanic magma. A delicate, painted-wood curio sits mounted on the structure’s side. Intentionally precious, it pokes gentle fun at the sculpture’s architectonic grandiosity.
This grand scale contrasts with the subtle, pensive quality of Nicholas Nyland’s mixed-media works, Anne Appleby’s oil paintings, and Isaac Layman’s digital photographic collages. Nyland’s diminutive, deliberately crude Candelabra and Early American Pyramids employ glazed earthenware and acrylic paint–one medium seemingly spilling into the other and out into the viewer’s personal space–as Wildean tools for blurring lines between life and art. Appleby’s blocks of densely layered paint at first appear as pure abstract monochromes but on closer inspection betray natural referents. The dappled light and limpid rhythms of The River reach back to Claude Monet’s water lilies, while Water Birch and Requiem for a Ponderosa Pine sing paeans to the sylvan landscape surrounding the artist’s Montana home. Layman’s inspiration derives not from nature, but from domestic life. Using a digital camera outfitted with a scanner, he obsessively documents quotidian furniture and accessories in his home, turning ice-cube trays, a cabinet, and a sink into close-up minimalist studies, which are disarmingly elegant and vaguely sinister.
That works this disparate coexist so effortlessly within the show is impressive, but their dialogue with works not in the show, but in the museum’s permanent collection, provides an unexpected treat. Attentive viewers will note that the gaudy gold fabric in Miller’s This Land is Your Land, positioned outside the exhibition proper at the top of the entrance hall’s stairwell, echoes the gilded frame of the painting to its left, one of Rembrandt Peale’s ubiquitous portraits of George Washington. The political implications of Miller’s piece and its title–the specter of Woody Guthrie’s populist reimagining of the Manifest Destiny terminating in the trashy glitz of a Vegas casino–is all the more pointed for its proximity to the Father of our Country. Another curatorial double-entendre happens in the exhibition’s entrance hallway, where Miller’s white-zipper etude, Currently Untitled, seems to call out to the white-marble sculpture across the hall, Randolph Rogers’ Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompei (1855-1884).
Although these moments may appear serendipitous, they are in fact meticulously considered. “I have a baby-sized model of the whole show,” Laing-Malcolmson explains, “and I moved the elements around, like in a dollhouse.” What she has ultimately created is not just a series of “It” moments, but a sampling of artists’ passions and fears, many of which resonate globally. “One thing we saw was that artists were really touched by domestic catastrophes and continuing wars worldwide. It has encouraged them to look inward, to make work that is deeply personal and that balances the tragedies happening around us with beauty.” That’s a loaded word for a curator to utter these days, but Laing-Malcolmson speaks it advisedly–and carries it through in this smart, heterogeneous, impeccably installed, and yes, thoroughly beautiful show.