Biennials of national or international scope–witness the Whitney Biennial this spring and the São Paolo Biennial coming up in September–have long held the power to capture and hold art lovers’ imaginations. But what of regional biennials? Can they transcend the perception that regionalism equals provincialism? It’s an open question, but in the Pacific Northwest, at least three institutions offer a resounding collective “Yes!”: Portland Art Museum, with its Contemporary Northwest Art Awards; Tacoma Art Museum, with its Northwest Biennial; and Portland arts nonprofit Disjecta, which this spring mounts its third Oregon-based biennial, “Portland2014.” Disjecta’s first two biennials were organized by Portland-based curators: Cris Moss in 2010 and Prudence Roberts in 2012.
For this year’s iteration, which runs March 8 to April 27, the nonprofit’s executive director, Bryan Suereth, and board of directors tapped an out-of-state curator to lead the charge. Amanda Hunt, a curator at the Los Angeles nonprofit LAXART, was deeply involved in the Pacific Standard Time series three years ago and the biennial exhibition “Made in LA 2012,” so she brings formidable experience to the challenge of surveying the breadth of Oregon’s artistic ecosphere. Suereth is confident Hunt will succeed at the task. “I’m excited about bringing a dynamic young curator to Portland to ‘mix it up,'” he says. “With an outside curator, the ‘Portland bubble’ is broken; it’s not just us talking about ourselves to ourselves anymore. We’re holding our artists up for critique and response on the national stage.”
After last year’s call for entries, Hunt pored over 300 submissions and gathered additional input from Northwest arts professionals. She did more than 60 studio visits and wound up with a final grouping of 15 artists and collaborators, all Oregon-based, all but two based in Portland. As in the two previous biennials, much of the work exhibited has been newly created for the exhibition and will be displayed in several different venues. “I really wanted there to be space and time between the works presented,” Hunt explains. “Otherwise there’s a tendency to think you have to pack as much as possible into the biennial experience, so you wind up with a shopping-mall experience, which I think is a disservice to the work and the making.”
The exhibition’s largest venue is Disjecta’s soaring, 6,000-square-foot headquarters in PortlandÕs Kenton neighborhood. There, Modou Dieng and Devon A. VanHouten-Maldonado will create a collaborative installation; Blair Saxon-Hill will parlay collage-based works into an installation-based experience; and Kelly Rauer will combine live performance and multi-channel video installation. Also exhibiting in the space are artists D.E. May, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, and Evan La Londe. Ellen Lesperance will show work at UPFOR Gallery in the cityÕs Pearl District, while Travis Fitzgerald, Zachary Davis, and Alex Mackin Dolan will exhibit in the White Box space at the Old Town campus of the University of Oregon. Christopher Michlig and John Zerzan will build experimental public-information kiosks outside Disjecta as well as elsewhere in Portland; Ralph Pugay and Richard Thompson will create billboards throughout the city; and the ad-hoc collective Personal Libraries Library will install a reading room at the Alberta Street space cheekily known as The Best Art Gallery in Portland. A series of lectures and panel discussions will happen each Saturday of the biennial’s run. Finally, the on-demand book publisher known as Publication Studio is producing the show’s catalogue, one that Hunt characterizes as very different from traditional exhibition documents.
“I wanted to have an alternative publication that wouldn’t just be a staid, straightforward document, but one that would reveal more about the process and inspiration for the work,” Hunt says. “So I gave everybody carte blanche as to what they put in: a poem, a scan, an image of a work reproduced. It’ll be an art object in its own right.”
For Hunt, delving into the selection and planning process gave her a deeper sense of the region’s creative culture. “As I looked at more work, I started to piece together persistent themes: dialogue and collaboration; the presence of the hand, of not outsourcing production; a connection to the landscape; and an overarching sense of intergenerational dialogue.” This last element, according to Suereth, is one of Hunt’s most important contributions. “I think her selections really emphasize a cross-generational approach. There are some bold choices ranging from the young guns to the time-tested Winchesters. She’s considering how art practices in Oregon have both changed and stayed the same throughout the years and how those practices have molded the work of the region.”
2010’s biennial was sprawling, unruly, bold; 2012’s tighter and more circumspect. As “Portland2014” looms, there”s a palpable anticipation as Portlanders prepare to see how they’re seen in a curatorial context beyond the Pacific Northwest.