“Contemporary Northwest Art Awards” at Portland Art Museum

Contemporary Northwest Art Awards, 2016. Courtesy: Portland Art Museum

Biennial exhibitions tend toward the staid and dutiful; not so this year’s energizing iteration of Portland Art Museum’s “Contemporary Northwest Art Awards.” The third and final
of these regional biennials to be curated by outgoing Northwest art curator Bonnie Laing Malcolmson, CNAA provides a case study in spatial engagement and a refreshingly diverse survey of art within a five-state region (Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming). Eight artists are showcased, five of them women, five born outside the United States, and ranging in age from 30-something to 70-something. Inevitably and welcomely, with such a varied composition, the exhibition takes viewers on a visual and thematic journey that manages to feel both regional and cosmopolitan.

The show opens in the museum’s soaring entry gallery and makes full use of the room’s scale. Obsolete Solid, a sculpture by Lead Pencil Studio (Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo), dominates the space. Twenty-five feet tall, it tilts at a precarious angle, injecting a sense of edginess and danger into the installation. A pastiche of marble, concrete, wood, chicken wire, and styrofoam, it encapsulates centuries of architectural history into one daring, off-kilter exclamation point. With its exposed metal girding, it evokes the twisted metal supports spiking out of the rubble of the fallen Twin Towers-an allusion echoed by Willem Volkersz’s piece nearby, Silent City. A somber, neon-accented painting of post-9/11 Manhattan, it superimposes carrion crows atop a melancholy cityscape. Inside the adjoining gallery are two hypnotic glass installations by Dana Lynn Louis; three large-scale abstract paintings by Helen O’Toole; Aiko Takamori’s ceramic and porcelain meditations on childhood; and Samantha Wall’s intricately rendered and psychologically unsettling self-portraits. Victoria Haven’s prints of random words from text messages exudes minimalist panache, as does her corollary video installation of flashing text. Finally, in Jump Cuts, Haven riffs on the negative space in film stills from the oeuvre of director Stanley Kubrick.

It’s worth noting that the negative space of the exhibition itself is one of CNAA’s most striking features. A 50-foot wall packed with sculptures by Takamori juts aggressively into the inner exhibition hall, yet the sightlines to all of the other artworks remain clear. Throughout the show, formal contrasts between hard edges and soft contours, flashy neon and muted oils, reflectivity and opacity, impart a visceral sense of expansion and contraction, lending this biennial a dynamism and muscularity that leave the viewer thoroughly invigorated.