Commentary by Adam McIsaac on the Portland Art Museum's first Contemporary NW Art Awards exhibition

25.June 2008

Smaller is better.

The Portland Art Museum's narrower, more focused view of regional contemporary art satisfies fewer artists, but makes for a good exhibition

The Portland Art Museum’s first Contemporary Northwest Art Awards soft-opened a week ago Saturday (the official public opening is later in July, though you can – and should – go see the show now). It’s an uncommonly strong exhibition; in fact, I can’t remember a denser or more interesting contemporary show in my twenty-odd years of attending the museum. During the preview, I felt as if I might be at the Henry in Seattle: historically, PAM has had a timid hand when it came to contemporary work, regional or otherwise. So: kudos to Jennifer Gately, the museum’s young curator of Northwest art, who put it together; and especially to Whiting Tennis (who took home the first Schnitzer Prize), Jeffry Mitchell, Dan Attoe, Cat Clifford, and our own Marie Watt, each of whom put together disciplined, considered and largely brand-new bodies of work in almost no time (six months is nothing when you work at the scale that these people do).

The critics have had their say, and although they stray – as is their wont – from analysis and into celebrating their own cleverness from time to time, notices have been by and large good. This show was designed to replace the old Oregon Biennial; although I think there’s probably room for a free-form, broad-spectrum salon of that nature around here, I found the CNAA’s narrower, deeper view much more interesting.

To wit: there is a ton of art being made in the Northwest right now, and some of it is even good.

I kid. I kid because I love: I’ve been to several DIY-type shows this year that have astonished me, especially in terms of the younger generation’s rediscovery of draftsmanship. But given the larger talent pool, even a show conducted like the Biennials of old might have seemed exclusive: you can find some fine paintings hanging even in cafés and bars – how do you hang those and exclude an old codger like Jim Lavadour, who is making the best paintings of his career? Or do you include Lavadour and ignore the young folks?

You could argue that’s the curator’s problem, and you’d be right. But once you get to a certain scale, you have to stop trying to be all things to all people. The only consistent feature of the old Biennial was the amount of bitching and sour grapes surrounding it. Seattle has the Betty Bowen Award, which is awarded to one artist a year, full stop. As an early measure toward sacking up and breaking the Portland Art Museum of its cautious, omphaloskeptic habits, the CNAA is welcome, and has the potential to do a much better job of representing the state of contemporary art in this region than the Bowen, the Tacoma Biennial, or the other current instruments.

The regional scope is important: like a lot of locals, I’d have liked to see more Oregon artists represented (though my wife got in; so, you know, I got mine). I’m going to go ahead and claim Attoe for our side, since he lives in Washougal and will probably move to town this year. But that balance is going to be tough for Gately in the coming years, as she’s more likely to be more familiar with the local product and the work of outlanders will carry the sparkle of novelty. Though if it was a problem this year, it was political only; intercity rivalries are for spectators. To an artist, art is a non-competitive sport; and the harmonies and resonance evident among all five artists’ work is happy evidence of that.