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Friday 06.13.08

« Brighter Than a Thousand Suns | Main | The Cool School »

The first Contemporary Northwest Art Awards

A tiny sample of Marie Watt's installation

So is this Contemporary Northwest Art Awards deal at the Portland art Museum worth seeing? People have had their doubts and well... I've seen it and yes (unequivocally) you should too...

The CNAA's open tomorrow to Museum members as a gala and the 5 artists will speak on Sunday at 2:00. A huge, free and warmer weather bash is planned for July 25th

The Verdict: As a collection of 5 solo shows it starts with two of the best exhibitions we've seen in Portland in the last year before losing its nerve (in a very professional way).
I'll save in depth formal reviews for later because it really deserves 5 reviews, but in short here is why it does and doesn't work:

Overall it is a serious museum show, not like the somewhat ADHD style biennials, even the stuff that falls short... falls short with well installed authority. You get to explore precisely why and how each artist succeeds or fails.

It starts with a bang, Marie Watt really steps up with a Joseph Beuys meets Louise Bourgeois festival of fond remembrance that utilizes the Belluschi designed atrium space to great effect. If you like craft, spatially activated art and do-gooder social coincidence stuff (quite reminiscent of MK Guth's Whitney Biennial piece but more crafty) then this will please you. If you were one of the people annoyed that Watt was the only Portland artist included and asked why her?... then her installation should answer the question (in case you missed her Smithsonian show). Fact is it is unfair for her to represent Portland alone... but she does a good job representing herself and this is an eye opener compared to her consistently good but never quite awe inspiring solo shows at PDX.

Dan Attoe's You Are Vulnerable Just Like the Rest of Us, 2006 (View 1)
Mixed media sculpture, neon light, animation, wires, transformer
125 x 72 x 2.5 inches (318 x 183 x 6.25 cm)

Another bang, Dan Attoe, provides 99.9% of the attitude in this show with his Jorg Immendorf meets David Lynch listening to death metal at a Bruce Nauman neon show opening offering. One normally has to go to LA or Berlin to see his painting/drawing/neon installations, though he lives just outside of Portland in Washougal Washington. Seeing this is a real treat and he plans to relocate to Portland proper soon, which might be good for him... his subject matter needs to go beyond red necks and death metal to move him from simply being a hip artist who shows with Peres Projects to someone like the late Jason Rhoades who still seems to be THE artist of male angst and spiritual yearning.

Whiting Tennis is solid with his folksy slightly Puryear-ish crafty sculpture (which looks quaint after Attoe). Sure Tennis good but not terribly original ... most everyone in Portland and Seattle wondered why he was chosen and this wont quell that query.

Detail of Jeffry Mitchell's Sphinx

Jeffry Mitchell puts in another predictably solid but very absorbed installation and painting duet. Nobody will question why he's here... he makes interesting objects but as an overall installation it lacks the energy and authority of Attoe and Watt. Mitchell is very familiar in Seattle and Portland so he needed to really up the ante, instead he seems to have gone down the rabbit hole of his already familiar preoccupations... he's simply done better before. Also, tons of artists used mirrors this year at Art Basel Miami Beach and I'm certain this is not as good as Terence Koh.

Cat Clifford seems similarly absorbed but without Mitchell's experience. Like a lot of younger artist's she's all over the place with nature sculpture, videos of her doing performances in the landscape.... and pinhole photography. The result is both slick and unfocused with a put-on folksy air that doesnt hold it together. It is essentially a mini retrospective of a young career that's premature and tries to do too many things. Some will question why she's here, I don't... Gately took a chance on a promising younger artist... too bad she didn't distill her activities at this time.

Overall, every artist evoked either nature or craft as if to reinforce the idea that "this" is what we do in the Northwest, but in truth that is only a portion of it. Let's question if the stereotype needed to be re-emphasisized? Wouldn't have something very urban added a richer context? What is indisputable though is this feels like a museum show not a swap meet as other Oregon and Northwest Biennials have tended to be.

So will it be influential? Probably not as much as the 1999 Oregon biennial but I suspect it will lead people to expect more relevant refinements from solo and group shows... at least I hope so.

Recent History:

When it was announced that the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards would replace the Oregon Biennial last year there was an awful lot of teeth gnashing and more than a little hope. Would this be an improvement over the pot luck style biennial which seemed to have too many artists with not enough focused attention on any one? Would the CNAA's be a risk taking effort or simply a cavalcade of safe pre-approved area gallery regulars? Would it be more worthy of attention outside the region? Would they really be like the SECA award or the Turner Prize?

Then when the huge list of nominees (solicited from arts professionals in the region) was winnowed down to 28 finalists by curator Jennifer Gately and guest eyes James Rondeau the grumbles started. Why not have Rondeau do studio visits? Why a mere $10,000 for the Schnitzer prize? Why did that list include so many so-safe mostly local gallery regulars when others who are showing nationally and internationally didn't make the cut? Ruth Ann Brown of The New American Art Union felt the CNAA's were timid and the award too small... and created the Couture series of stipend shows, with a gutsy lineup... where each of the 10 artists gets $8,000 and a six week show.

Instead of excitement when the 5 awardees for the CNAA's were announced people were deeply bored. The list of names generated little interest in Portland and Seattle and people started to dread the CNAA show. (Good thing it's actually turned out reasonably well)

Also, many up and coming artists felt the rug had been pulled out from underneath them... a ladder to local preeminence had been denied to them. At the same time I saw the museum's issue with the format... they were being made to be kingmakers and talent scouts for the established galleries, a backwards arrangement. What's more the frequent warehouse shows often excellent solo shows were consistently outshining the biennial in terms of depth of exploration and or freshness, making the biennial look more like county fair ribbon ceremony.

As the show has drawn nigh PAM has put its advertising dollars behind the show with ads in Art in America, WWeek and PORT etc. and this has brought some additional international visibility.


The Oregon Biennial was untenable at the Portland Art Museum, it was becoming an indigestible entanglement of local art politics when the museum wanted to focus on the work. Because the scene had grown and become more active more sophisticated the museum didn't need to give it a helping hand any more. The museum shouldn't be vetting new talent, that's for other curators, collectors and galleries. In Portland 2008 there are plenty of theaters in which to prove yourself now and the CNAA's seems to be a great addition. The Contemporary Northwest art Awards lets the museum act like a museum, which is to say maybe not the most cutting edge but authoritative.

This first iteration of the CNAA's makes a lot from its safe selections and the two artists that really delivered make me excited for possibly more gutsy future, one where craft and the great outdoors might also sit alongside more urbane, aggressive, stark, brainy, quirky, even defiantly quiet work. Overall there is a lack of dynamics in the CNAA's that is present in any good warehouse show and that's probably the taste of the curator and I long to see art which more dramatically different (maybe its the fact that the Seattle artists included are more buttoned down than Portland art tends to be). But that's why I still curate local group shows (p.s. Volume opens at Worksound August 30th) and that is why others should do the same, if you want to change things... go ahead.

So yes, I'm surprised that I am satisfied with this first Contemporary Northwest Art Awards, but I am and I respect Watt and Attoe in a new way. I don't think the strongest artists from Portland or Seattle are represented here and that provides an opportunity, but is PAM really ready to do that? One of the most annoying aspects about large institutions in the northwest is that they rarely curate so strength plays against strength (though we got a bit of that with Watt and Attoe here). No the inaugural CNAA's isn't perfect but its good and holds promise for growth (museums like PAM never make their first steps that radical).

So are the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards the SECA for the Northwest? Gately indicated as much in her interview with the Stanger. Well they do seem similar... gallery representation does seem to really matter in both as a kind of political caveat and that seems to keep the work for being too surprising (because they have been promoted previously by the gallery). The real proof will be if any of these artists get greater national recognition and people start to associate the CNAA's with who to watch? That will take at least 3 iterations to really determine but I think it's worth being patient for.

Also, there is a nagging question the art scene has had with curator Jennifer Gately that I've held off asking because it wasn't fair until the CNAA art show was up. Since the CNAA's and the Center for Northwest Art's APEX series seem to have a lot of crossover... what is the rationale for each program now? (that is a formal invitation from PORT to you Jen) At first the APEX program highlighted major artists from the region, Portland's Chris Johanson, Wes Mills of Montana and Roy McMakin of Seattle. Suddenly it seems like its showing younger artists like Jenene Nagy and Marc Dombrosky turning apex into an interesting project space (it isnt large). Yet it seemed like Cat Clifford from the CNAA's was at a similar "emerging" arc of her career? PORT's readers would like to hear about how you are defining these two intersecting programs.

Lastly, is the nagging definition of the Pacific Northwest. In many ways Portland has more in common with Vancouver B.C. than Seattle. I understand that the museum has a long standing tradition of defining the region as; Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon but it seems inevitable that regionally based programming has to eventually add our Canadian neighbors into the mix. The Pacific Northwest is an international zone, the CNAA's and APEX are new but it is not a question of if but when the shared ideological outlook overwhelms the arbitrary institutional outlook.

Lingering questions like studio visits from guest curators and the size of the prize may or may not be addressed for the next iteration of the CNAA's but for now let's enjoy the fact that this version will probably make people anticipate the next iteration more.

*Update: On Saturday night to a throng of Portland and Seattle luminaries (including many noted Portland artists who weren't among the 250 nominees) Whiting Tennis was announced as the recipient of the 2008 Arlene Schnitzer prize. I was standing right next to Tennis and the news produced some audible cries of surprise.... which is understandable, he's good but easily the most conservative artist in the show. He's also the most "Northwesty" with his quiet, wry and somewhat folksy craft driven work.

He's good... and his witty birdhouses were constantly on my mind as I drove past countless old sheds and farms on the way to the coast yesterday... so I cant begrudge the choice to make this first show and award so obviously "Northwest". Still, the question remains; why reinforce the stereotype when it's a notion that increasingly holds less sway in the area? I dub the 2008 Schnitzer award the "Polite Award." The region is capable of doing a more contentious or sizzling show than LA's recent Eden's Edge but I dont think PAM is the one to show it... not just yet. Clearly PAM acknowledges the changes that have redefined Portland with Jenene Nagy's APEX show but maybe this first CNAA was a way to revisit the obvious before challenging the stereotype?

Posted by Jeff Jahn on June 13, 2008 at 14:23 | Comments (7)


Obviously I have yet to see the exhibition, but I fear the CNAA's will give me the same feeling I often come across when viewing artwork in Seattle. The feeling that everything is from the Pacific Northwest by being crafty, woodsy, etc. I do enjoy these artists separately, but as a national symbol of what we have to offer in our region, I feel it falls into exactly what everyone expects. However, maybe Jennifer and others at PAM didn't want to shake things up too much in the first year, but simply wanted to create a respectable showing.

I too am curious about the separation between APEX and the CNAA's, since some of the artists seem to be at similar points career-wise.

And I second your call for more Vancouver BC artists. Just because their Canadian doesn't mean we shouldn't include them too. :)

Posted by: Calvin Ross Carl [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 14, 2008 09:36 AM

1. The artist's name is Marc Dombrosky, not Mark.
2. What exactly does "In many ways Portland has more in common with Vancouver B.C. than Seattle" mean?

Posted by: Cody Pomeroy [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 14, 2008 04:33 PM

#1 Thanks and fixed

#2 ...a fair question that I thought a lot about this weekend. I think it has a lot to do with the way the artist's relate to their city... maybe a feeling of involved ownership that is somewhat European.

By comarison... in Seattle I always sense an astringent sense of sarcasm that isn't quite the same in Vancouver and Portland.

In Portland the artists feel more enfranchised even welcome than in any city Ive seen... but without much in terms of grants and other institutional support so its a wild west situation with limitless opportunities with little support... it's a pioneering situation where you have to work to build everything from the ground up. In Vancouver its more officiated... there are lots of grants and many layers of institutons with very clearly defined routes of a certain type of government supported success to follow. That seems very different on paper, but in both cases the artists feel like their efforts are the barometers of their cities. In Seattle it is simply a different dynamic.

From my experience Portland, Seattle and Vancouver artists are all pretty compatable personality wise... All three scenes are populated by a lot of smart mutually interested people. I'm very pro Cascadia.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 16, 2008 10:44 AM

I find it odd that you consider Tennis' work "obvious Northwest". I don't get that impression at all. He plays around with architectural forms that are hardly limited to Northwest buildings. The titles of his pieces make it obvious that these sculptures are meant to act as metaphors (think Louise Nevelson if she grew up in some tract housing development). That's not exactly typical of Northwest art, which seems to shun rather than encourage any sort of metaphoric interpretation.

I'm also puzzled as to why work that is "quiet and wry" is less deserving of an award than 1. in-your-face irony (neon pussy anyone?), 2. Overly sentimental craft projects, 3. A haphazardly assembled collection of thrift store junk or 4. a grouping of objects and videos that is perhaps meant to be intimate and lyrical but instead comes across as being opaque and self-absorbed (now THAT'S "obviously Northwest"!).

Giving the award to someone who's not trying to fit any trend or be "hip" and just making solid work seems to be pretty logical to me, and not, as you put it, merely "polite".

Posted by: Mierenneuker [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 17, 2008 12:27 PM

First off, the tag "polite" isn't a slam... simply an observation. Some art is simply very polite and I think it's more the context in the "Contemporary Northwest Art Awards" that makes Tennis a provocative choice because it reads a a reassertion of the idea that the Northwest is the land of politeness. A lot has changed.

Second, there isnt much irony in Dan Attoe's work... I actually find more in Tennis' work.

Third, there is an awful lot of metaphor in Northwest art... probably because there is a lot of metaphor in contemporary art in general. I simply can't agree with your assertion that the Northwest avoids metaphor.

Fourth, I like Tennis's work and defended him last year when people questioned why SAM's Michael Darling had acquired him... that said my fondness for shaker furniture, Louise Nevelson, Cy Twombly's much quieter and wryer sculpture, Sarah Bostwick, H.C. Westerman, Schwitters, Puryear and the many great folk art collections in the Midwest dampen my enthusiasm for a good but somewhat safe artist. It's very buttoned down art.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 18, 2008 10:59 AM

I agree with Mierenneuker. Tennis recieved the award because his work is very well crafted and expresses a unique and clear sentiment.

The rest of the show seemed very similar (dark, fuzzy, organic) not necessarily NW just similar.
I don't understand the sentence ..."they rarely curate so strength plays against strength"

There still is a need for the Biennal as well. It would bring a variety of artist together in a very public arena, outside the restriction of a single galleries style. We want people to be aware of current art well as historic what better place than the Art Museum to do that .

Posted by: LB4 [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 20, 2008 10:48 AM

So what about, "dark, fuzzy, organic" isn't very much of what people typically think when they think of Northwest art? Im talking about a stereotype here, not specific artists... then add craft oriented tag to all 5 artists in the show and there is a clear, undeniable curatorial intent at work here. That isn't a bad thing but unlike the last biennial where Chandra Bocci and Jesse Hayward made a case for a more energetic, less precious... more extroverted work... this show did not.

That is perfectly fine... it's simply a more buttoned down show... and supports my thesis that the 1st CNAA's are a polite, somewhat buttoned down offering that isn't supposed to be representative of all the work in the region. Merely a sampling of 5 worthy practishioners.

It does do a good job of presenting many typical northwest themes of craft, polite dignity, subculture introspection and general nature mongering.

My preference is for exhibitions that are a little less homogenized but it's unfair to expect a big museum always act that way. Overall it's a good show and everyone should be proud for one reason or another.

As for strength on strength question... I've noticed that Northwest curators rarely put the best work of the best artists in contrast to one another. This is expected and done in New York and London frequently. Whereas shows like the 2006 Oregon Biennial or the 2007 Northwest Biennial at TAM were simply filled with too much work that was way too similar in tone to create a strength on strength contrast.... it all just bleeds together. Same with the too close hang of work in the Jubitz Center... just cut out some of the dead wood.

A strength on strength selection would have placed artists who are at the absolute top of their game and doing their best work next to one another for contrast and its rare here (it has to change and Gately's been moving in that direction with the hang in the Hoffman wing and part of the CNAA's).

Personally, I've seen much better Tennis shows at Greg Kucera's and Mitchell and Clifford simply didn't bring their A games either. I also felt Watt and Attoe brought their A games and Gately showed guts in contrasting them.... at the end of the day it was the artists that were responsible though.

These are just questions and statements designed to open dialog about how Northwest artists are presented and my stance is that we should always expect more ideal (or at least respectful or intellectually challenging) conditions for viewing art.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 20, 2008 12:52 PM

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