I repost this column because it has largely disappeared from the Oregonian web site by 3 PM. By archiving it here, it will always be available for those who search by Google, etc.

Monday, July 31, 2006 – The Oregonian, by D.K. ROW

Federico Nessi’s photograph of a languorously reclining young man that mocks heroic and passive images from art history. Chandra Bocci’s big bang installation that incorporates hundreds of gummi bears speared like kebabs over a grill. Pat Boas’ drawing of a strange, coiled hybrid figure that looks part animal and part vegetable.

There’s an abundance of arresting images in the 2006 Oregon Biennial, an exhibit that accurately mirrors Oregon’s eclectic art scene. Just as recent biennials did to varying degrees, the 2006 show highlights artists young and old, new and established names, a variety of thematic concerns and a mix of media from painting to video art.

But that encyclopedic breadth also makes this biennial so open-ended that it prompts a reappraisal. In the past decade, the local art scene has evolved into an artistic organism so vast the public can no longer easily assess or digest it — it’s a great leap from 20 years ago. The biennial, the museum’s single most important regular exhibition of art made in the state, presents an opportunity to interpret the trends and practices flourishing within the scene. The biennial could be more than a temperature reading: It could be a full-fledged diagnosis.

That’s not to say that Jennifer A. Gately, the museum’s first curator of Northwest art, hasn’t taken some bold steps. After arriving in mid-January, Gately had only a few months to look through the slides of 768 applicants, eventually selecting 34 artists for this year’s show. Unlike her predecessors, Kathryn Kanjo and Bruce Guenther, she’s expanded the range of media to include examples from Portland’s thriving video art community: Grace Carter and Holly Andres’ touching, almost maudlin recollection of their mothers; Vanessa Renwick’s somber documentation of the destruction of the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant; and Andrew Ellmaker and Mark Brandau’s ponderous take on artistic essence.

For the first time in recent memory, Gately also tapped a few artists to make site-specific pieces for the show, including Bocci’s heavenly gummi bear meditation on consumerism, Brittany Powell’s paean to Americana using cutout images of a diner menu and Jesse Hayward’s intentionally messy installation that demolishes the boundaries between painting and sculpture.

But other than these changes, the exhibit resembles just another safe survey, and it repeats some perennially bad museum habits, such as the incomprehensible exclusion of any kind of introductory and panel notes for the show. Just as it did with its recent outstanding survey of the career of Hilda Morris, the museum offers no explanation to the public about the show — what it is, how it was assembled, what it attempts to chart. The public is simply in the dark.

What’s on the walls and floors, however, is more accommodating, even if there’s so much work that wall space is crowded and the floor space congested enough that visitors may find negotiating the exhibit a navigational task.

Gately may have been at the museum since January, but she’s clearly knowledgeable about the Northwest scene and has nurtured deep connections with its artists from her stint at Idaho’s Sun Valley Center for the Arts. In this biennial she acknowledges as many layers of the Oregon art world as she possibly can, in particular the tsunami of new arrivals to Portland, many of whom have no relationship with Portland’s commercial galleries.

The 34 artists can be grouped in several categories. Established veterans and previous biennial selections such as Storm Tharp, Lucinda Parker and Michael Brophy show work along with artists who have toiled for years to little public recognition — Renwick, David Eckard and Bill Will, whose missile made out of reconstituted wood is his latest and brilliantly suggestive political statement. Then there are the emerging artists who are on the verge of ascending to the scene’s major platform, including figurative artist Ty Ennis and non-representational painters and drawers such as Kristan Kennedy and Anna Fidler.

Within these selections, a few discrete themes emerge.

Drawing and other works on paper have experienced a resurgence in the past several years, and Gately gives us a little glimpse of it in Laura Vandenburgh’s apparition-like abstractions of the physical landscape and Kennedy’s drooping, buoyant figures that have the suppleness of lava oozing out of a volcanic lip.

Art has always been a form of historical documentation, and that approach is well alive here. Brophy’s images of outdoorsmen and the Northwest landscape continue to chart the sad collision between culture and environment. Shawn Records’ spooky photographs manage to turn even dilapidated parts of suburban Beaverton into fog-shrouded scenery worthy of a period film set in Victorian England. David Rosenak shows a firm drawing hand in his paintings of yards and homes, works that so effectively bridge the worlds of photographed and drawn imagery that they aptly characterize the term “hyper-realism.”

Speaking of fantasy, a biennial would be committing sacrilege without acknowledging our culture’s operatic passion for various realms of the fantastic. Mariana Tres concocts the histories of fictional 19th-century figures through a collection of artifacts and photographs that amount to an elaborate private performance. Mark Hooper’s photographic imaginings of the Lewis and Clark journey are similarly quaint if amorphous fantasias, more performance art than photography.

As Gately notes in her catalog essay, one dominant image in art history has been the portrait. And two of the show’s standout offerings fit here: Tharp’s variations on the self-portrait — sculptural, painted and drawn works that nod to the tortured English expressionist Francis Bacon while celebrating the offerings of local florists; and Nessi’s large-scale color photographs that use his friends to poke fun at and celebrate heroic figures.

A persistent criticism of Northwest art has been that it favors craftsmanship over complex ideas. Several artists address the tension between art and craft by fashioning works that appear to be anti-craft pieces, including K.C. Madsen’s tilting, skewed monoliths made out of industrial paper, Amanda Wojick’s satire on the environmental hazards composed of Home Depot products, and Hayward’s boundary-breaking painting-sculpture pieces that have been piled on with paint and latex.

The result of all of this amounts to a wide-angled picture of an Oregon art scene morphing into something bigger. But instead of breaking down and deciphering this maturing art monster, Gately has simply surveyed it — the show’s so diffuse that it looks like a Rorschach blot. It can mean anything the viewer wants.

Which points to a possible course for the next biennial. Gately is clearly a cautious card player. But she will need to push her hand with the next biennial if she wants to match the museum’s bold, historic move of hiring a curator devoted exclusively to regional art. There’s too much at stake and too much going on in the local art world.

But what a wealth of activity she has: The massive generational shift within the local art scene, for example. Or the unorthodox grass-roots arts practices championed by numerous collectives and other groups. Or simply the astounding number of prominent art figures emerging.

Such an effort will surely require an overhaul of the biennial process, which needs to finally include invitations as well as submissions. When that happens, the Oregon Biennial will be a curator’s vision, and not simply a reflection.

D.K. Row: 503-294-7654; dkrow@news.oregonian.com