From a Montana artist’s simple, monochromatic canvases to Seattle artist Trimpin’s reimagined piano, the current exhibition of contemporary art at the Portland Art Museum puts a rich and dynamic face on the Pacific Northwest. The Contemporary Northwest Art Awards is a showcase of work by artists from four states in the region.
“I strive for work to be exhibited, and be exhibited in the best places possible,” says Karl Burkheimer, the only Oregon winner, whose wood and concrete sculpture “Setting a Corner” is a comment on the built environment. “But when that happens, it’s a little bit of a happy surprise.”
Curator Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson narrowed down the winners from 176 nominated applicants from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. The resulting exhibition comprises a range of media, including sculpture, painting and even an interactive musical installation.
“I think mainly about the artwork and why the artist’s work really resonates with me,” Laing-Malcolmson says about her selection process. “For me, the artwork has to have some kind of voice within it. It has to have a kind of ability to express itself through metaphor, sometimes symbolically, but mainly metaphorically so that it causes associations with the viewer and doesn’t necessarily hit you over the head.”
As an example, Laing-Malcolmson points to a piece on a wall. At first, the image in the frame is ambiguous. It’s a white background with a gold circle in the lower center, almost like the button on an iPhone. But what is it?
“It’s a sink,” Laing-Malcolmson says of Isaac Layman’s piece. “He takes very common objects and really re-looks at them, so it causes you to look at your everyday world in a way that’s completely different.”
Layman, who lives in Seattle, makes detailed digital scans of household objects — for example, individual scans of each space in an ice cube tray — and pieces them together in a sort of pastiche. The result is a straight-on perspective not possible with the physical object. Online copies don’t really do the images justice; in real life, for instance, the ice cube tray image is nearly 8 feet tall, making it look almost like a window on the wall.
On the other side of the room, a large green rectangle stretches across the opposite wall. Laing-Malcolmson looks at it and says that at first glance, it really fits into a 1960s, minimalist aesthetic. Indeed, it looks like a painting about which someone would say, “I could do that.” Although, when Laing-Malcolmson hears that, she says she likes to reply, “Try it.”
The painting is one of three by Anne Appleby in the exhibition. From far away, it looks like a green rectangle, but closer, it has more depth. Laing-Malcolmson says this painting, titled “The River,” has a sense of water; the underpainting is actually one of Monet’s “Water Lilies.”
Appleby lives in Montana and studied traditional Native American art making. She uses 30 to 40 layers of color in her paintings, giving them a kind of glow. “They have a sense of being alive in a funny way,” Laing-Malcolmson says, “because there’s just this light that comes out of them.”
If the exhibition had a People’s Choice Award, Laing-Malcolmson says, it would unquestionably go to “Red Hot” by the Seattle artist Trimpin. The piece, by the German-born MacArthur “Genius” Award winner who once constructed a tower of electric guitars, is an upended red piano hanging from a tripod. Inside its exposed case, the instrument has been reconstructed with various tools: screwdrivers, files, a saw. Trimpin, in a video interview for the Portland Art Museum, says he has drawers full of stuff he’s collected. “Only this country,” he says, “with its tremendous wealth of junk, would be my paradise.”
Laing-Malcolmson, mentioning how the piece’s displayed innards remind her of Rembrandt’s “The Slaughtered Ox,” demonstrates how the piece works. She stands in front of a red music stand and waves her arms like a conductor, signaling a motion sensor. The piece then starts to play music, a cacophonous and arrhythmical series of hums and clangs, like a large, strange music box.
“Art can sing,” says Laing-Malcolmson. (The piece also plays more musical pieces, like “Für Elise” and Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife.”) “Art has come off the wall in the last 30 to 40 years often to be part dance, part music, part human activity, part lots of things.”
Perhaps some of the most striking pieces in the exhibition belong to 31-year-old Abbie Miller. The Jackson, Wyoming resident’s sculptures are made by covering light armatures with endless lengths of vinyl. One piece, “Squeezed Arch,” recalls the geographic arches of the Tetons, except it’s made of shiny, red vinyl. Miller explains in a video interview, “Most people tell me they come up to it and they want to lick it.” Another piece, the sparkling gold “This Land Is Our Land,” is at once a reflection of colossal mountains and a statement about monumental excess.
Part of the appeal of the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards is that artists like Miller, who live where they don’t have many places to show their work, can get a show in a major museum. They get a modest monetary award of $1,500, as well, but the exposure is more valuable.
“To have people from all over the world see your work,” Laing-Malcolmson says, “you never know what’s going to happen — it’s great for the artist.”