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Arts Group Revives Biennial Exhibition

This weekend (March 13-14) the arts group Disjecta revives a tradition that’s been missing from the Oregon art scene for a few years – a biennial exhibition of regional artists. The Portland Art Museum used to host something similar.

But as April Baer reports, changing times have led to a re-thinking of what kind of biennial best represents Oregon’s talent.

After 2006, the Portland Art Museum put its Oregon Biennial through a major retooling. Eligibility was widened across five states, with five artists sharing honors, and a cash prize for one lucky entrant.

Some applauded, feeling the group-show style of the original had run its course. But others missed the chance to scope out the depth of the regional scene. Disjecta director Bryan Suereth.

Bryan Suereth  “ There had been discussions ongoing prior to the biennial being disbanded by PAM. We decided at that point we were going to try and out the foundation in place to bring this show back to Oregon, and make it something significant."

Suereth says the thought was to start small. That didn’t last. Portland 2010 will show works by about twenty artists over two months, in eight venues, leading show-goers on what Suereth calls a treasure hunt across Portland. 

Jenene Nagy darts around the cavernous warehouse that holds her part of Portland 2010. Nagy’s works are huge constructions of drywall, two-by-fours and latex house paint. They defy the architecture of their spaces, suggesting natural forces beyond human control. 

Jenene Nagy: “The whole building is super raw, the floors are wood, there’s lots of big windows and humungous brick walls, with lots of patches and seams in the drywall. I want the space to kind of crunch the work a little bit, but when I came down here today, I realized, ‘WHOA, I need a lot more stuff!’“

Nagy says inclusion in the show meant a little money to create a new work. She jumped at the chance. She’s had a pretty good year, but most of her shows were outside  Oregon, where big exhibit spaces are hard to find.

Jenene Nagy   “I think the whole biennial thing is really loaded. What the Museum did with what they called their biennial and what this is feel like to totally, completely separate things.”

For the old biennial, artists submitted slides to a jury, paid a fee, and waited for the phone to ring. For this show, curator Cris Moss whittled down about 300 submissions with research and studio visits.

Sean Healy, another featured artist, says he’s almost as interested in seeing Moss’ other picks, as he is in showing his own work. Healy creates images and 3-D work out of glass, resin, and found materials.

He was part of the Oregon Biennial in 1999. Healy notes the end of the 90s was a very different time in Oregon.

Sean Healy  “You could kind of feel there was a new kind of energy and newfound optimism. There was more of a conceptual bend to it – a little bit more raw.”

Healy’s curious to see how the harsh realities of the past year will show up in Portland 2010. Disjecta’s Bryan Suereth’s says he doesn’t see a theme, per se, but does notice this.

Bryan Suereth   “I actually see a lot of non-commercial work, coming out of this exhibition. I think that’s very interesting. When artists are making commercial work, it’s not selling. And they’re now feeling perhaps freed to really explore and take risks they wouldn’t have taken in other times.”

Later this year, Portland Institute for the Contemporary Arts will host another very different take on the biennial: a People’s Biennial, with works by artists and non-artists from five different cities across the country.

Meanwhile, the Portland Art Museum hasn’t quite shelved its own every-other-year-effort.

The museum is replacing the curator who oversaw the re-tooled Contemporary Northwest Art Awards – she left after two years. The next CNAA exhibition has been postponed til 2011.

Disjecta: Portland 2010

Harrell Fletcher talks more about what he and co-curator Jens Hoffman have in mind for the People’s Biennial this fall.

More plans for the fall show

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