Admittedly, I never planned to go to Jennifer Steinkamp's show at the Portland Art Museum. Sure, Steinkamp's critical accolades date back to the '90s, but CGI trees just didn't sound that compelling. When I wandered into the L.A. artist's video installation on a whim, however, just after it opened in July, I was totally transfixed.

In a large, dark room, three video installations of slowly but constantly moving animated trees are projected on the walls. In the center of the room, there are cushioned benches that face each piece. Along with seemingly everyone else who walked in during my visit, I silently sat down on a bench and spent 30 minutes staring at trees. It's rare to see museumgoers spend more than a few seconds with a single work—and so, almost more than the trees themselves, the art was us sitting quietly on the benches, watching trees transform at the speed of a lava lamp.

But the more potent takeaway from Steinkamp's exhibit is one you often hear: You really have to see art in person to understand it. Here are five exhibits opening this month (Cosmos, Permeate Green, and Madame Cézanne's Hairdo all have First Thursday receptions, Breaking the Mold's is on Friday) that you shouldn't stay away from.

Jennifer Steinkamp
It's easy to lose your sense of time in Steinkamp's exhibit. It's physically engulfing and totally serene. In two works from her Judy Crook series, the leaves and branches appear to be inhaling and exhaling as the tree trunks slowly twist and transition through different seasons. But Orbit might be the most mesmerizing: A massive tangle of disembodied, psychedelic branches spiral across an entire wall. Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave. Through Sept. 17. $19 museum general admission, free on Thursday, August 3, after 5 pm.

“Ouroboros #2” (courtesy of jimnickelson.com)
“Ouroboros #2” (courtesy of jimnickelson.com)

Cosmos
Jim Nickelson's photography doesn't look like what you imagine when you think of space photography. Instead of ornate nebulae, the Maine-based photographer's images are minimal diagrams of celestial movement. Seen from the ground and based on photographs taken in a single night, the planets in Nickelson's works become perfect spheres, and faraway stars hurtling around Earth become a mass of dots and lines. Camerawork Gallery, 2255 NW Northrup St. Through August 25.

(courtesy of Froelick Gallery)
(courtesy of Froelick Gallery)

Permeate Green
With jewel-toned acrylic paint, Takahiko Hayashi creates highly gestural, surreal landscapes—blotches of blue rising from the ground, a swarm of precise, emerald brushstrokes that look like minnows escaping from the center of the page and a tree bleeding blue up into the sky. The little paintings are whimsical, but also endearingly intimate: The works in Permeate Green hang unframed on Froelick Gallery's white walls. Froelick Gallery, 714 NW Davis St. Through Sept. 2. 

(courtesy of Eutectic Gallery)
(courtesy of Eutectic Gallery)

Breaking the Mold
The six national and international artists in Eutectic's show provide a convincing lineup for the exhibit's premise—the slipcast ceramics in Breaking the Mold look like they're made of just about anything but clay. Kyle Johns' intricate pieces jut out in all directions and Joris Link's resemble origami, while Julian F. Bond's vases look like they're built from 3-D pixels. Eutectic Gallery, 1930 NE Oregon St. August 4-Sept. 23.

(courtesy of Elizabeth Leach Gallery)
(courtesy of Elizabeth Leach Gallery)

Madame Cézanne's Hairdo
John Baldessari is a legend. A pioneer of conceptual art and coiner of the phrase "death to boring art," the South Bay resident has been making groundbreakingly irreverent art since the '70s. One of his newest shows has made its way to Portland. Madame Cézanne's Hairdo is a series of eight large screenprints of Paul Cézanne's wife's hair as it appears in her husband's portraits of her. They're some of his most placid pieces—and as in many of his works, the faces are featureless and monochromatic, cropped just below where the eye would be, under solid black hair. But they're still radiant with Baldessari's sense of humor. Each piece is nonsensically labeled with shapes like "oval" and "rhomboid" in a deadpan font. Even if it doesn't exactly shatter expectations, it certainly lives up to them. Elizabeth Leach Gallery, 417 NW 9th Ave., Through Sept. 2.