The Contemporary Northwest Art Awards live in the shadow of the Oregon Biennial, which, in a sense, it replaced. Like the Biennial, the Art Awards select a small pool of artists from hundreds of nominees and showcase the finalists in a prestigious group show. But where the Biennial felt more like a snapshot in time of Oregon-based (and often Portland-centric) art, the Art Awards cast a wider net. This year's finalists include two artists from Oregon, two from Washington, two from Montana, and one from Idaho. The show neither looks nor feels anything like a definitive survey of what's happening right now in the Portland art scene, but that's not its mission. At its mission—cherry-picking a handful of mostly superlative, mostly thematically unrelated artists—it succeeds as a dynamic and thoroughly compelling show. Curated with thoughtfulness and sophistication by Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson, the CNWAA kick off June 18 with the announcement of the recipient of the $10,000 Arlene Schnitzer Prize, which one of the finalists will receive.
If there is any justice in the world, the prize will go to Chris Antemann, whose porcelain sculptures nod to Jeff Koons and Rococo painters such as Fragonard and Boucher, while reversing the Rococo taste for placing scantily clad women in the role of carnal playthings. Antemann, by contrast, casts men in that role, stripping them of all clothing and giving them cute little porcelain erections with gold-plated pubic hair. The sculpture An Occasional Craving is a sumptuous masterpiece of sexual power reversal. Among the other artists, Megan Murphy contributes gauzy waterscapes with a silvery, pearlescent finish, while John Grade exhibits sculpture in the tradition of 1960s and '70s Land Art. His mammoth biomorphic sculpture, Fold, looks like a cross between a wooden enlargement of a Giles Bettison glass sculpture and a reinterpretation of Umberto Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. Jerry Iverson's sumi ink works evoke tree branches, and Susie Lee's HD videos add a poignant contemporary spin on characters drawn from ancient Greek mythology and the paintings of Francisco Goya. Less compelling are John Buck's hokey wooden sculptures and Michelle Ross' prissy, bloodless paintings.
Spatially and conceptually, this is an engaging and dynamic show. PAM should mount the CNWAA and award the Arlene Schnitzer Prize every year, not every two or three years. Laing-Malcolmson would do a superb job curating; the public would turn out in droves to support it; and local and regional artists would benefit from the additional exposure. In short: Bravo, and more, please.
SEE IT: Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., 226-2811. Closes Sept. 11.