Under the helm of Northwest art curator Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson, the show masterfully counterposes a dazzling array of media and styles. It goes without saying that a museum biennial such as this can never paint a comprehensive snapshot of an entire region. In fact, the only regional exhibition during the past decade to remotely approach that goal was 2003's The Modern Zoo, and that was mounted by an ad-hoc nonprofit, not a museum. But what the awards have done is bring together under one roof a small but intensely satisfying sampling of gifted artists from four states: Oregon (Karl Burkheimer), Washington (Isaac Layman, Nicholas Nyland, and the single-monikered artist known as Trimpin), Montana (Anne Appleby) and Wyoming (Abbie Miller). And while Trimpin's bizarrely modified grand piano, Red Hot, helped earn him this year's $10,000 Arlene Schnitzer Prize, the other five artists also stepped up in big ways. Burkheimer's and Miller's elaborate, materially inventive sculptures dramatically complement Appleby's understated paintings, Layman's coolly minimalist photo constructions and Nyland's crude but insouciant ceramics.
These works are so disparate that the prospect of putting them all in a single room, albeit a large one, must have been daunting. But Malcolmson resisted the urge to cram too many pieces into any given alcove or to group all of each artist's pieces together. Layman's, Appleby's and Nyland's works are split up into different sections of the space, while Miller's zipper sculptures appear in the main gallery, the entrance hallway and at the top of the museum's main stairwell. This decompresses the show spatially and gives it more fluidity as an overall viewing experience. Walking through it, you feel as if you're flowing through its veins. That's a difficult trick to pull off, but the awards do it with a seeming effortlessness that allows the artists—and the artistic ecosystem we all share with them—to shine.
SEE IT: Contemporary Northwest Art Awards at the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., 226-2811. Through Jan. 12.