Breathe in, breathe out: Mounting a successful biennial art exhibition is as deceptively simple in theory and fiendishly difficult in practice as Buddhist breathing exercises. Fortunately for local art lovers, the Portland Art Museum's newest curator, Jennifer Gately, has inhaled just enough of the electrified air whooshing through our cultural, temporal and geographic moment and has crafted a Biennial that feels bracing, expansive and optimistic. This may not be a spectacular Biennial, but it is a spectacular improvement over the museum's 2003 effort, which was myopically curated and boxily laid out by PAM's contemporary art curator, Bruce Guenther. This year's show rights 2003's egregious wrongs by embracing the previously ignored medium of digital film (four separate works are showcased) and by including three artists who were cold-shouldered last time: conceptual wild man David Eckard, cartographic transubstantiator Matthew Picton and evolving wunderkind Chandra Bocci. For her part, Bocci provides the show's one true "wow" moment: a reprisal and reimagining of her virtuosic Gummi Bear Big Bang, the first version of which hung in 2003's landmark anti-Biennial, The Modern Zoo (a project created by former arts partners Gavin Shettler and Bryan Suereth). Even the artist's longtime followers will go slackjawed at the dynamism and finesse of her Big Bang II, its emotional force and inspired blending of cosmology and consumer culture.
Another whimsical but conceptually engaging installation piece is Houston's Rendition/Illuminati Multivariate, which looks like a band of Apache warriors ambushed a corporate office cubicle. The installation consists of a filing cabinet tilted on its side, as if wounded, pierced by seven white arrows and dripping white "blood" onto the floor, while above, a fluorescent-lit office ceiling floats off-kilter, ritualistically adorned with dream-catchers and feathers, as if to commemorate a long-overdue victory over Western imperialism. A few paces away, Bill Will's Reconstitution turns scrap lumber into a 20-foot-long sculpture that looks like a cross between the Space Shuttle and the bar at Doug Fir. In similar fashion, sculptor Marcy Adzich hybridizes moss-covered rocks, street lamps, ship rotors and bear fur into agreeably odd-looking mini-landscapes.
Other highlights include Emily Ginsburg's well-composed inkjet prints in black and white, Holly Andres' rhapsodies in pink, and Storm Tharp's masterful untitled oil painting, a show-stealer that elevates and enlivens the floral still-life form by virtue of riotous, counterintuitive forms, texture and color. While many of the show's photographic selections lack charisma, Mark Hooper's photos, which question the parameters of measurement and nature, satisfy both the mind and eye. Federico Nessi's Hero #2, in which a man sprays himself with a garden hose, packs visual and metaphoric punch, turning a silly, throwaway summer moment into a transfigurative act of heroic narcissism. Anna Fidler scores a hit with her fancifully layered cut-paper landscapes, while video artist Jo Jackson interprets 5,000 years of history as a shifting succession of pastel circles.
Not all of curator Gately's picks are hits. Certain selections seem arbitrary, politically calculated or just plain wrong-headed. Michael Brophy's works on paper are about as exciting as a bowl of All-Bran cereal. Jesse Hayward's mixed-media mess looks like a dump and should have wound up in one. Pat Boas' drawings would be better placed on a tentacle-porn website than on a museum's walls. Amanda Wojick's bric-a-brac-covered foam boulder was delightful—three years ago, when a similar piece of hers was in the last Biennial. This show's most redundant selectee, Wojick has apparently evolved about three seconds' worth during the past three years. Lucinda Parker, that venerable old crow of regionalist painters, proves once again why she is the Northwest's most overrated artist. Her four plodding oils would've earned an art school sophomore a 2.0 GPA back in 1961, but here they are, in 2006, in all their lumpy, frumpy torpor. Then there is Brad Adkins, whose two objects under plexiglass—a paint bucket and a pair of keys—are embarrassingly derivative, a testament, if nothing else, to the enduring buoyance of mediocrity.
Quibbles aside, this is a Biennial that feels, for once, like an actual inductive survey of Oregon artists rather than a heavy-handed deductive proof. Savvy but not stilted, Jennifer Gately has done her homework and it shows in this multiplicitous, well-aerated show.
1219 SW Park Ave., 226-2811. Closes Oct. 8.