Tad Savinar's print Everything I Could Remember in Ten Minutes About Twenty-eight Years of the Portland Community, created specifically for PICA's current survey of Portland art, Northwest Narrative, comes off like a diagram of an award acceptance speech and is about as compelling as Gwyneth Paltrow crying into a mike.
Savinar, frankly, relays too many names and not enough of anything else. Northwest Narrative could have become a similar, cold index of artists, but curator Stuart Horodner has managed to give us an expansive, thoughtful show. "I think of this as the anti-Biennial; it tells another story," says Horodner. "The Biennial dealt with the history of abstraction. It was decidedly non-representational."
Upon first entering the gallery, you might wonder if Horodner thinks bugs best represent Portland. Two bright gelatin photos of carefully arranged insect collections (translucent wings spread over handwritten labels and beetles speared with stick pins) hang on the vestibule walls. Paul Green's Moth Fugue, a portrait of a man surrounded by moths, hangs nearby. But these pieces tell stories, and that's what Narrative is about. "Memoir is so visible as a literary concept that it struck me artists have their own biographies," Horodner says.
While the Biennial was about all of Oregon, this is about Portland. And where the Biennial was primarily about art, this exhibition screams for different interpretations, harder glances and wandering thoughts on a whole host of topics.
Many of the individual pieces are already strong, but the coincidences and relationships found among them make a decided impact. The woman in Sean Cain's Above the River is a beautifully molded figure who is at once mysterious and oddly spiritual. She stares into the distance, which in the gallery is occupied by Vanessa Renwick's smooth, serene video of a naked woman bicycling, and becomes part of a larger story about women in Portland. "I rearranged the layout 17 different ways in a day," says Horodner. "I thought it would only take 20 minutes. It was not only a matter of selecting who, but selecting what. I took three of Stephen Hayes' monoprints that had been made at different times, and then I put them up in a way that is almost cinematic. I set up a narrative within his monoprints."
Because the exhibition isn't concerned with history, we get to see some of Portland's up-and-coming artists, as well. Alongside Laura Ross-Paul and Susan Seubert's beloved images are Pipo Nguyen-Duy's self-portraits, locks of damali ayo's hair, and Rebecca Scheer's Futensils. Still, some of the show's best pieces come from Portland's established names. And, as for the anti-Biennial idea, 10 percent of the Northwest Narrative artists were also in Portland Art Museum's most recent Oregon survey.
It's hard to announce a main storyline for Narrative. What does it say, ultimately, about us? Well, its very existence shows that both natives and recent transplants love to meditate, discuss and argue about what being in Portland means. And in the process they give the city meaning.
Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, 219 NW 12th Ave., 242-1419. Closes Jan. 12, 2002