The highbrow Portland Art Museum has gone lowbrow in its Contemporary Northwest Art Awards, which replaced the museum's Oregon Biennial this year. For what it is and how it does it, CNAA is a superb show, but it's no substitute for the Biennial. Museum brass decided to swap the sprawling Biennial for the more tightly focused Awards, figuring it was better to showcase a dozen pieces by five artists than to show only one or two pieces by 20-plus artists. The Awards are deep where yesteryear's Biennial was broad, weighted toward Washington artists where the Biennial favored Oregonians. Nevertheless, they brilliantly capture listless Gen-X Cascadians at the height of their lowbrow ennui.
The Award winners, lone Oregonian Marie Watt along with Washingtonians Whiting Tennis, Jeffry Mitchell, Cat Clifford and Dan Attoe, distill a distinctly Northwestern point of view—insular, terrestrial, studiously unstudied—and prove that regionalism is alive and well. This is a good thing if you define regionalism as "reflecting indigenous concerns," a bad thing if you define it as "provincial." While Biennial curator Bruce Guenther tended toward bold, cosmopolitan abstraction, Awards curator Jennifer Gately has pulled together a coterie of woodsy navel-gazers who tend toward slipshod execution and a defiance of anything in the neighborhood of what used to be called beauty. This is the show's drawback and its genius: It captures time and place all too well.
Setting the tone is the first piece you see on entering: Watt's Forget-me-not: Blossom, a tall, basalt boulder adorned with sewn wool lichen and wildflowers. Fairly screaming "Northwest!," it looks like an errant cliffside that got stuck in the yarn aisle at Michael's. A fabric ladder extends from this boulder all the way up to the skylight in PAM's entry gallery, a dizzying and successful use of the space. Channeling M.K. Guth's installation at the Whitney Biennial, Watt rings a circular pen with memorial portraits of Oregon-based soldiers felled in the war in Iraq. These and Watt's other CNAA works walk a line between grandiosity of scale and earnestness in a way that transcends the ho-hum stacked blankets that are her signature at PDX Contemporary Art.
Tennis, who was announced at the show's premiere last Saturday night as the big winner of the $10,000 Arlene Schnitzer Prize (the others get $1,500 apiece), filled his exhibition space with paintings of run-down sheds and suburban homes. When you choose dinginess and banality as subject matter, there is always the danger that those qualities may leach into the caliber of portrayal. It's a trap Tennis does not entirely avoid. Fortunately, he is a gifted sculptor as well as a painter. His plywood and melted-tar Boogeyman, black and monolithic, taps into something mute and faceless within our fears.
Mitchell, meantime, scores a hit with his sculptural installation, The Sphinx, a graffiti-backed cabinet encompassing glazed white tchotchkes, each shelf illuminated by bare light bulbs whose tangled cords snake inelegantly into power strips at the cabinet's base. This jumble of useless kitsch is the perfect archetype of a generation: a panoply of second-rate nostalgia, brightly lit, signifying nothing. For her part, Clifford's most compelling work is a rotating projector hanging from the ceiling, showing stop-motion animations based on cut-out drawings displayed outside the projection alcove.
Of the five artists showcased, the one with the most unabashed point of view is Dan Attoe, who wears his blue-collar preoccupations (strip clubs, heavy-metal magazines, more strip clubs) on his shirtsleeve. Witness such paintings as Good Smells, with its anatomically correct beaver shot, and the artist's towering neon wall piece, depicting a pigtailed blonde with star-shaped pasties and a flashing red vulva. Notably, Attoe tempers this shameless horndoggery with a reverence for Northwest history and landscape. In Everything Falls, a pioneer family, aglow in a ghostly nimbus, poses in front of a waterfall. It's a crudely rendered image, unbeholden to realism or perspective, yet it emanates an eeriness that is nearly impossible to shake. Perhaps Attoe's most telling works are his comics-inspired diagrammatic drawings—crowded, fanciful, neurotic—their Native Americans in traditional headdress inscrutably juxtaposed against visions of woolly mammoths and raging girl-on-girl cunnilingus.
This sort of exercise—rallying a handful of local and regional artists around a tightly honed theme—is the kind of show PAM should be mounting semi-annually, not biennially. That's the only way we will begin to be able to examine—and award—viewpoints beyond the Northwest slacker chic that dominates this go-round.
Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., 226-0973. Show closes Sept. 14.