You can't really compare the Winter Light Festival to other Portland art festivals. It's free, backed by corporate sponsors, sells merch, has its own app and when the first edition of the festival was held in 2016, it drew a crowd the size of Sasquatch.
At the very least, Winter Light Festival is a delightful an antidote to the depressing dark months: visually, it's fucking magical. But the festival is also one of the largest art displays of any kind the city sees all year, let alone of interactive, large scale installations.
This year, it's also making a point of bridging the spectrum of Instagram-worthy aesthetics and more traditional ideas of high art—the festival has partially folded itself into First Thursday and Friday. There are light festival hubs in the vicinity of both art walks, plus a few regular gallery openings on both sides of the river that will double as part of the festival and their respective opening receptions.
Here are the five art openings we're most excited to see this week.
Harem Room-1 and Two Women
For Harem Room-1, New York artist Alix Pearlstein arranges dozens of tiny cat figurines on the gallery floor. It's both hilarious and kind of creepy—the cats are those beady eyed figurines with the kind of fur that feels eerily real. The installation will be paired with her equally bizarre Two Women, a video of a man making out with a small cutout photo of a naked woman. Like a Tim and Eric sketch, it's both hilariously awkward and deeply unsettling. Upfor, 929 NW Flanders St., upforgallery.com. Opening reception 6 pm-9 pm. Through Feb. 24.
Portland painter Elizabeth Malaska's portraits of women have the heavy flesh of a Francis Bacon painting, warped into the distorted forms of Picasso or de Kooning. But a sardonic sense of humor that's distinctly her own permeates all her stylistic references. Still Life on War Rug, her painting that was acquired by the Portland Art Museum a little over a year ago, is of a stoic woman with the skin of a marble statue standing on her head and balancing a vase on her foot, bright red underwear visible between her grey legs. But perhaps more defiant is Legacy of Ruin, in which a woman wearing wedge booties and holding an assault rifle lurks in the background of a would-be Matissean still life. Russo Lee Gallery, 805 NW 21st Ave., russoleegallery.com. Reception 5 pm-8 pm. Through Feb. 24.
Winter Light Festival at PNCA
Though it's technically a hub for the Winter Light Festival, PNCA's massive exhibit is right in the middle of First Thursday. The Broadway building is going to become a madhouse of 25 installations by students and other local artists. There'll be aerial dance, poetry readings, stop motion animated snowflakes, gifs projected onto walls and paintings that only exist in VR headsets. PNCA 511 NW Broadway, pnca.edu. 6 pm-9 pm through Feb. 3.
Byte Me 7.0
This it the seventh year that Afru Gallery has held their group show of art that either involves or comments on technology. As usual, the lineup is giant: over a dozen artists who work in almost as many mediums. But since it's apart of the Winter Light Festival this year, Byte Me is bound to be extra epic. There'll be an animated, self-generating primordial soup, an installation inspired by the aurora borealis, and a gorgeously apocalyptic landscape by large scale illustrator Vance Feldman. Afru Gallery, 534 SE Oak St., afrugallery.com. Reception 6 pm-midnight. Through Feb. 28.
Winter Light Festival at OMSI
This weekend, there will be Light Festival hubs in every quadrant of the city, but the one in between Tilikum Crossing and OMSI will be the largest. There'll be over thirty installation which will range to conceptually stimulating, to simply pretty, to interactive games, like a giant Lite Brite or a ping-pong table boxed in by illuminated clear side panels for ricochet. But the light festival is less about the individual pieces and more about the collective spectacle. OMSI, 1945 SE Water Ave., pdxwlf.com. 6 pm-11 pm through Feb. 3.