10 Favorite Visual Arts Shows of 2011

Despite the nation's economic woes, the Portland art scene remained vibrant in 2011. This isn't a town where artistic health trickles down from wealthy collectors. Rather, it's a place where challenging work bubbles up from collectives and nonprofits like Disjecta, Rocksbox and Gallery Homeland, which don't depend on sales. Combine that with a willfully anti-commercial DIY streak and a sophisticated array of locally based artists and curators, and you have a motor that drives artistic excellence even during the worst of times. Here are some of the artists and shows that turned our heads in 2011, along with one special request for 2012: For the love of God, no more group shows themed around horses or the Portland Trail Blazers! Are you listening, Froelick, Butters, Land and Compound Galleries?

Best show of 2011: Matt McCormick's elegiac The Great Northwest at Elizabeth Leach retraced a 1958 road trip taken by four young women. In photographs and a digital video installation, McCormick juxtaposed old travel journals with jaw-dropping shots of Northwest landmarks as they appear today. With heartbreaking poignance, the show evoked the power of friendship and the unstoppable passage of time.

Best painting: For Portland Art Museum's APEX series, Adam Sorensen created his biggest painting ever: a 7-by-10-foot masterpiece called Tabernacle. In impossibly saturated jewel tones, it presented a landscape resplendent with waterfalls, mountains and rivers that looked more like the stuff of psychedelia or fantasy than reality.

Best photography: Brad Carlile's Tempus Incognitus at the Independent took us on a tour of brightly colored hotel rooms, rendered in eerie long exposures.

Best sculpture: Cows licking a sculpture of a woman's breast? Yep. Malia Jensen sculpted a tit out of salt for Elizabeth Leach's 30-year anniversary group show, then filmed cows going at it with gusto. Disturbing? Fascinating? Double yep.

Best mixed media: Also at Liz Leach, Sean Healy used steel, cigarettes and maple wood to take viewers on a journey back to his childhood in the thoughtful exhibition Upstate.

Best work on paper: Kris Hargis' me and you at Froelick Gallery depicted the haunted faces of U.S. military service members freshly home after tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Best glass: At Bullseye Gallery, Carrie Iverson's Correspondence led viewers through a powerful abstracted meditation on her father's memory loss.

Best installation: For Collective Object, Christine Clark lined the walls of Nine Gallery with welded wire objects. From one object to the next, the forms shifted shape until they became unrecognizable—a kind of visual reinterpretation of an Exquisite Corpse game.

Best group show: With thoroughness and flair, Bullseye's Crossover showed how artists transliterate their visions across diverse media.

Best museum show: At Portland Art Museum, the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards distilled regional art into a perfect roux, expertly cooked up by curator Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson.

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