Me, you, and the big old stupid world (2006), oil on panel. Courtesy Portland Art Museum

On June 14, in the dimly lit, dazzling ballroom of a former Masonic Temple, the rich and the aesthetically inclined sipped shots of cucumber soup as the Portland Art Museum unveiled its new invention: the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards (CNAA). In the museum's main building nearby were the first byproducts, five solo shows by five artists selected to represent the Northwest. One of them, Seattle painter and sculptor Whiting Tennis, was singled out for a $10,000 prize.

By comparison to his peers—who made neon strippers, sewn portraits of casualties in Iraq, slapstick videos, stop-motion animation, and ceramic skulls dipped in chrome—Tennis looks like a high formalist, the contemporary equivalent of a modernist monochromatic monk. The triumph of his CNAA show—all the artists with the exception of Jeffry Mitchell are exhibiting new and old work—is the new, aptly titled painting Bitter Lake Compound, depicting a trashy backyard in Tennis's typical style of collaging flat shapes of varying textures to conjure a heavy-hearted landscape. The rain of Tennis's Northwest is especially acidic. The people who live here are represented only by what they throw away.

Though it's not his largest painting, as Portland Art Museum claims, this one is a giant survey of the techniques he uses to concoct a sweetly sour atmosphere. Strewn across the canvas in the same style as the bushes, rocks, piles of wood, and rusted objects of indeterminate use in the untended backyard—seemingly haphazardly, but representing a certain series of events, a history—are areas of blocky, direct acrylic painting, nestled up against painted paper cutouts, ghostly crayon sketches, and graffiti-like streaks that appear on the painting's surface like afterimages.

Tennis is a compelling, mature artist, and the winner of another Northwest prize last year, the $15,000 Neddy Fellowship. But he's also a square choice. I'd have given the prize to the young artist whose work throws off sparks: Dan Attoe, a highly unsettling painter of unwholesome redneck life. What distinguishes his jewel-like, classically painted scenes of contortionist strippers, red-faced ministers, religious fanatics, dangerous yokels, lost souls, and alien tourists from Twin Peaks is Attoe's continually shifting point of view, expressed in texts he scribbles on and around his paintings. The texts range from confessional to aggressive, poignant to clichéd. They ultimately beg and defer the question: Who is this guy and what is he telling us?

He's an outsider within an outside. The son of a forest ranger, he lives in a cabin in the woods in Washougal, Washington, a Columbia River outpost about 20 miles northeast of Portland. The contemporary art world, meanwhile, is located squarely in cities, and Attoe is a relatively successful player in it. He is represented along with fashionable artists at Peres Projects in Los Angeles and Berlin, arguably the two hippest centers of art today. So what, and to whom, does he represent in his work? To what extent is he manipulating an identity as an outsider, as one of the unsavory characters in his paintings—one of them? And what does that mean for the Northwest?

Attoe's slippery, complex position creates a slippery, complex view of the Northwest, one both primitive and knowing, a center of the contemporary sublime but also hick heaven. He also represents the conflicted, self-reflexive view from a place accustomed to being looked at, rather than out from. Attoe responds with a purr to the national fixation on pioneer wilderness, then follows up with a bite. I'm a little afraid of him.

The other three artists in the show—Cat Clifford of Seattle, Jeffry Mitchell of Seattle, and Marie Watt of Portland—are all lighter in tone than Tennis or Attoe, but very different from one another. (There is some bet hedging going on in the diversity of this first round of awards.) Clifford, the least established artist in the group, makes very personal, gentle interventions in the landscape, including videos in which she impersonates what she finds in abandoned rural landscapes, and gorgeous cut-paper animations that she displays along with the wistful carved-paper remnants. She's showing too many works at CNAA, and in some, her intentions are obscure, but her quiet determination to figure out what it means to be a fish out of water in your own vast country remains a lure.

Where Clifford is still developing, Mitchell is fully formed. In ceramic and paper, he creates idiosyncratic and ravishing flowers, animals, and skeletons (the skeletons are new). In this installation, he emphasizes the spiritual, with a large construction shaped like a giant sphinx that looks like a dollhouse on the back. Inside every "room," all lit bright with naked lightbulbs, chrome- and white-glazed ceramics sparkle, set in elaborate episodes that depict Buddhist rites. Across the room is a commanding, meditative, black-on-black pattern painting. Mitchell's work can feel repetitive, but it also continuously boggles the eye with beauty. It's generous and seductive, an unusual combination.

Watt's work is based on blankets, and often is created in sewing circles. She makes art in order to heal or to honor, and her three CNAA pieces include a chapel-like enclosure covered in a web of sewn portraits of soldiers from Oregon who've been killed in Iraq (along with sewn portraits of women famous and anonymous, representing mothers), and a sculpture made of a stone column that acts as a tree trunk, with fabric blossoms and "stairs" made of felt extending from it up to the museum's skylight. The effect is calming, balmlike. It's the most literal demonstration of an impulse many artists consider important: First, do no harm. It may be limited, but it is also honest.

According to curator Jennifer Gately, the CNAA is modeled on a similar competition in the Bay Area (the SECA Awards) that sifts through the region and selects artists to promote nationally: regional delegates. The meaning of this is that these five artists have been selected for what regional art dealers and curators call "national exposure." Whether they will get it—whether this award will be directed outward or at us, right here—remains to be seen.

But the Portland Art Museum has done these artists and the museum-going public a mighty favor. No other award or exhibition in the Northwest reflects the consensus of more than 200 nominators across the field and gives each artist ample space in the museum. (The CNAA also includes a catalog.) In order to give birth to the CNAA, PAM killed its longstanding Oregon Biennial: not a popular move, but a smart one. The museum had to sell out Oregon in order to make Portland the art capital of the Northwest. Instead of showing dozens of artists from around the state, this first round of the CNAA only includes one artist who resides in Oregon.

But the awards aren’t perfect. The territory CNAA represents also comprises Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, which is just plain dumb. The vast majority of nominators are from Washington and Oregon, meaning Seattle and Portland, meaning that it is almost statistically impossible for outliers to get a fair shot. Including Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana in the competition is not only a false construction, it’s a charade. And where is British Columbia? Including the true Northwest capital of art would only improve the quality of the work on view.

Ultimately, that’s the meaning of these awards: not how many people outside the Northwest like what they see in the catalog, but how much this process and this show serve to illuminate and improve upon what’s already going on here. This first installment is a good start. Let the debates begin.