There has been a lot of low-level buzz and not-so-low-level bitching about the so-called West Coast biennial, opening in October at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), and then set to travel to San Diego, San Francisco, and Vancouver, BC. I've heard the usual speculating about the usual suspects: about artists and gallery owners kept out of the loop, about everyone waiting in agony for a word, any word, from the top.

Baja to Vancouver: The West Coast in Contemporary Art, as it turns out, will not be a biennial, either in the literal sense (as in, occurring every other year) or in the gestalt sense (as in, a survey of the West Coast's most relevant contemporary artists, although the exhibition's name suggests otherwise). Last week I met with Lisa Corrin, curator of modern and contemporary art at SAM, to find out--in the first interview she has given about this exhibition--what was what. Corrin is one of five curators from five West Coast institutions who chose, as a group, the work for the show, but it's hard not to see Baja to Vancouver as anything but the first fruit of her promise, since she arrived at SAM over a year and a half ago, to show more local artists.

Seattle will be represented by the work of Roy McMakin, Glenn Rudolph, and Mark Mumford. They are not obvious choices--a good sign. None are particularly visible artists in Seattle. Even McMakin, the most established of the three, has been picked up by a local gallery just this year, although he's had a couple of museum shows (and is quite well known outside of Seattle). And it's a sad little irony that Rudolph and Mumford both showed at the late Esther Claypool Gallery, which closed a few months ago for want of sales.

The curatoriat--Corrin, along with Ralph Rugoff and Matthew Higgs from San Francisco, Toby Kamps from San Diego, and Daina Augaitis from from the excellent Vancouver Art Gallery (which puts up shows that would be hard-pressed to find a home here)--looked at slides from hundreds of artists, and put together a show of 31 artists and two collectives. Besides a high standard for the work, the priority, they agreed, was a conceptual wholeness--exactly what many biennials lack.

"We were led," Corrin told me, "by what we saw in terms of argument. We wanted to keep in mind that artists can't totally work outside their social landscapes--this is what artists absorb and turn into art--but it's not regionalism." The themes that developed out of the curators' inquiries are complex readings of this social landscape, such as the mythic idea of the West, with all that it implies: the natural West, the ideological West (the search for enlightenment, what's perceived as West Coast New Agey-ness), the West as the source of youth culture. Much of the work, as described by Corrin (and in a few cases, as I've seen), operates in this gap between the real West (wild and inhospitable) and the various sentimental Wests--such as Althea Thauberger's video of young women singing folk-style songs in romantic and clichéd natural settings, or Liz Magor's tree trunks stuffed with sleeping bags and other camping equipment, or Shannon Oksanen and Scott Livingstone's video of a surfboard bumping against the Vancouver coast, as if it had set out for Los Angeles but took a wrong turn somewhere.

I'm wrong, though--apparently there's a healthy surf culture in Vancouver. I didn't know that. And I didn't know a lot about Vancouver artists, except for Stan Douglas and Rodney Graham, but Vancouver tops the list for Baja to Vancouver with 10 artists, including Douglas, and including Brian Jungen, whose amazing natural history-style installation at the Henry closes next week. There will be eight Los Angeles artists ("We made a real effort not to let Los Angeles drive this show," said Corrin--I imagine she means conceptually), four from the Bay Area, four from Portland, one from San Diego, and two, plus the collective Torolab, from Tijuana.

Obviously there's no way that Baja to Vancouver can please everyone (see In Arts News, p. 29); there will be disappointment and disagreement--about how the process has panned out, about the low number of Seattle artists involved. Corrin is prepared for that, even welcomes it. "I don't mind if this show galvanizes the art community, or even polarizes it," she said. "Otherwise things get formulaic very fast."

Support The Stranger