Biennials should be nasty, brutish, and short.
This spring, Portland Art Museum announced its decision to ditch its traditional Oregon Biennial to pursue a broader, better, more authoritative project: the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards, an exhibition of only a few artists instead of the usual jam-packed biennials. And one of those few will win a fat $10,000 prize. I only wish Seattle Art Museum had gotten there first. SAM's 28-year-old Betty Bowen Award ($11,000) feels oddly irrelevant—not like the museum is sweeping the landscape, picking up a single artist, and throwing its weight behind that person.
In May, nominations were solicited (disclosure: I was one of dozens of nominators), and now the museum's curator of Northwest art, Jennifer Gately, and guest curator James Rondeau, head of contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago, have whittled the list of 259 nominees to 28 semifinalists. Gately will choose three to five finalists.
Of the 28 artists selected, 16 are from Washington (10 from Seattle), 11 are from Oregon (8 from Portland), one is from Montana (Helena), and none is from Idaho or Wyoming. They are: Daniel Attoe, Gretchen Bennett, Joshua Berger, Buddy Bunting, Cat Clifford, Judy Cooke, Claire Cowie, Marc Dombrosky, Ellen Garvens, Jesse Hayward, Mary Henry, Fay Jones, Michael Knutson, James Lavadour, Margie Livingston, D. E. May, Jeffry Mitchell, Seth Nehil, Richard Notkin, Geraldine Ondrizek, Joe Park, Akio Takamori, Whiting Tennis, Storm Tharp, Oscar Tuazon, Laura Vandenburg, Marie Watt, and Robert Yoder.
The list has some surprisingly conservative names on it and artists who are very much on the downswing of their careers (although Tacoma's Oscar Tuazon falls squarely in the up-and-coming category). There are omissions, too: Cris Bruch, Alex Schweder. Maybe they were nominated but didn't apply—some nominated artists told me they thought their chances too slim to bother.
What brand of prestige will this be? One that caps a lifetime of awards? That rewards risk? My guess: The finalists will be a mix, and the question will ricochet between them. But the suspense persists. Just about any kind of show could materialize at PAM in June 2008.
Final Final Round
1. James Harris Gallery is simply too small. It needs to expand.
2. Paul Rucker's Catalyst at Jack Straw Gallery (burning money, thumping soundtrack) has been extended through Friday, August 3. Rucker is also doing 50 solo cello concerts this summer.
3. On August 4 at 2:00 p.m., the Henry hosts a fashion show based on Dior's 1940s, wasp-waisted "New Look" and An Historical Anecdote About Fashion, a 1999 installation by Josiah McElheny (check out his The Only Known Grave of a Glassblower at SAM, too).