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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Art Lovers: Go to Portland This Weekend

posted by on June 10 at 12:13 PM

Jeffry Mitchell, The Sphinx (2008)

The Portland Art Museum has decided to step up its role in shaping the Northwest landscape by abandoning its old tradition, the limited Oregon Biennial, and creating a new tradition: the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards.

The exhibition opens Saturday, and a panel discussion with the artists will be held at the museum at 2 pm Sunday.

The idea was the brainchild of Jennifer Gately, who arrived at PAM as the museum’s Northwest art curator 2 1/2 years ago. The fruits of her labor go on display Saturday, in a major exhibition that displays new and preexisting work by each of five selected artists: Dan Attoe, Cat Clifford, Whiting Tennis, Jeffry Mitchell, and Marie Watt. They were vetted in a long process. It started with 250 nominations from curators, critics, academics, artists, gallery owners, and collectors. Those were whittled to 28 by Gately and curator James Rondeau of the Art Institute of Chicago, and then to the final 5 by Gately.

On Saturday night, the museum will announce the single winner—from among these five—of the $10,000 Arlene Schnitzer Prize, selected by the PAM curatorial team (including Gately and chief curator Bruce Guenther, among others).

Next week, I’ll be posting news about the prize, the exhibition, and a podcast with all five artists and Gately, but this morning I caught up with Gately for a phone Q&A. Check it out on the jump.

What state are things in now?

Oregon, I think. What planet am I on? (laughs). No, things are good, things are really good. All the artists are pretty much in, two are still working but we hope by Thursday they will be finished. We’re doing lighting right now.

One of the artists will be awarded the Arlene Schnitzer Prize. What does that mean?

It’s not a competition. Winners implies losers, there are no losers.

Has this process been more meaningful for you than putting together the last Oregon Biennial?

When I first arrived, I was dropped into the Oregon Biennial, I had to make sense of it in a few months. This has allowed me to have a better understanding of contemporary practice here in the Northwest. I was hired as the curator of Northwest art, meaning Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. The biennial was just Oregon.

What’s in the show?

The exhibition consists of both new work created just for the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards, and also a selection of earlier work, so you can see a progression. Marie Watt is doing a very ambitious installation that is 20 feet in diameter and 10 feet tall, then she’s doing a second piece that is … a response to the space itself. She’s represented by 3 pieces. Cat Clifford has a great range of work, a number of pieces created specifically for the show and a number that you are probably very familiar with, and some new iterations of some of that work, too. Each artist created new work. … These artists have really stepped up. Whiting has made his largest painting to date I believe. It’s very intricate. Cat Clifford has realized something that’s been in her mind for a while. Dan Attoe created these wall drawings around his paintings. Marie, well, I don’t want to spoil that. I can’t wait to see the look on your face.

What would you do differently next time?

Nothing. I think it worked out beautifully. This is just the very beginning of a very long history, and I think it’s shaping up to be a great foundation for the future, and I know there has been some discussion over the list of 28 finalists, who I think are all quite fine and remarkable artists, and I think you would agree. We lean a bit toward the older generation, and that was I think partly a result of James Rondeau and the dialogue that we had, and his being very sensitive to regional issues and also highly cognizant of professional practice and sort of history. So I think the list certainly manifests that, and I think it’s a great place to start. The five artists who were awarded the prize are representative of a good cross-section of activity in the region.

Why did you do things this particular way?

These awards are modeled on the SECA Awards at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. That has been a prestigious program featuring bay area artists. Chris Johansen, Barry McGee, a number of really fine artists have gone on to move forward from that experience. The SECA Awards are greatly anticipated by many contemporary curators. I hope the same will be said for the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards.

Was it frustrating not to get to handpick the artists? I know some were nominated but chose not to apply.

Certainly there may be those artists that slip through the cracks that may be deserving, but it will never be a perfect process. The previous iteration of this type of activity was a submission-based process, and that was just whoever submitted was reviewed—there was not a curatorial approach. The selection of that initial pool was chance. A great number of artists did not submit. I could never dream of being cognizant of all of the amazing artists who are working in this region.

Why not? If not you, then who?

That’s why we reach out to our colleagues. It’s a large region, and there are always new voices.

I’m often hungry for the expression of a curator’s conviction, the kind of expression that seems to have been flattened in these sort of institutional, professionalized times.

You don’t speak to Bruce Guenther much, do you? (laughs) He perfectly exemplifies that type of curator. And I feel strongly, but at the same time, I think this process is one of great equity and will allow for artists who have not been on the radar to come to light.

So this is kind of a pulse-taking.

Mm-hmm. Certainly.

Are you new to the region? Remind me of your background again.

I was a curator at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts for five years, and engaged with a number of Northwest artists on a regular basis, including Claude Zervas, Vanessa Renwick, Charles Krafft, Sherry Markovitz, the list goes on. So I have been actively involved with northwest art for a number of years.

I’m always interested in how people grow in their jobs; I know I notice this in myself, that my ways change over time. I know you said you wouldn’t do anything differently the next time around with the Northwest Contemporary Art Awards, but what are some of the more general lessons you learned?

It came together pretty quickly, just with the timing from when I first introduced the idea. So in the future, my hope is that there will be more time for the artists to consider what they may present and how, and more time for them to actually physically spend in their studios prior to the exhibition. That’s just the functional aspect.

What about less functionally? It’s your job to describe and to shape the portrait of art in the Northwest? How would you describe it differently today compared to before this process?

It’s far more diverse than I expected, and that, I think, is a fantastic thing. Through this process, I’ve become aware of many more artists, and more aware of their practice. I’ve also become aware of a broader spectrum, which keeps me engaged.

What are some examples?

I often shy away from calling out specific artists, I don’t want to play favoritism.

But surely you can give some examples without playing favorites.

I’m sure there are some, but my head’s kind of focused on the five in front of me. Let’s have a broader discussion on this after the next couple of days. I can launch into a dialogue, but I want to keep it focused right now on these artists and the awards exhibition at hand.

OK, I’ll ask you more about specifics in the podcast.

OK, sounds good.

RSS icon Comments


is that marshmallow cream?

Posted by Super Jesse | June 10, 2008 12:45 PM

So, I guess this is another reason why people who move to Portland from Seattle say, "Portland is everything Seattle should be but isn't."

Posted by Ecotopian | June 10, 2008 1:04 PM

Did he make these in one of those pottery painting places they have at the mall? The glaze is all fucked up; it has holes in it. It looks like the junk you see in any Value Village on top of the racks, next to the straw witch and the angel figurines.

Posted by Fnarf | June 10, 2008 1:48 PM

aw, plus it's his birthday today, too!

maybe i'll swing by value village and pick him up a straw witch to add to his collection. :)

Posted by joey | June 10, 2008 1:55 PM

I don't know, Fnarf, he's been showing at major galleries in Seattle for about 20 years, has made installations at SAM, the Henry, and Western Bridge, and has taught ceramics to students in Seattle, Vancouver, and elsewhere, but it's probably best to judge his work by one 3x4 jpeg seen on your computer screen.

Posted by Eric F | June 10, 2008 7:20 PM

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