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All-star artists

“8th Northwest Biennial” features the best contemporary artists in the Pacific Northwest

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I have issues with the “8th Northwest Biennial” at the Tacoma Art Museum. Now don’t get me wrong. I think it’s a wonderful show featuring an all-star lineup of the best contemporary artists in the Pacific Northwest. It’s just not what I think a regional juried show should be — the key word being “juried.”

If it were an invitational, well that would be a horse I could saddle up and ride with pleasure. But I have always been led to believe a regional juried exhibition is an opportunity for and an introduction to emerging artists in the area.

Traditionally this show has been an opportunity for little known but deserving artists to rise to the next level. But this show features artists such as Michael Spafford, Juan Alonzo, Chris Bruch, Joe Feddersen and Robert Yoder. We’re talking well established artists including Neddy Award winners and artists whose work is owned by the museum. In fact, Spafford is a Northwest icon. 

Almost 900 artists sent in their $20 entry fee in hopes of getting their moment in the spotlight, and most of them never had a chance. Curator and co-juror Rock Hushka says, “The goal of the biennial is to revisit accomplished bodies of work. We wanted to offer the opportunity to explore the powerful images that have shaped contemporary dialogues about the region’s art.” I don’t believe that many, if any, of the artists who entered the competition had any idea that was the goal of the exhibition. Had they known, most of them would not have entered.

Now that I have that off my chest, I’ll offer a few comments on some of the works in the show. First comment: the range of work is great. There are paintings, drawings, sculpture, film, and animation. There are abstract, figurative and narrative works.

And then there’s the boat — an actual boat lifted by crane into the museum’s courtyard. I am not impressed.

I am impressed by Alonso’s 11 panels from the series “Journal Notations” and Jay Backstrand’s “Row, Row, Row” and Mark Takamichi Miller’s “Blue Hat” and “Mother and Son” from the “Zion Series” and Marie Watt’s “Almanac: Glacier Park” and Bruch’s “Longest Shortest Distance” and Victoria Haven’s “Rabbit Hole #4” and Buddy Buntin’s “California State Prison, Corcoran, California” and Steven Miller’s nine photographs from the series “Milky” and Spafford’s “One Greek, One Trojan II.” And I was glad to see that Lisa Sweet and Natalie Niblack made it into the show since they are among the lesser known but deserving artists this kind of show should highlight.

Takamichi Miller’s “Blue Hat” and “Mother and Son” are densely painted figures in thick globs of paint that rise sculpturally off a blank, unprimed canvas. The contrast of openness and density in these paintings is amazing, and they convey a sense of the smallness of human beings in the vastness of time and space.

Backstrand’s “Row, Row, Row” appropriates styles and images from America, Europe and China, in homage to Picasso, Frances Bacon and David Salle among others. His copy of Picasso’s portrait of Dora Maar proves just how awesome Picasso still is.

Haven’s “Rabbit Hole #4,” a minimalist painting done directly on the wall with painted tape, does marvelously tricky things with perspective and painted cast shadows.

Steven Miller’s photographs of men with milk poured over their heads are stark and riveting, and the allusions to bodily fluids in the age of AIDS cannot be denied.

I loved Watt’s “Almanac: Glacier Park,” but I have no idea what the title means. It is a stack of folded woolen blankets sandwiched between bronzed blankets. I was told that all of the blankets were given to her and that “every blanket has a story.” It reads equally well as abstract form and as an iconic reference to stories left to the viewers’ imagination.

Going back to my opening statement, this show does exactly what Hushka said he wanted it to do, and it does it well. It’s a show that shouldn’t be missed.

[Tacoma Art Museum, through May 6, $6.50-$7.50, 1701 Pacific Ave., downtown Tacoma, 253.272.4258]

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