For a while it seemed like the artists in Tacoma Art Museum’s biennial were all white, male and living in Portland. That’s not true, of course, but now the museum’s every-few-years survey of Northwest art is back again with a more socially aware agenda. “Northwest Art Now,” which opened May 14, hasn’t just reinvented its name (easier to understand) and frequency (not a biennial anymore). It has been whittled down to just 24 artists, of whom five are from Tacoma and many are artists of color. And this time, the theme of Northwest identity is combined with social and environmental issues. The result? Compelling art that matters.
The reasons for the change are obvious. While the biennial did in fact happen every two years for a decade, the last one was 2012, with 2009 before that. What would have been the 11th biennial was postponed and dwarfed by bigger museum events: the Haub wing and renovation, the Benaroya gift, Munch, “Art AIDS America.” It also made sense to change the name — as director Stephanie Stebich puts it, “not everyone knows what a biennial is.”
But the real differences this time are existential. Confronted with local protests about lack of racial inclusivity, plus wider movements like Black Lives Matter and environmental protests from methanol plants to Alaskan oil drilling, co-curator Rock Hushka made the decision to frame the usual theme of “what is the Northwest?” with social and environmental questions, and what seems a deliberate move to include a wider spread of artists. It’s not white male Portland art anymore.
Which is a good thing for the art. In one corner of the gallery is a huge video projection by C. Davida Ingram, a Seattle artist and activist, meditating on narratives of time, space and persona. From a hypnotic 360-degree aerial shot of the King Street Station (taken by drone) we are pulled inside to witness a slow-motion procession of black women in beekeeper hats and old-fashioned white dresses, slowly mounting a spiral staircase and finally, silently, confronting us. Paired with that is an intimate close-up of two women embracing to a song that unites and pulls them apart, the undertones of love, loss and strength subtle yet beautiful.
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Elsewhere in the gallery are works by Tacoma artist Chris Jordan, who was one of those to confront the museum about race in “Art AIDS America.” Jordan is exploring a number of directions now — he speaks to issues of race, guilt and assumption with “Portrait with C. Brown and ‘Order,’” which poses himself and singer Chris Brown in a hands-up-guilty shot behind a mug-shot painting, eyes pixilated out. But his work with Arnoldo James is even more compelling: a Warholesque digital collage of a black man, hands gripping head, outlined in negative, in skeleton bones, and in saturated pigment like a nightmare.
One of the most beautiful is also the most poignant: Juventino Aranda’s three Pendleton blankets, their Native-swiped designs overpainted in oil to become vermillion-and-gold Rothko takes — a saturated meditation on fluid identity.
It’s also nice to see more Tacoma artists in this Tacoma show. Jeremy Mangan explores new worlds in his usual large-scale, intricate painting: cloud writing fading like hope, a Northwest “desert island” complete with driftwood shack slowly engulfed by a rising Puget Sound. The reflections and ripples showcase Mangan’s exquisite skill with paint. Oliver Doriss entombs his Northwest inside transparent fused glass, giving the mountain shape and the cool green leaves a magical quality with silver leaf.
Another conceptual change to this show is structure. Hushka and co-curator Juan Roselione-Valadez, from Contemporary Arts Foundation in Miami, chose to limit artists to 24, with a couple of works for each. The resulting dynamic is clean and uncluttered, allowing for big pieces like Eirik Johnson’s Zenlike mushroom hunter’s hut (logs, rusty cans and forest audio) and prioritizing a deep viewer experience, rather than an overwhelming of quantity.
The show has, finally, expanded beyond the gallery, with tongue-in-cheek works dotted around the museum and grounds. Dylan Neuwirth’s “Just Be Your Selfie” is refreshingly hard to spot high above the museum entrance, though ironically for the artist’s intent it still makes a great selfie. Paul Komada’s knitted-sweater abstract map of American immigration hangs large over the staircase, where you catch glimpses — appropriately — as you move by. There’s irony from Sutton Beres Culler (fake mops) and Brad Adkins (a “No Dogs” sign for dog selfies). Down in the parking lot vestibule, Lou Watson turns Interstate 705 traffic (viewed from the museum, and visible in real time outside) into music, rendering each color of car as a separate note in an F13-major chord. Watson’s concept is clever, but her choice of tonality is self-determining (anything would sound calm and happy in this key) and devalues the experiment somewhat.
After four years of cowboys, national art and Norwegian prints, it’s good to see Tacoma Art Museum putting its mission of Northwest art on the walls. It’s even better to see that, with some deliberate framing, that art can have such relevance to Northwest life now.
Northwest Art Now
Where: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. third Thursdays through Sept. 4.
Admission: $14 adult; $12 senior, student and military; free for 5 and younger and 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays.
Information: 253-272-4258, tacomaartmuseum.org.