Painting in Earnest: The 10th Northwest Biennial

This year marks the 10th annual Northwest Biennial hosted by the Tacoma Art Museum. Famously referred to as a “dusty old jewel” by former resident Neko Case in her song “Thrice All American,” Tacoma, Washington may not be the expected location for a major survey of contemporary work from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and, for the first time, British Columbia. However, standing beside the almost-shuttered Washington State History Museum (due to funding challenges) and two blocks away from Pugnetti Park, site of the modest Occupy Tacoma encampment since October, the art selected for the Northwest Biennial speak directly to its surroundings. - Erin Langner, Seattle Contributor

Jeremy Mangan, Trojan Horse, 2010. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 96 x 104 inches, diptych. Courtesy of Linda Hodges Gallery, Seattle, and the artist.

Highly interdisciplinary across the 29 artists included, TAM Curator of Contemporary and Northwest Art Rock Hushka notes political and economic paralysis as a unifying theme within the show. Rejecting the traditionally “high art” affiliations of the medium, the small group of painters included in the survey contribute strong ideas and convictions to the overarching reflections on paralysis, frequently elevating humble subject matter to monumental representations through bold uses of scale and highly detailed technique.

Installation shot of The 10th Northwest Biennial courtesy of Tacoma Art Museum.

Portland artist Kirk Lybecker positions abandoned gas stations front-and-center in his oil and acrylic works, detailing the fading paint, dented walls and boarded windows of these buildings that once alluded to the promise of the American automobile. In contrast to the shiny portrayals of the same vernacular structures famously captured by by Ed Ruscha during a more optimistic era, Lybecker’s gas stations replace saturated figures and a Pop sensibility with muted tones and a photo-realist approach more suited for the realities of a post-recession mindset.  This gas station lacks the drama of being on fire, but devoid of any humans or even gas pumps, it appears to have been captured by the artist the moment it became forgotten.

Kirk Lybecker, Alone as an Apostate in the Land of the Righteous, 2011. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 40 x 60 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

The rolling hills of Kelly Neidig’s Monoculture diptych exude a more wistful outlook.  The pair portrays Oregon’s picturesque Willamette Valley as seen through the windows of a moving car.   In contrast to Lybecker’s narrative, the car is present and traveling; however, the car’s destination is another question. Although Monoculture presents seemingly ordinary landscape, closer viewing reveals a distinct tension between the hazy cloudscape and the hard, defined lines comprising the green fields.   The top and the bottom of the work inhabit two separate spaces, implying an absence of reality; this superficially perfect imagery is a mere mirage, constructing the promise of a desirable place that does not exist.

Kelly Neidig, Monoculture 1, 2011. Oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the SAM Gallery and the artist.

Susie Lee’s Still Lives series applies painting-based approaches to her portraits of Washington Care Center residents, members of a demographic often forgotten or ignored by many Americans. Yet, the portraits are not paintings, but rather video works approximately 30 min. in length. Inspired by Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings, the artist’s final series that articulates the unfavorable aspects of humanity through allegorical scenes, the painterly details of Lee’s works underscore the video portraits’ ability to engage the onlooker. Two Men Gazing appropriates Goya’s Two Old Men, replacing the original central figure with a woman standing poised, an ominous hand resting on her shoulder. Beyond this overt reference to Goya, the work incorporates the language of Renaissance and Romantic painted portraiture, from the heavily textured robe evocative of Albrecht Dürer’s cascading locks in his Self-Portrait, to the chiaroscuro of 17th and 18thcentury Italian paintings.

Susie J. Lee, Still Lives: Two Men Gazing, 2010, Single-channel high definition video portrait, 31 minutes, 34 seconds, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Lawrimore Project, Seattle, and the artist. Artwork supported by funding from 4Culture Site Specific.

The power of Lee’s work resides in her subjects, who appear dignified and wise when captured with the respect afforded to painted portrait subjects.  Living in a time of delayed retirement and unreliable savings accounts, the realities of aging remain at the forefront of our collective consciousness. Although there is a honest bleakness communicated by Lee and many of the other artists featured in the Northwest Biennial, the show’s direct engagement with issues of the present moment reveals the relevancies of the included works, demonstrating that biennials can, in fact, create impactful dialogue without the empty drama.

The 10th Northwest Biennial is on view at the Tacoma Art Museum through May 20, 2012.


Erin Langner is a writer based in Seattle and is Assistant Program Manager, Education and Public Programs at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM)


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