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The 2016 Portland Biennial, curated by Michelle Grabner and presented by the Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, opened on July 9. On view until September 18, it brings together the work of 34 artists across 25 venues at 13 sites around the state of Oregon. Whitewall caught up with Grabner to learn more about the biennial’s focus on regionalism in the Northwest.
WHITEWALL: As you embarked on your role as curator of the 2016 Portland Biennial, did you have a scope in mind?
MICHELLE GRABNER: Portland2016, since its conception, was always a state-wide biennial. This is the first iteration of the Portland Biennial that engages exhibition sites around the state. In the past, the city of Portland was the only community hosting exhibitions and projects by Oregon artists. Oregon is a big and marvelously diverse state so it made since to me to site Portland-based artists in Ashland and to bring Eugene-based artists to LaGrande, and so forth.
WW: You’ve said that the biennial highlights regionalism in Oregon, and that regional ideas are part of contemporary thinking. How so? How is that different from other parts of the U.S.?
MG: The Northwest actively nurtures and maintains a strong regional identity. Whereas other regions of the U.S. work hard to breakdown their regionality. But as we know, questions of innate or shared cultural characteristics is tricky business because globalism opportunistically transverses the local and the regional. But this can be exciting and dynamic for the cultural imagination based off-center. Today regionality is a construction that plays with, and even fictionalize the historic, geographic, and ethical elements shaping cultural identity.
WW: Its been over a month since the opening of the biennial, and there is about a month left. What have been some reactions that have struck you thus far?
MG: All of the hosting venues have expressed to me their delight in being a part of a state-wide discourse on contemporary art. As you can imagine, Portland sucks up a great deal of cultural air in both the state and the region so the fact that Astoria or Pendleton get an opportunity to foreground their cultural work instead of manifesting resentment toward Oregon’s center is rewarding. It is also in line with the feedback I have received from viewers who have zigzagged across the Oregon landscape, delighted to experiencing new locations and communities within the State they call home.
WW: We read in a recent interview that while there is a big emphasis and conversation around lifestyle in the Northwest, that you looked at artists here who are not engaged in their practice as a lifestyle, but rather in language, abstraction, expression, or social practice. Could you expand on that a bit?
MG: This is always a difficult question to answer because it is concerned with ethics and value systems. As a curator I seek to examine, analyze, critique, and translate work that leads to something more interesting than the individual making it.
WW: If someone is visiting the state this summer, with a limited amount of time, are there any must-see sites in the biennial? How is travel from site to site part of the experience of the biennial?
MG: The Cascades, the high deserts, the coast, the Columbia River Gorge…all extraordinary natural environments and each hosting exceptional biennial exhibitions. How can I possibly choose?