TACOMA, Wash. — Your eye is desperate for a focal point when you look at Rodrigo Valenzuela’s “Goal Keeper #1” (2014). The photograph’s scene looks like a cross between an abandoned movie set and an indoor construction site. Spotlights shine on wooden planks that lead to nowhere and barriers that don’t block anything. A black-and-white photomural of the desert spans the room’s back wall, but it’s hung in pieces that don’t come together. The absence of people relays a sense of distance, yet the photograph’s tension swallows you as you stand there, trying to figure out “Goalkeeper #1”’s goal.
You won’t. “Goal Keeper #1” is meant to confuse viewers about borders and reasoning, because it references the Chilean-born artist’s experience immigrating to this country without documentation. Valenzuela’s photograph pushes into the audience’s space by provoking a disoriented reaction that matches his subject — an experience that characterizes the most resonant works in NW Art Now, the regional group show at the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) where “Goal Keeper #1” hangs.
NW Art Now is the latest iteration of the museum’s semi-biannual survey of Northwest artists (the last took place in 2012), which includes those who reside in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Alaska, and British Columbia. TAM Chief Curator Rock Hushka and guest curator Juan Roselione-Valadez, director of Miami’s Rubell Family Collection, narrowed the 300 applicants to just 24 artists, most of whose works have been squeezed into a single gallery.
When I saw Jeremy Mangan’s painting “Pacific Northwest Desert Island” (2016), I recognized the Tacoma artist as the single carryover from the last biennial at TAM. While local terrain once again fills Mangan’s large-scale canvas, his new landscape exposes a shift from the pristine to the lived-in. The painting I recall from 2012, “Tent City,” showed a tidy circle of tents surrounding an extinguished fire, no traces of humans in sight. “Pacific Northwest Desert Island” similarly does not reveal its inhabitants, but its shack appears to have been made from tree shards, debris, and anything else its owner could scavenge. Buoys and an unattended fire imply a habitat intended for survival, more like the real tent cities that dot the Puget Sound region. Mangan lures us in by using romantic Northwest imagery, but disrupts the view with landscape features many would rather ignore.
Such ruptures run throughout NW Art Now. Juventino Aranda fuses Rothko-esque color fields with fabrics rejected from the Pendleton blanket mill that sits near Walla Walla, Washington, where he grew up in a family of migrant farmworkers. Titles like “When All You Have Left are Limes, Make Margaritas, Nod and Smile; Old and Faithful Since 1848 (Yellowstone)” (2015) bring attention to the powerless, uncomfortable reality of cultural appropriation that lies beneath the surface of objects whose meaning is lost through consumption. Portland artist Ka’ila Farrell Smith reassembles elements of indigenous design, abstract formalism, and graffiti into paintings about fractured identity, with dense surfaces built up like mounds of colored scar tissue. Seattle-based Amanda Manitach’s 30-foot-tall, intricate graphite drawing “Frances Farmer Defends Herself” (2016) plummets down a gallery wall like a waterfall. Fighting against the medium’s typically restrained, modest scale, the massive piece dominates the gallery, forcing a new understanding of the actress upon visitors.
Yet, standing in the pristine, white-walled space, I wondered if the different perspectives these works evoked would extend into the world beyond the museum. Would they change the way people vote? Would they lead someone to join the next protest? Or was that too much to ask of art? When artist and activist Martha Rosler recently spoke at the Seattle Art Museum, she reiterated how only people can create change; art simply helps.
Her point is striking in the context of NW Art Now, because the show happens to be inside the same gallery that housed the “die-in” protest by local artists and community members during Art AIDS America last winter. The protest — in response to that exhibit’s lack of representation of black artists — took place just as applications were due for NW Art Now. When I asked Hushka if the demonstration affected his process of selecting artists for the biennial, he said, “If it didn’t change the way I viewed my job, I would be a bad curator and person. Having a passionate, smart group of young people bring complicated issues to our forefront has been utterly important.” TAM didn’t require artists to disclose their races or ethnicities for the biennial, but 33% voluntarily identified as people of color —a better statistic, one suspects, than for Art AIDS America, in which a mere 5% of artists identified as black, alongside those of Asian, Latino, and Native American descent. (The museum didn’t have precise information on the ethnic and racial makeup of the 107 artists included in that show.)
Christopher Paul Jordan is a Tacoma artist who co-organized the die-in and is also included in NW Art Now. When I asked about his willingness to show work at TAM, he admitted his discomfort but directed me to his sculpture in the exhibit, “Edges of a Silhouetted Earth” (2015), which consists of a translucent slab of wax, copper, ink, Mylar, and resin that’s been split in two. “It’s a memorial for the quarter of a million black souls ignored by Art AIDS America,” Jordan explained. “I had it cracked before showing it at the museum because there’s no way it can exist within their space as it exists in spirit … It represents what it feels like to be between their walls and how it feels to be in crisis in a white space.” The dark, wrought slabs appear heavy with emotional weight in a way that stands out in the dense show, but to me they became even more affecting after Jordan explained the backstory — a story I was surprised not to see in the labels hanging on the walls that had witnessed the work’s inspiration.
The resonance of Jordan’s piece makes clear how much work remains to be done at art institutions. Although Hushka explained the ways in which TAM has been addressing matters of diversity and representation by collecting artists of color for years, he didn’t speak to the future or offer insight into how issues raised during the die-in would be considered going forward; the focus seemed to be on the museum’s improvement of communications about the work it’s already been doing. In this answer, I saw Rodrigo Valenzuela’s planks leading to nowhere. I heard Martha Rosler’s insistence that art alone cannot create change. As I looked around me and tried to better understand the relationship between what art wants to do and what it can, I returned to Jordan’s description of NW Art Now: “You could feel the yearning of a million displaced creators trying to get out, to someplace they belong.” Now that we’ve witnessed this yearning on a pedestal, it’s time to see what it looks like out in the world.
NW Art Now continues at the Tacoma Art Museum (1701 Pacific Avenue, Tacoma, Washington) through September 4.
Correction: This article originally stated that 5% of the artists in Art AIDS America were people of color; that number in fact refers only to the African American artists in the show. We regret the error, and it has been fixed.