mud hair
Image: MK Guth

When the Whitney Museum of American Art announced the 81 artists selected for its prestigious biennial, opening in New York this month, one had to wonder if the curators ran out of frequent flyer miles before they finished searching for candidates. Fewer than 15 percent of the selectees hail from somewhere besides California or the Big Apple. And only one of them, installation artist MK Guth, calls Oregon home.

Guth, who shows at Portland’s Elizabeth Leach Gallery, will hang an enormous Rapunzel-like braid (expected to be more than 800 feet long) titled “Ties of Protection and Safe Keeping” from the ceiling of New York’s Seventh Regiment Armory. The braid weaves locks of faux red hair with hundreds of red flannel strips bearing answers from across the country to the question “What is worth protecting?”

Guth is but the latest local Whitney inductee: Five Portlanders have been selected for the last four biennials—the art world’s equivalent of Sundance and the NBA All-Star Game rolled into one. (Granted, one of them, Chris Johanson, moved here after his first selection, but we claim him as ours anyway.) That may not sound like much, but when you consider that cities like Seattle and Atlanta had exactly zero biennial selectees this year, it’s clear that Portland is more than just a stopover for New York’s curators. “Ten years ago, it was incredibly difficult to get a meaningful studio visit in Portland,” says Guth. “Now artists and curators from all over the country visit on a regular basis.” She points to the arrival in the last decade of artists like Harrell Fletcher (a 2004 biennial selectee) and well-connected art advocates like Reed College’s Cooley Gallery curator Stephanie Snyder as a key reason New Yorkers are now boarding Portland-bound Boeings. Of course, such favored-son status is cyclical, and our turn as the art world’s small-town darling will eventually come to an end, as Las Vegas’s did after its reign in the late 1990s. But Guth’s inclusion in this year’s show suggests that Portland’s arts scene hasn’t run out of mileage just yet.