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Weed-choked fir trees and a spouting volcano place Dan Attoe’s 2006 Me, You and the big old stupid world firmly in the Pacific Northwest.

JENNIFER GATELY, the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer curator of Northwest art for the Portland Art Museum (PAM), is “walking” me through a scale model of the Collins Gallery, the museum’s main exhibit hall. With eight more weeks to prepare for the inaugural Contemporary Northwest Art Awards (CNAA), the petite 37-year-old still has a few problems to solve. There’s the question of whether a particular floor area will accommodate an installation that doesn’t, as of yet, actually exist. And the matter of how to illuminate a corner of the gallery where delicate drawings (which look best washed in light) have to appear alongside video projections (which prefer darkness). And the issue of how to answer reporters’ pesky questions about whether the CNAA exhibit will reoccur every two years, as its predecessor, the Oregon Biennial, did—a fact conspicuously left out of the exhibit’s publicity materials. (That’s the plan “right now,” Gately says.)

In any case, she assures me that by mid-June, the gallery will be transformed into a glistening showcase of contemporary art—the backdrop for an awards program aimed at bringing national attention to five Northwest artists culled from as many states. “What I would really like to do with CNAA,” Gately says, “is to call attention to this region in a way that we don’t have an opportunity to do very often.”

And, it would seem, to pique the curiosity of outsiders in a way that the Oregon Biennial did not. Since 1981, the biennial has represented a competitive “who’s who” of contemporary artists from around the state—a juried exhibition that’s given honorees a significant badge of prestige, at least locally. (The biennial was, itself, a reinvention of the annual “Artists of Oregon” show, which originated in 1912.) But in recent years, as the population of Oregon artists has multiplied, and commercial galleries and nonprofit art centers have proliferated in Portland, the biennial, once considered a harbinger of major talent, faced the prospect of becoming just another group show in a city full of group shows.

So Gately, who joined PAM as its first-ever curator of Northwest art in 2006 (after serving as director of visual arts at Idaho’s Sun Valley Center for the Arts), radically rewrote the competition rules. Under the terms of the new—and much more selective—awards program, artists can no longer nominate themselves for inclusion in the show; instead, that weighty responsibility falls to a broad group of regional arts professionals selected by PAM curators. (Full disclosure: I was one of that group of 259.) Additionally, the number of honorees has dropped from the 35 exhibited at the most recent biennial, in 2006, to just 5 in this summer’s CNAA show. And perhaps most notably, the awards program is no longer limited only to artists from Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. This year, artists from all of Washington State, as well as the neighboring states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, are eligible to compete.

Gately cites the prestigious Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) awards at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as a model for championing superior work in a world where collectors, curators, and critics often have a hard time looking beyond the art centers of New York and Los Angeles. The SECA award has not only thrust many Bay Area recipients, such as digital animator Kota Ezawa and urban-art hero Barry McGee, into the national spotlight, but has also cast its glow on the Bay Area’s art scene as a whole—exactly what Gately hopes to accomplish in the Northwest.

For those counting at home, only one artist selected for the inaugural show received her congratulatory letter at an Oregon address: Portlander Marie Watt, whose work has been featured at prestigious venues such as the Smithsonian and the Aldridge Museum of Contemporary Art in Connecticut. Her towers of folded woolen blankets, and quilts hung on the wall like tapestries, evoke the traditions of Native American craft, 20th-century Modernism, and domestic rituals. She is venturing into new territory at the CNAA with two felt memorials, made with the participation of local volunteers, that pay tribute to Oregonians and Iraqis who have died in the Iraq War.

Don’t expect the whole show to be so somber, though. Seattle artist Jeffry Mitchell’s ceramics and works on paper pulsate with images of elephants and floral motifs—even if their visual frivolity and exuberant decoration mask a complex and personal exploration of sex, death, and religion. And Washougal artist Dan Attoe’s oil-on-panel paintings are absurdly and pathologically funny, employing Pacific Northwest landmarks as backdrops for scenes of strip clubs and polygamist weddings.

Meanwhile, the performance-based videos, melancholy stop-motion animations, and whimsical drawings of Cat Clifford, a resident of Washington’s Vashon Island, convey a youthful sense of experimentation. In contrast, Whiting Tennis’s hulking wood sculptures, which take their inspiration from dilapidated roadside structures in eastern Washington, display a refined formalism.

Tara McDowell, co-curator of the past two SECA exhibitions, praises what she calls PAM’s “smart” move to a more discerning curatorial model. But she cautions that the CNAA’s success ultimately will depend on the details: chiefly, how good the work is (it’s a positive sign that the selection process was thorough, with 28 finalists, culled from a pool of 259 nominees, having received studio visits from Gately) and how well PAM publicizes and supports the new program. To that end, the museum already has announced plans to produce a hefty catalog, with art reproductions devoted to each honoree. Even better, it will offer a $10,000 prize, the Arlene Schnitzer Award for Northwest Art, to one lucky winner. That individual, chosen by a team of PAM curators based on the work in the show, will be announced at the June 14 opening celebration.

“The biennial served artists’ needs in Oregon for a long time,” Gately says, “just as the ‘Annuals’ served the needs before that.” And now, in the wake of Portland’s creative boom, the time seems ripe for another reinvention. This month, you can judge for yourself whether the CNAA is the right answer at the right time.