“Steelhead Taxi” (2021)

Eugene Biennial is Becoming Tradition

EW takes a look at some of the prize winners in this year’s show

Gallerist Karin Clarke started the Eugene Biennial in 2016, the year after the Jacobs Gallery and the annual Eugene Mayor’s Art Show closed for several years. She wanted to fill the loss in the community — and so did others, rallying to lend support. This year is the fourth incarnation of the exhibit; it will be on display until Sept. 10. 

Eight awards were presented at a ceremony that took place during Visual Arts Week in early August at the new Farmers Market Pavillion. The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, City of Eugene Cultural Services, Oregon Art Supply, Whiteaker Printmakers and the UO Duck Store all contributed prizes for the awards. Afterward, the artists and those who wanted to meet them or ask them questions about their work walked over to the Karin Clarke Gallery on Willamette Street for a reception.

If I met Michael Whitenack of Eugene, I would ask the artist what was the inspiration for his whimsical “Steelhead Taxi” (2021). Made of wood, metal and glass (the metal was fabricated by popular Eugene artist Jud Turner), the sculpture of a steelhead fish doubles as a taxi, carrying what appear to be a bear and a rabbit as passengers. The steelhead’s face is done in a more realistic but terrifying style than its passengers. Something about their facial expressions is hilarious. I’m probably reading into it, but it seems they are holding onto their seats for an adventure that could go either well or very badly. I can relate.

I often contact artists with questions. But for a group show this large — 33 artists were selected from over 200 who submitted — it wouldn’t be possible to talk to everyone. So, not asking leaves me wondering, thinking about the animals and their journey.   

If you’d like more whimsy, Marjorie Taylor won Best in Show for “Cleo Caracal.” A former University of Oregon psychology professor and Fifth Street Public Market boutique owner, Taylor creates animals that would look lifelike if not for the fact they are made of tapestry material. The small red dot on the wall by “Cleo” means it’s already sold. I’m not surprised. I could easily imagine someone wanting to bring the large cat home with them. It wouldn’t need feeding — just love and perhaps dusting once in a while.

If you wanted, you could talk about the sculpture in terms of serious issues, too. For instance, the tapestries that characterize it signify women’s work, and you could mention that no animals were hurt in the making of “Cleo,” so it’s an alternative to trophies gotten by hunting.   

“Radical Hope 5” (2022), by Pamela Thompson of Corvallis, is done in a monotone the color of ivory.  Constructed out of encaustic paper and string, the artwork can be taken as seriously as a Greek statue (before the color is restored) but its title makes me smile. It tells me to keep on hoping, even after the fourth try.

Tom Miller from Cottage Grove has one of the larger works in the show. Miller’s acrylic painting on paper, “Breakfast with Bela” (2017), won a Juror’s Choice award. It’s colorful and eye-catching, a portrait of a man sitting at a table in a restaurant, seemingly in conversation with the viewer.

People coming into the gallery can’t help but wonder, who is this man? 

That’s what happens when a visitor to the gallery comes in while I’m there. Then he says he likes the artwork but would never buy a painting of someone he doesn’t know. I see his point, but can’t help thinking of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” or Vincent van Gogh’s portrait of his postman (Joseph Roulin). We appreciate those portraits despite the fact we don’t personally know the sitters.

If you want to have a say in who gets an award, there’s a jar in the gallery that’s taking votes for the People’s Choice Award, which is sponsored by the family of late art collector Eleanor Freeman. 

The Mayor’s Art Show, by the way, returned in 2018 and this year is taking place at the Eugene Public Library. The Eugene Biennial doesn’t seem to be going anywhere though; it seems a new tradition has taken root.

The Eugene Biennial continues through Sept. 10 at Karin Clarke Gallery, 760 Willamette Street. Hours are noon to 5:30 pm Wednesday through Friday and 10 am to 4 pm Saturday.  

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