The Tacoma museum's annual group show features "interdisciplinary work" that explores identity and community in the Northwest.

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Over 50 years ago, four women set out on a rollicking road trip through the great Northwest, fishing and hiking and stopping in diners and motels. Along the way, they collected menus and postcards, which they placed into a large scrapbook, along with black-and-white snapshots of their lively adventures. Just a few years ago, artist and filmmaker Matt McCormick found this leather-bound scrapbook in a thrift store, bought it, and used it as the basis for a grand experimental documentary.

Re-creating the road trip as best he could, McCormick filmed and photographed his journey through the region, capturing some of the same sights and pit stops and noting many changes along the way. The resulting work of art, titled “The Great Northwest,” is made up of a film and photographs by McCormick and the original scrapbook itself, and is currently installed at the Tacoma Art Museum as part of the museum’s 10th Northwest Biennial.

“The Great Northwest” is an apt metaphor for this kind of exhibition, which surveys and constructs a narrative about a particular place and time. In McCormick’s work and in the Biennial itself, individual human activity slowly accumulates to build an understanding of identity, community, and place, but, inevitably, there are holes in the narrative, a sense of histories just glimpsed.

This isn’t a bad thing. Typically, the purpose of a biennial exhibition is to survey the current state of art in a certain place, as with the often-controversial Whitney Biennial of American art, or to bring together the best contemporary art from around the world, as with the wildly ambitious Venice Biennale. Biennials tend to be overreaching in their attempts to piece together a complete look at contemporary art.

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This year, with the 10th anniversary of the Northwest biennial, Rock Hushka, TAM’s curator of Contemporary and Northwest Art, and Renato Rodrigues da Silva, a Vancouver-based curator and art critic, have done something a little different and quite effective. They’ve narrowed the focus of the exhibition to feature “interdisciplinary work” that explores identity and community.

At the same time, they’ve broadened their scope to include British Columbia, a move that reflects the fluid artistic and cultural dynamics of the region. This approach leaves holes (not too many painterly paintings here), but provides a chance to look more deeply into a certain range of practice that’s important in our area.

The show features artists who work with different media and forms of expression. You’ll see a lot of photography, film, and mixed-media installations. There are pamphlets to take away, places to sit and watch, listen, or participate, and videos, photographs, and found objects that serve as evidence of performance art or social, interactive art.

Neatly folded stacks of pants can be found throughout the museum, part of Portland-based artist Abraham Ingle’s efforts to generate social, noncommercial exchanges. The pants are a fantastic example of the kind of beyond-the-museum approach taken by many of the artists, although better wall labels would let visitors know that they can actually try them on and take them home, leaving their own pants in exchange.

Because of the nontraditional nature of a lot of the work, the guards have their hands full with this exhibition: Yes, you can sit on the Oriental rug and pillows that are part of Reza Michael Safavi’s meditative and witty installation. Yes, you can insert a quarter into the video game by Paul Kuniholm Pauper (the quarter activates a haunting video of homeless people’s signs), but, no, the joysticks do not actually do anything (perhaps suggesting a lack of control over these people’s circumstances?).

Size-wise, the exhibition is modest. It’s smaller than in previous years, but the works are thoughtfully arranged to suggest subthemes: the relationship between people and nature; the tensions between political positions and between cultural histories. There’s a definite activist, conceptual aura to the show, in keeping with the curators’ desire to focus on identity and community. A lot of the work takes time to figure out and absorb, a process that makes the show feel both intimate and expansive.

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