The 29 artists selected by Seattle Art Museum curator Catharina Manchanda for the Bellingham National present media as diverse as photography, video, audio and sculpture as well as more traditional works on paper.

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What is contemporary drawing? The conventional notion that drawing is “a picture or diagram made with a pencil, pen or crayon rather than paint” is stretched to the limit by the just-opened Bellingham National, a juried art exhibition on the theme of drawing at the Whatcom Museum.

The 29 artists selected by Seattle Art Museum curator Catharina Manchanda present media as diverse as photography (a mountain barely visible against a night sky), video (marks on pavement seen from a moving car), audio (a recording of someone very noisily scratching something against something) and sculpture (anthropomorphic furniture), as well as more traditional works on paper.

The artists themselves don’t make assigning categories easy. When Kirk Yamahira takes a dark gray stretched canvas and removes all of the vertical threads from the middle section, leaving the remaining threads spilling outward like loosened entrails, I’m put in mind of installation, or fabric art. The stripped-down, striking work suggests that the very ground that artists stand on is shifting, the canvas dissolving before it can even be painted.


Bellingham National Juried Art Exhibitions and Awards

Noon-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays through Sept. 10, Whatcom Museum (Lightcatcher), 250 Flora St., Bellingham; $5-$10 (360-778-8930 or

Similarly defying pigeonholes is Christopher Patton, who has optically transformed close-ups of his handwriting into a series of abstract images, made into a video loop. Is the resulting projection a movie, or a scanned drawing?

What’s of interest here is the way his chance process has transformed ordinary cursive writing into highly evocative blobs and squiggles, suggestive of faces and pictographs, with the occasional legible fragment here and there. Most communication is, at heart, nonverbal; Patton is working at excavating the emotional subtext behind his writing — a daily account of his caring for his aging father.

I found it easier to appreciate than enjoy a number of works in the show, heavy on concept but light on visual appeal. Shaw Osha has a great story, starting with the diary of her great-great grandmother (in a vitrine), and extending to her field trip to her ancestral South, exploring a slave-owning past. But her presentation is more scrapbook than art, focusing on three enormous sheets of paper with writing too small to read and scattered supporting documents (mostly photographs and fragments of photos) that are not particularly impactful for the viewer.

Similarly, the bound daily drawing diaries of Joan Crawley Crane — going back years — make an impressive pile, but the viewer isn’t granted sufficient glimpses into the artwork’s written and sketched contents to get engaged.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, the sound compositions of Portland artist Lou Watson admirably uses traffic to create electronic music, whose timing and pitch is determined by when individual vehicles in different lanes pass predetermined signposts along the highway. The work includes analytic notations on site-specific photographs for the video shoot. The piece is a charming species of artistic revenge for anyone who hates interstate highways (and who doesn’t?).

Of course, there is also a smattering of good old-fashioned works on paper, and nearly all of those are worthwhile, coincidentally or not. Whiting Tennis looks at posed figure models and creates wire-frame monsters, jungle gyms, and circuits that are ready for a science-fiction movie set; Eva Isaksen has a complicated little abstraction that plays with space and texture in the spirit of midcentury Modernism; Klara Glosova focuses on the world of bored and patient soccer parents, far from the thrill of the game, waiting to go home.

In the early days of the modern movement, cutting-edge art arrived in bursts, grouped into movements and isms. Pity the curator trying to get a handle on our current era, where a show as diverse as this is much more of the every-artist-for-themselves spirit, defying both conventional categories and easy generalizations.

Information in this article, originally published June 27, 2017, was corrected July 1, 2017. A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Lou Watson as male.