• Bruce Guenther taps 26 artists from more than 900 entries for the 2003 Oregon Biennial

For the casual observer, the Oregon Biennial is a great way to catch up with the state's art scene. The more focused watcher will note who Portland Art Museum curator Bruce Guenther thinks will shape its future.

Every two years, the museum hosts the biennial, a show of the region's contemporary art. The biennial, which starts Saturday, is a museum tradition that harkens back to 1911, when it started as an annual show for Portland-based artists. The prestigious show is a nod from the 'oldest museum in the Pacific Northwest' to its living artists.

Only artists currently working in the Beaver State are considered for the biennial, with the exception of those from Clark County, Wash.

Both newcomers and established artists are on the 2003 roster. Among the better-known figures are Pendleton's James Lavadour, an abstract landscape painter who ignites the canvas with fiery scenes. Street photographer Craig Pozzi also gives the show backbone.

Relative unknowns from Portland's alternative art circuit are here, too. Selection grants these artists not only a measure of celebrity, but often a future venue for their work: The biennial has become a kind of gallery recruiting ground. For some, the show is a ladder to a more national art scene.

Artists also get to hobnob with museum members and collectors at opening parties, and there is prize money. One artist will receive a cash prize of $1,000; three others will receive prizes of $500.

Guenther, the museum's chief curator as well as its curator of contemporary art, makes all the decisions. He looked at more than 900 entries and selected 13 men and 13 women to hang their work in the show.

As was the case with the 2001 biennial (Guenther joined the museum in 2000; this is his second biennial), painting takes center stage: Sixteen of the artists are painters, six are photographers and two are sculptors. There is a lone ceramist, and one artist showing drawings.

Not surprisingly, it's a Portland-centric lineup. Seventeen of the artists live in Portland proper, and two are from its immediate suburbs. Two artists hail from Vancouver, Wash., while four work in other parts of the state.

'It may seem that some of these artists are out of the blue. But the fact is that this year more than any other, there is a system behind it,' Jeff Jahn, a persistent voice in the local art scene, says about this year's lineup. He's referring to the way these artists have bubbled up from such indie-fringe art groups as the Red 76 collective, Pacific Switchboard and Alphabet Dress.

All of the work in the show was made in the last two years.

The keen-eyed Guenther manages to shake up things with his choices. Many artists comment that they respect Guenther, a fanatic about painting, for the amount of time he spends visiting artists in their studios.

'He's into painting, the way that it's a continuing conversation between the present and the past,' says James Boulton, a young artist who has two paintings in the show.

The thin-skinned can get hurt. In 2001, the Groundswell Cafe staged a 'Salon de Refuses' for artists not selected. There are rumbles of possible protests this year, too.

But most artists agree that the competition and pressure of the biennial is a welcome break from a sometimes too-cozy scene.

Boulton has been in Portland for 3 1/2 years since moving from New Mexico. Acceptance into the biennial is a big break. 'It means a lot,' he says. 'Things start to happen really fast.'

Since his selection, Boulton has been asked to join the stable of artists represented by the Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery.

'You hope that people once the hype dies down stay interested,' he says.

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