What exactly do we call Portugal Arte, the month-long show of contemporary art in and around Lisbon that opened this past weekend? It's casually being described as a biennial, although there's neither a unifying theme nor a guarantee that it will be back in two years. It's billed in the press materials as an "international survey" of contemporary art—although you could say that it's international in the way that certain U.S. airports with the odd flight to Canada are.
 
Without coming out and saying it, this show (funded, in the midst of a national-debt crisis, primarily by Portuguese energy giant EDP) seems primarily to be about the American art scene in 2010—without marquee names and creatively shoehorned into a large building that isn't a museum but sort of looks like one. It's a bit random, which is not to say that it's not interesting.

 

SCULPTURE AND TIE-DYE BY MICHAEL PHELAN. PAINTING BY KATHERINE BERNHARDT

 

Pritzker-winning architect Alvaro Siza Vieira built the Portugal Pavilion for Expo '98, as a venue by which the host nation could weave an impressive tale about its age-old relationship with the seas. Putting an art exhibition in it isn't exactly smooth sailing. Portugal Arte artistic director Stefan Simchowitz and his team of curators have had to hang paintings over doorways and steer clear of the large air-conditioning vents; on the other hand, the building has a lovely aquatic backdrop and offers an interesting variety of dark nooks and sight lines.

Simchowitz, who also has a background in film and media, is thinking big. He explains that he wants to make a dignified case for art that's not "tainted" by excessive hype and money. It might have been hard to secure a Jeff Koons for a relatively unknown show in Portugal anyway. This, then, is "an independent movie made to be a blockbuster," Simchowitz says—an art equivalent of The Hurt Locker.

Simchowitz owns up to having an "evangelical" side, and wants visitors to take the somewhat unlikely step of beginning their tour with Jim Drain's Orange Shadow. A busy sculpture of patterned textiles, burlap swag and stringy fringe, it looks like an oversized Gypsy water-pipe but is, in fact, a representation of Iggy Pop playing the guitar, and it has the swirling velocity of Boccioni's 1913 Unique Form of Continuity in Space.

This is the first room of "Insider/Outsider," curated by Swedish gallerist Martin Lilja, and you can why it would be a good place to start. It has an elemental quality, with artists feeling out the boundaries of their respective mediums. Neanderthalic canvases by Joe Bradley have a wall to themselves, and Cory Arcangel's Photoshop-generated color-spectrum flashes can be viewed, as Simchowitz suggests, as "the beginning and endpoint of contemporary photography."

 

 

FROM LEFT: TAUBA AUERBACH, ARA PETERSON, JIM DRAIN VISIBLE THROUGH PETERSON TUBE

 

 

From these primeval origins, geometry and language evolve in the next room. Tauba Auerbach shows black shapes becoming letters on canvas, and Ara Peterson plays with color and physics. A polygon-pattern robot sculpture by Ben Jones squats angrily in a room that Lilja surely knew was comically small for it. Simchowitz, pausing in front of a pair of Takeshi Murata video paintings, says he's happy to be showing them somewhere that's not a "goofy space."

The New England and New York art worlds feature heavily in "Insider/Outsider," but geography isn't the organizing principle. But that's just what it is, somewhat puzzlingly, in "California Dreaming." Til Gerhard's paintings of crazed cult leaders and hippie youth have a washed-out look, as though saturated in idealism, while Jennifer Steinkamp's video wallpaper of computer-generated butterflies and Michael Phelan's tie-dye paintings ask whether psychedelia will forever be trapped in the decorative category.

Like Gerhard, Julika Rudelius is not a California artist, but her video of barely adolescent girls getting dressed up for an evening out and then proceeding to grimly trash a house could easily be set in Beverly Hills. It's mesmerizing, although not at all in the way that Bruce Bickford's dizzyingly kinetic claymation is.

The work by Bickford, who once made videos for Frank Zappa, is decades old, but "it's almost more relevant now, because of this handmade quality I'm seeing in painting and sculpture," notes Paul Young, who curated the show with Fred Hoffman. Bickford and (more recently) Brian Bress have used video to piece together little worlds of their own, even if they haven't explored oddity to the degree Mike Kelley does in Banana Man (1983), also on display.

The spectacular portion of "California Dreaming" is downstairs, though, where four large screens installed at ground level cast wonders of light and shadow across a darkened room. Marco Brambilla's "Civilization" is probably the best-known art video among New York's fashion set, thanks to its placement on elevators up to the extremely trendy club at the Standard Hotel. Here, though, it unspools in all its baroque glory. Jennifer West's scratchy lunar images and abstract film manipulations also play beautifully on this scale; watching them alongside Civilization and Mike Barzman's Pink Terror, you get a beautifully concise history of the medium-and an idea of its future.
 
Barzman's techno soundtrack pulses faintly in parts of Johannes Van Der Beek's "Personal Freedom" show, which is anchored at one end of the building by Trenton Duerkson and Daniel Frazier's moving arrangement of children's chairs. In between, there are rooms devoted to Anya Kielan and Aaron King, and Portugal Arte's only serious consideration of Portuguese art. ("Serendipity," a notably comprehensive exhibition of Cuban art, is officially part of the show, but at pains to relate to it.)
 
At the other end, chaos and nature reclaim the human kingdom in Valerie Hegarty's installations of savaged landscape paintings. In American Short Story, Stephen G. Rhodes interrupts a polite antebellum parlor drama with images of reptiles and lashings from a radioactive-yellow assailant. It's also interesting to see how differently his Interregnum Repetition Restoration, Upholstered, from the New Museum's "Younger Than Jesus" show, plays abroad.
 
Rhodes is a "superstar," Simchowitz says—in the best sense. "I didn't want to present Nate Lowman or Dash Snow," Simchowitz explains. "If there's an omission in this show, it's Cyprien Gaillard." Rhodes applies his unique aesthetic to gutting a politically and perhaps culturally weakened America. All things must come to an end, after all. Or, as the writing on the wall goes at the Iberian-flavored temple Faile installed for the occasion in central Lisbon: "Nada Dura Para Sempre." On that note, it seems a shame that due to space-rental costs, Portugal Arte is only up until August 15.