Every season brings more shine to the Soap Factory's once-derelict neighborhood. Condos rise, flower boxes sprout, designer bikes materialize and joggers dash past. Through all the change, the Soap's century-old warehouse remains a lab in which artists can test ideas in a rough-hewn space where, decades ago, vats of lye and animal fat were transformed into National Purity Soap.

The Soap's gritty history seeps from its dark beams, scabrous brick walls, drafty corners. It's a tough place where art has to muscle up to assert its significance, as the 4th Midwest Biennial does very smartly. On view through Nov. 8, the biennial features installations in a wild mix of media — wax, straw, porcelain, laser-cut plywood, 3-D photography — by 17 artists from Minnesota, North Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Organized by St. Paul curator Cheryl Wilgren Clyne, it's the best local biennial of recent memory — tautly focused, enormously varied, handsomely installed and full of memorable, thought-provoking art by seasoned professionals and recent grads. Clyne, a filmmaker who also programs art for the new St. Paul Saints stadium, made 138 studio visits to pick the stuff, and her roadwork paid off handsomely.

Nature and nurture are the exhibit's conceptual umbrella. Jennifer Rogers of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, sets out the motif in an entrance tableau. In three big embroidery hoops — each about 4 feet across — she stitched partial replicas of a famous bird-and-trellis textile by Victorian-era designer William Morris. On a table and the floor below are piles of ceramic vegetables (gourds, corn ears) and critters (squirrels, turkeys) whose ornamental, toylike forms emphasize how we humans domesticate and denature the natural world.

Nearby, Areca Roe of Minneapolis has suspended 25 little viewing devices, each containing a 3-D photo of a family (her own) that has gone back to nature — a baby wrapped in (fake) fur, a "wild" child on a cliff, adults in a primeval forest. The startlingly beautiful 3-D images amplify the Edenic majesty of the setting and the innocent wonder of humans cavorting in it.

Vulnerable beauty

While everybody knows that icebergs and glaciers are fast disappearing, Laura Primozic shows their vulnerable beauty in unusual wax sculptures that protrude from the wall like light sconces. Iceberg cones bob atop rippled blocks of waxy "water," below which she draws the bergs' vast hidden bulk on the walls. Intricate and arresting.

Now based in Chicago, Jessica Christy filled 24 shadowboxes with strangely poetic objects (wood ticks, mussel shells, insect wings) from sites in her native North Dakota. Meanwhile, Mandy Martinson cleverly covered a wall with white electrical outlets that look, surprisingly, like cartoon faces when massed in a grid. A frayed electrical cord connects them to a sooty "X" that appears burned into the floor as if a rogue spark had triggered a fire.

Known for her lacy cut-paper scenes, Sonja Peterson returns with a ghost ship floating in a blacklighted room, a laser-cut plywood sculpture of sea monsters, and an intricate paper scene — inspired by "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" — of a ship and figures entangled in nets.

Illusory landscapes

Other mind-bending displays include Andrea Carlson's phantasmagoric 24-panel vista of distorted masks, bodies, hands, boats and icebergs in a watery landscape, and Margaret Pezalla-Granlund's photos, drawings and models of spaces distorted by mirrors, reflections, scale-shifts and other illusions.

By comparison Lindsay Smith's six paintings of autumnal scenes seem almost conventional, though they are enlivened by skewed perspectives and non-naturalistic colors (blue trees, yellow ground). Shana Kaplow delivers a dreamscape of beautifully executed watercolor cutouts — pillows, tray, bowl, fragments of furniture — that appear to be floating into the sky.

On a grittier note, Alexa Horochowski repurposed a tube of highway construction-straw by coiling it into a menacing, snakelike ring displayed below a muddied hood, and Wisconsin artist Carlos DeGroot rigged up an odd wooden scaffolding on which he evidently intends to grow plants in wood chips moistened with steam.

Poetic performances

Pritika Chowdhry literally embeds poetry in a gallery wall by deftly inserting three-dimensional letters of various sizes into plaster where they coalesce into words of shifting meaning: be-longing/ end-lessly/ forever-more/ un-still.

In a back gallery, a small black stage set awaits artist John Fleischer's occasional performances with clown masks, clock and words chalked onto the walls. In another alcove, there's a Chesterfield settee for Clarence White who will, from time to time, be in residence writing poems about other works in the exhibit. Pieces by painter Dyani White Hawk Polk and Phil Olmstead weren't yet installed during a preview tour of the show.

mary.abbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431