Northeast Portland project space Cherry & Lucic applied to the Portland Biennial as a joke. Curated by Michelle Grabner and described by artnet as having a “punk rock spirit”, the event —running July 9 to September 18 —consists primarily of white participants, rendering any claim of its relevance or accuracy in terms of representing Oregon’s arts ecology hard to believe. The inclusion of Kyle Raquipiso, Eleanor Ford, and John Knight’s independent space operating out of a dilapidated garage in a gentrifying Ethiopian neighborhood appears to both embody and repudiate this notion of subcultural resistance. They proposed a re-staging of Merlin Carpenter’s exhibition Poor Leatherette (2015), an arrangement of a luxury fridge, pram, sampler, and Ducati motorbike buttressed by dense Marxist theory in the press release and a related essay. Ironically, Grabner accepted Cherry & Lucic’s application, calling their bluff, so to speak, and effectively pushing them to “explain the joke”. Just as Carpenter claimed his arrangement focalized the objects’ decommodification or disengagement from exchange to aid his attempts to “use the extremely conservative irrelevance of this readymade status symbol in art… rather than just ironise it”, Cherry & Lucic’s joke-turned-re-exhibition is a claim that the objects in their re-staging fail to escape value in the same way that their presence in the Portland Biennial does.
Their resulting participation in the event consists of two arrangements, orbiting each other: first, the re-staged Merlin Carpenter show, denuded of its obscene luxury with objects borrowed from other Portlanders and bought from Craigslist; and second, a novella, MC: Emerging Artist —published by hq Objective —whose prose addresses Carpenter directly, attempting to elucidate the intent and context of the restaging as well as of Cherry & Lucic more generally. The text is transparent about art space’s simultaneous critique of and parasitism on institutionality: “we are the first to acknowledge that this exhibition is tinged with pointlessness… like teenage punks, purposefully ruining the cool kids’ party, we are happy to have been invited and are sure we won’t be asked back anytime soon.” Case in point: “This reexhibition of Poor Leatherette in our garage is an admission of the inability to enact a fully realized revolutionary politic within the institutional context of both biennials and ‘alternative’ projects.”
Does it work? Not necessarily, in the sense that no amount of textual recalibration of the endeavor can undo the institutional recognition and reification of whiteness signified by Cherry & Lucic’s inclusion in the Biennial to begin with. Obsessed with its own failure and escaping the aestheticization of it, the space ends up failing to fail, instead treating its admission of this failure to be radical or institutional as semantic currency in the ‘project space’ conversation and its relationship to issues in Portland and across the nation’s cities like the housing crisis, gentrification, and white supremacy.
As such, it’s probably clear by now that I take issue with some of the assumptions of the novella —that the ‘garage-ness’ of Cherry & Lucic is any impediment to its potential ability to institutionalize as a curatorial project that shows primarily white artists. That the self-described ‘pointlessness’ of re-staging an ostentatious Merlin Carpenter show is an obstacle to the Biennial’s ability to subsume this exhibition and render it as ‘proof’ of what Grabner calls its radically-expanded regionalism. That Cherry & Lucic can be ‘falsely institutional’. That the fact of Cherry & Lucic’s failure is any kind of roadblock to art as circulation of social and economic capital, behind which, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, whiteness lies in wait. Etc. But what does work about the text?
I direct my critical attention toward MC: Emerging Artist because it perfectly embodies the new, self-aware marginal institutionality, buoyed by failure and mediocrity, which has concretized into a viable curatorial career path. Cherry & Lucic is an heir to past local contexts like Appendix project space, and, going even farther back, Grabner’s own Oak Park garage initiative begun in 1997, the Suburban. In these contexts, marginality acts as proof of an imaginary escape from the market, and gestures of exhaustion toward value act as means of generating value: “Unlike Portland’s past era of project spaces,” Cherry & Lucic writes, “we find ourselves at a point in time when a precedent for alternative ‘successes’ stands strong in our arts ecology.”
The primary value of this novella, then, lies not within its pages, or in its relationship to the re-staging of Merlin Carpenter’s Poor Leatherette, but instead in its historicized meaning in the context of what we might call alternative or marginal institutionality. It attempts to self-mythologize by speaking frankly, hoping against hope that the reader buys into its continued disavowal and sees the value-without-value that this kind of project space represents in light of Portland’s rapid development. For a moment, I almost empathize, seeing with clarity the crisis in which the archetypal Portland Project Space finds itself. Ultimately, it is here where Cherry & Lucic’s engagement with the Biennial proves useful: in its attempts to dismantle the false dichotomy of ‘project space’ and ‘institution’ and call into question the utopian erasure of Portland’s white provincialism. It ultimately does not succeed in this, but the attempt is more than any other Portland project space can attest.**