Centerfield | Embracing the Cliché: An Interview with Michelle Grabner

March 23, 2013 | Published Articles, Writing

Originally published by the Art21 blog in March, 2013.

Michelle Grabner exhibited at Autumn Space last month. Her show, DRAFT, ran the gamut of Grabner’s practical, visual, and material practice. A black and white print of two San Francisco 49ers hung in a frame by the front desk near a round, black field painting of white dots. One side of the grand warehouse windows were dressed with larger-than-life red and white gingham curtains. Across from this hung a white gessoed painting and beside that a too-large-to-be-casual Post-it Note doodle adhered to the wall. A fifth long and heavy-looking sculpture of wood and cement lay diagonally across the floor. This last work was produced by Grabner and her husband Brad Killam. The two have been working collaboratively for many many years and the piece supplied a grounding, perpendicular line amongst otherwise vertical planes. In addition to being a painter and writer, Grabner is a professor and chair of painting at the School of the Art Institute. She co-curates exhibitions at The Suburban and Poor Farm with Killam, exploring the potential in rural and suburban curatorial sites. She is represented by Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago, and will co-curate the 2014 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Whether operating as a teacher or facilitator, or as a painter, printer, collaborator, and sculptor, Grabner returns again and again to marginalized and overlooked frontiers for aesthetic inspiration, culling a minimalist sensibility from the banal pattern of picnic table place mats, gessoed cloth onto a canvas, white dots in a black field, or black pixelation on a white print. By juxtaposing scale and material she tills a subtle American vernacular, and by this constellation of works explores the pursuit of happiness.

Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam, "Untitled," 2013, Wood and Concrete. Photo courtesy of Autumn Space.

Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam. “Untitled,” 2013. Wood and concrete. Courtesy Autumn Space.

Caroline Picard: I want to ask you about collaboration, the when and how of it. When I was at Autumn Space looking at Untitled (2013)—the large wood and concrete sculpture that crosses over the ground of the gallery—it struck me that this piece was a collaborative effort between you and Brad Killam. It has such a striking materiality. It’s so heavy looking, and seems to ground the whole show. I thought it was interesting given that you also work so closely together on The Suburban, and The Poor Farm—what are also unusual and very physical platforms for art. I guess what I’m trying to ask about is the materiality of collaboration, especially your collaborating with Killam. How do you decide to collaborate? How do you define that medium? And is there a relationship between the wood and concrete piece and the curatorial art spaces you run together? 

Michelle Grabner: When Brad and I finished our MFA degrees in Chicago we moved to Milwaukee, leaving our colleagues and the discourse we came to depend on in graduate school behind. It was the early ’90s and we had a young family so Brad and I started collaborating under the moniker of CAR (Conceptual Arts Research). Again, let me underscore that this was the early ’90s and the smack of “identity” was inescapable. So in addition to our individual painting practices, we started making work about our family, examining its social dynamics as pressed through the geeky political writings of Maxine Greene, Trinh T. Minh, Homi Bhabha, etc. The CAR work was readily received and we mounted exhibitions at White Columns, Chicago’s Uncomfortable Spaces , Richard Heller, LA, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and All Girls, Berlin in a very short period of time. Milwaukee was the perfect incubator for us. Here we became friends with Felix Gonzalez Torres (MAM hosted his first museum exhibition), the artist Nick Frank, and curator Peter Doroshenko. But once we moved back to Chicago in 1997 (settling in Oak Park for the public school) we immediately launched The Suburban, and that collaborative effort soon replaced the family-focused work that defined our Milwaukee years. However, in 2007 when our youngest kid turned two, Brad and I started making “things” together again. But this time the work is built around formal ideas and the everyday. You are right to identify the material effects that we are investigating. The large-scale manipulation of found materials are distinctly a two-person operation: two middle-aged bodies arranging, stacking, and cobbling together common things like kindergarteners. But instead of Fröbel wooden blocks we build with the cast-off materials and residue from our life that is now split between Chicago and rural Wisconsin. (read more)