Michelle Grabner does it again

A compact solo exhibition at MICKEY presents the remarkable range of Michelle Grabner’s three-decade career. A celebrated figure in local and national art scenes, Grabner has done it all. Adjacent to her dedicated studio practice, Grabner’s pioneering curatorial platform The Suburban—an experimental gallery established in Oak Park in 1999 with her husband Brad Killam—has championed the ingenuity of artist-run spaces. Additionally, Grabner has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for over twenty-five years, leaving an indelible mark on the city’s artists and creative ecosystem. 

Entering the first gallery, one can appreciate the scope of Grabner’s trademark domestic vernacular applied across painting, sculpture, and photography. However, this survey is far from comprehensive. “A Minor Survey” hinges on a swiftly spoiled joke: all works on view were made in 2022. The motifs are largely recycled: two monumental, oil-on-burlap gingham paintings reprise Grabner’s signature checkered series, debuted in 2015; and three oil-on-canvas works, resembling bleached cloths, recall both textile paintings from the nineties and a recent series of pastel pictures adorned with white enamel globs. This may be Grabner’s first solo presentation in Chicago since 2013, but what differentiates her recent interventions from ideas honed over the past ten years? Look past the titular punchline, and the show could be brushed off as same old, same old.

But Grabner succeeds at iterating upon presumed old hat with novelty and aplomb. Some forms remain the same. For instance, a recent tondo painting—comprising a black, gesso-coated panel drawn over with graphite rays—replicates a form initiated over a decade ago. Nevertheless, the meditative icon, elegantly rendered with mechanical precision, emanates a timeless quality illustrative of Grabner’s enduring brand of abstraction. 

Other works test the limits of past ideas in new configurations. A particularly compelling patinated brass blanket breaks with Grabner’s previous textile sculpture idioms. Unlike earlier metal-cast cloth works, which appear vertically suspended from two points, this crocheted knit lays loosely folded on the floor. The uneven appearance of the blanket’s corners, not quite lined up, summons the labor required to fold linen uneasily handled by a single person. A simple chore can be a heavy order without the help of others. 

Despite her focused engagement with abstraction, Grabner’s appropriation of household accessories, from jam jars to dish towels, is perhaps too easily read as social critique—invoking second-wave feminist rhetoric espoused by the Wages for Housework movement and simultaneously vulnerable to casual sexism—as demonstrated in a 2014 New York Times review that conflated her artistic output with the efforts of a soccer mom. The tendency for viewers to extrapolate class and gender discourse follows not only from the artwork’s domestic content and the geographic context of the suburban midwest, but also from Grabner’s parallel success as a curator, critic, and educator. Unpacking the social terms of her interdisciplinary career in a 2012 interview with critic Barry Schwabsky, Grabner stated, “…curating, writing, and teaching are super social endeavors, and they often evoke various critical positions. But yes, my studio is not social.” Unlike past institutional surveys that included bibliographic videos, collaborations, and work by other artists, MICKEY’s presentation conspicuously omits Grabner’s more social endeavors, focusing on the scope of her aesthetic strategies. 

While the artwork cannot entirely escape external associations, the present survey approximates the routines underpinning Grabner’s studio methodology. It’s a conceptual and self-referential practice where nothing goes to waste; ideas are repeatedly executed to the point that all possibilities are exhausted—or so you might think. Clarity and wit sprout from her sustained engagement with monotony. 

Look at a delicate wall-mounted sculpture, composed of bronze rods and flowering plants burgeoning at the joints. Resembling a canvas stretcher, the work is based on an arcane double entendre—“mullions” and “mulleins”—the former a term for a window frame divider and the latter a type of perennial plant. It’s a cheeky pun, perhaps originating from extended time spent mulling things over.  

Michelle Grabner, “Untitled”, 2022, silver on steel, dimensions variable. Credit: Courtesy of MICKEY and the artist

Nearby, an assortment of cans and tins coated in silver leaf lay atop a plinth. Their lids are peeled back but largely intact, as if the artist’s phantom hand was suspended in motion. The veneer—an ornamental redundancy, in which metal adorns metal—belabors a sense of being worked over. But these pieces also espouse a lightness. Rid of their utilitarianism, these containers are open-ended and permeable. They preserve nothing.

Two other sculptures appropriate the visual language of DIY crafting projects. Repurposing salvaged wood slabs, Grabner cuts out shallow circular beds to house assorted lid-like objects—some readymade, others trompe l’oeil. The reliefs, evocative of her mobile sculptures, emulate salon-style hangs of Grabner’s various material strategies. Paintings, metal castings, and found objects lay side-by-side like spare parts of a whole practice. But for all their succinctness and poetry, these wood board assemblages could run the risk of falling flat. The quirky yet refined conceit exists precariously, calibrated just enough to avoid the pretense of triteness. 

Grabner has articulated boredom as a critical measure in her process and an unlikely defense against her work turning stale. To better understand the capricious conditions of her practice, one might look to artist Dick Higgins’s seminal 1968 essay, “Boredom and Danger,” published in the Something Else Newsletter. The text appraises a shift in art’s production and accompanying terms of engagement; describing danger as a crucial element in successful works, he remarked, “…a sense of risk is indispensable, because any simple piece fails when it becomes facile. This makes for all the more challenge in risking facility, yet still remaining very simple, very concrete, very meaningful.” Embracing the possibility of failure, Grabner’s work exists at the edge of easy. An ode to looking hard and looking harder at the simplest of conceits, “A Minor Survey” revels in the stunning patience of Grabner’s gaze.

 “A Minor Survey”Through 12/18: Tue-Thur 12-6 PM, Fri-Sat, 12-4 PM, MICKEY, 1635 W. Grand, mickey.online


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