Published  31/10/2014

Michelle Grabner interview: ‘My family is an important part of my life as an artist’

Michelle Grabner interview: ‘My family is an important part of my life as an artist’

American conceptual artist Michelle Grabner talks about how she combines her roles as artist, curator, teacher and writer, the importance of her family to her art, and why she stays rooted in the Midwest

Michelle Grabner
James Cohan Gallery, New York
9 October – 8 November 2014


Few artists can describe themselves in terms as versatile as those used by Michelle Grabner. She is an abstract painter, conceptual artist, mother, curator, teacher and writer, and she combines all these roles from her home base in Chicago. Middle-aged and in mid-career, Grabner managed to bring the attention of the art world not only to herself and her art, but also to the so-called “periphery” of the art world as a place where things happen, people live and work, attending to their loved ones and their daily business, routine and all. The exhibition at the James Cohan Gallery is Grabner’s inaugural show in New York. It unveils the artist’s world of daily ordeals reflected through her creativity. Composed of 25 works, which include paintings, sculpture, prints, works with paper, and installations, the exhibition explores a range of issues that have occupied Grabner since she started her creative career, such as the history of painting in relation to the present, the relationship of centre to periphery, the significance of routine in life and in art, and the integration of work into family life and vice versa. This exhibition rings true because it addresses our personal struggles and demonstrates the artist’s ability to work things out, to find a way to combine seemingly irreconcilable opposites, such as art and life, thinking and doing, creating things and relating to people.

The artist gave an interview to Studio International on the occasion of this exhibition:

Natasha Kurchanova: Thank you for taking the time to speak to Studio International. Congratulations on your exhibition at the James Cohan Gallery. It looks great. I wanted to start this interview with it. It consists of four kinds of objects: your paper weavings, which you display on horizontal pedestals; inkjet print of textile patterns; enamel paintings, and – smack in the middle of the exhibition – an installation of your Oyster #9 (2014) a giant, round painting mounted on what look like several dustbin lids welded together. This installation also includes some plastic chairs hanging from the ceiling and a large photograph of your family – your husband, two sons and daughter, in what looks like your backyard garden. Among all these rather formal and codified objects, this picture really stands out – you obviously emphasise the importance of your family for your identity as an artist.

Michelle Grabner: That’s right – there is a picture of my family that is located on one side of a large hanging disk, which is part of my installation Oyster. All the elements surrounding the photographs underscore my faith in, and reliance on, a domestic, family-oriented environment. Also, unlike my paintings and drawings, this hanging object is Janus-faced, like a two-sided coin. I reference my family because it is an important part of my life as an artist. I need to have conventional stability in relationship to family so that I can start working on a very difficult process of abstract painting. I need this as a base to continue my theoretical and practical investigation. And, of course, all the patterns held within the paintings on display have domestic underpinnings. They are based on very middle-class subjects. But the family is hugely important in giving me a foundation on which I can start to think through what abstraction has been in relation to its history – a complicated issue – and what abstract painting can be in a contemporary context. So, both the photograph and the chairs reference domesticity. They are positioned in direct proximity with, but also in opposition to, the platform underneath. With this platform, I am looking at a very rudimentary, abstract language, which helps me think through, again, my relationship to abstract painting and its hierarchies. Of course, in my other works, this thinking takes a different turn, occupying itself with the proximity to, or distancing from, the mundane and the domestic, women’s work and so forth. I need to remind myself that I am tethered to those structures.

NK: Could you tell me a little more about Oyster? Also, isn’t this piece collaborative, because it was made together with your husband, Brad Killam?

MG: The hanging work we do together, only because it is so physically difficult; it requires a different kind of labour than the pattern work, the weavings or the paintings. They are difficult because I need two bodies to make those things. Brad and I have collaborated in the past – when we were first out of graduate school in the early 1990s. Because of the exhibition space we run together – The Suburban, in Oak Park, Illinois – we stopped making work as a team and instead administered together. Now we are returning to the physical making of things, mostly hanging large-scale sculpture. To answer your question about the painting’s round shape: when I think through painting, I am interested in investigating composition and inventing new forms. I am also interested in the found composition. The circle, the tondo, provides this to some degree. The same is true of my other paintings in this exhibition. In the circular paintings, I start from the centre of the circle and then work outwards in an Archimedean spiral. The variations in pattern on these tondos come from the breakdown of the material world. For example, the paint starts to evaporate and become more opaque and the brush will breakdown over time. Or my arm will get tired and I will slow down and the points of paint get closer together. So there is something else that gets imprinted on to the geometry. This is also the case with the silverpoint work. The silver starts to tarnish as the works are exposed to the atmosphere over time. So, there are always flaws embedded within the conceit of perfect geometry; the material world will predictably impact the platonic world. My work explores the old cliches about the material world, about the ways the body and objects in this world affect abstraction and the world of ideas. I am happy to embrace this cliche, because it is based on truth.

NK: All the works at the exhibition are very recent – they were done this year. However, there is probably a chronological hierarchy to them. I know that the inspiration for the weavings came from your son’s homework assignment – so you must have started making them about 10-15 years ago. Is this correct?

MG: Yes, it’s interesting, because I am looking back and jumping over the past 20 to 25 years to the work and processes that I was thinking about after I left graduate school. I was a young mother, and the boys were small, and we had very little money. Now my situation is different, and I wanted to reassess how my domestic context changed over the years and how that would affect my art and my painting. So, the paper weavings came from Peter, my oldest kid, who has just turned 27. When he returned from school one day in first grade, he brought with him a red-and-blue paper weaving, which I painted without making a weaving of it. It was a symbol of a rudimentary grid structure, hand-made with scissors, a little clumsy. So I started researching early-childhood pedagogical exercises and paper weaving. Its over-and-under strips reinforce the concepts of counting and beginning maths. In this research, I came across the work of Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852), a German philosopher, who developed some of the tenets for early childhood education and proposed paper weaving as one of the activities for young children. I just started working according to his method – using simple maths and coming up with various patterns and colours. This pedagogy is based on the teleological concept of the “thing before word” concept of learning and knowledge formation. Paper weavings have been part of my way of developing patterns, similar to drawing, in a sense. I make them regularly. I have made all the work for this exhibition, including the weavings, since the middle of July, when I returned home to Wisconsin after teaching at Bard College’s summer programme. As far as the paintings are concerned, when I first came out of graduate school, I was making indexical-pattern paintings, based on paper-towel patterns and crochet blankets. In the mid-90s, there was a lot of critical attention on those paintings, because they were addressing women’s work. This is absolutely the case, but at that time I was also interested in representations of order. I had two young kids running around and several part-time jobs; we had to pay the mortgage. With all these things happening, I was coveting a certain order in daily life. These mundane things represented it to me. My work was concerned with the gendered issues, but they were not primary. It referred to women’s domestic routine, of course, but added a positive twist to it. Then I started moving away from those subjects to found compositions – Archimedes spirals or radiant drawings – because they were much more abstract and did not refer to domesticity. This show represents my return to thinking about patterns in particular contexts; it shows where my sense of order has led me after 25 years of painting. I understand who I am, my relationship to my family and my everyday life, what my body can do. This is an evolved state – it was not there when I was a young mother right after graduate school. Now, I can look at these patterns differently and see what they yield. It’s a revisiting of a process, a relationship to pattern that I had 20 to 25 years ago.

NK: Your enamel paintings are wonderful. Could you tell me something about them? When did you start making them? How do you make them? Some patterns for this work look as if they were taken from car tyres and tiles. They look abstract, but not decorative.

MG: Yes, they are interesting because they refer to the movement of the thing itself over the geometry of the painting. I went to school in the 1980s and have a master’s degree in art history, so I am familiar with much of the scholarship about postmodernism. There was a lot of painting going on in the 80s. There was a lot of critical thinking and theoretical and practical appropriation. There was also a lot of indexing. So, that’s what these paintings are – they are basically indexes of material things, textiles, handiwork that gets pulled over a support. I go over the surface with paint to get its negative, and then I go back and paint either the positive or the negative. These paintings are indexes of things that exist in the world. Unlike the paper weavings, which are truly abstract, the paintings display a tension between the perfect geometry of the support, whether it is a rectangle or a square, and the thing itself – how it is made, how it is pulled and stretched, how it has a body of its own, and how it changes pattern.

NK: In one of your interviews, you mentioned your constant struggle against your work appearing decorative. This statement interests me, because Kandinsky also expressed it. Your individual pieces do not look decorative, but I can see how they might in installations. Could you tell me a little more about your understanding of decoration – is it just that, the classical modernist hierarchy that you are upholding?

MG: I am not afraid of the decorative having less authority, but I think I made this comment in relation to installation, referring to how tricky display can become. Because my paintings are based on textiles, I often play with hanging them in tight groups, but then there is a danger of them looking like samplers, and I do not welcome this diminishment. As paintings, there are interesting things happening with the tension between their subjects, the edge and the surface. When they are hung as a group, this aspect becomes overshadowed by their look as a sampler, which is a common way of presenting textiles in the design and decorating business. Also, when they hang too far apart, there is a danger of overformalising, too much playing at questioning Greenbergian flatness and the history of paintings in the 20th century. My point is that the danger can go both ways. I do not want to overdecorate the space and diminish the interesting painting elements that are happening because I want to emphasise the relationship that these works have with the history of painting; but I am also afraid of hanging them too far away from each other because then they may look arrogant, not truthful to the subject, the thing itself, the material textile, which was the original source. So I try to position my work in that precarious middle ground, where you can see the painting’s relationship to both its history and to the domestic backdrops. Quite frankly, working with the space at James Cohan gallery was difficult for me, because it was my first show in a gallery and I have not worked in this volume before. For this show, I made three times the amount of painting that is actually displayed. Most of the colour works did not get hung. One of my most favorite paintings, a very large-scale granny-square composition, did not make it to the show.

NK: That’s too bad. You really had to adjust to a new situation here. I wanted to ask you about your other, parallel careers. I am amazed at how many things you do. Apart from making art, you teach, curate, write and have a family. How do these occupations relate to your work as an artist? When do you have time for everything?

MG: This is a good question, because it brings us back to my family. My husband is quite terrific in support of my work, and my boys are now off to college. You know from looking at that photograph in the exhibition that only my 10-year old daughter is left in my care. So, many of the family chores are not there any more, because I only have one kid at home as opposed to three. Also, I am lucky to work at a great institution: the Art Institute of Chicago supports its faculty members and their work. I have worked in places that are not like that, so I am very pleased and honoured to be employed by the institute. In terms of how all these activities relate to my work as an artist, I would use the word “fortify” to describe it. My curating practice and my writing command work, attention and administration, but they also allow me to stay informed about what’s going on in contemporary art. I am sure that I can form a rather full and nearly objective picture of the context of the work that is being produced now, in October 2014. This takes some pressure off my studio work because when I work with painting, I can burrow into it but also understand what it means within this context. Also, I do not have the pressure of having to think through mounds of information and backload it into my studio work: I can explore it through my writing or my curatorial projects and do not have to do this only through painting. So, these additional occupations take a lot of pressure off my painting practice and allow me to explore it more in-depth.

NK: My last question is about your identification with a particular place in your art and your life. You are from the midwest and you made this off-centre location the hub of your activity. In fact, you always appear to want to move as much off-centre as possible – you started your career and established two galleries – The Suburban in suburban Chicago and Poor Farm in the Wisconsin countryside. Why is drawing the attention of the art world to the so-called “periphery” important to you?

MG: That’s a good question, because people do not ask it as often as they make inquiries about my art, but it is important. It also relates to the beginning of our conversation, when we talked about the family structure. My husband and I started our family very early – I had my first kid when I was still in grad school. Quite honestly, the centre was not available to us then. We could not afford it and still raise a family in the way that we wanted, nurturing not only young children, but also a young studio practice. So, Brad and I moved to Milwaukee from Chicago, where we studied at the graduate school. In the early 90s, Milwaukee was a smaller city, so time and space was more available to us there. It was also much more affordable. This was an early and very practical decision about our dedication to our family and to our art-making. Going to New York was never a possibility for us; even flying to New York was a big expense. It was the age before the internet, so all our information about the art world was based on the issues of Artforumand Artscribe. I started writing for Friezewhen I was in Milwaukee so that I could stay in touch with the art world. When I moved back to Chicago for a full-time job, travel was still difficult because of my children. I realised then that it was important to have a gallery to which I could invite artists from across the world, and that’s how The Suburban was born. We were a little naive then because we were sure people would want to come to Chicago and stay with us. And they did. They were artists we admired, such as Katharina Grosse and Luc Tuymans, or artists we know from Saint Louis or Los Angeles. People come and stay with us in our house. It was a way for us to connect with the world: because we could not travel, we brought interesting artists to us. Now the situation has changed again. I travel a lot. It seems like every week I visit another institution or fly to a different exhibition. But it is also important for me to come back and observe the world from the midwestern perch, the American interior. It is important to go out to come back, because from a distance, I can see blank spots in people’s perception of things. It’s hard to see what’s being overlooked, neglected, and should receive attention, because there is so much activity here and people lose perspective. For instance, in 2012 one of our galleries, The Poor Farm, mounted an exhibition on Gretchen Bender (1951-2004). She was a somewhat overlooked artist loosely affiliated with the Pictures generation who worked in New York in the 80s. Philip Vanderhyden, a young NYC-based artist who worked as curator on this project, discovered Bender’s disorganised archive in boxes in a museum in North Carolina. So the Poor Farm mounted Tracking the Thrill, an exhibition of her television performances and single-channel videos in rural Wisconsin. Then it travelled to the Kitchen in autumn 2013, which was very satisfying as these works were originally produced for the Kitchen. My point is that it was a fantastic project, but logically, a New York institution should have done it. Yet a rural Wisconsin artist-run space was able to do the research and mount an exhibition worthy of a New York cultural institution. So, I like my situation, because it is flexible, it allows both the distance from and the proximity to the centres of the art world. Sometimes I miss New York’s energy and the sense of a place and compression, but the distance from it helps me form a big picture, which I wouldn’t have been able to do had I been living there full-time.

NK: Michelle, thank you for your time and an informative conversation.


Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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