In brief – this show is a WIN – a massive WIN for Cleveland’s MOCA, for David Norr and for Cleveland’s art community as a whole. It is a win on many different levels and for several different reasons. For one David Norr, MOCA’s departing Chief Curator, chose to do an exhibition surveying the career of one of today’s most influential artists, thinkers and curators – the prolific and brilliant, Michelle Grabner. His timing means this show opened just as the relevancy of her career begins to come into focus for a sometimes fragmented and distracted “art world.” David Norr took the opportunity to provide insight and context for what is turning out to be one of the most highly anticipated Whitney Biennials in years. (In case you’ve been living under a rock, Michelle Grabner is one of three curators organizing the 2014 exhibition.)
Arguably the best show Cleveland has seen in many years, its organization makes visual sense and allows one to experience the pieces not merely as the historic artifacts of a career but as works of art for their own sake. This show avoids the didactic tendencies or mortuary feel too common in such surveys and facilitates a space to actually SEE the works while still providing access to make sense of an overview of her career. It hits the exhibition Goldielocks sweet-spot, not too much, not too little – just right.
I view many of the works in the show with a strange sense of envy and awe – a pavlovian drool response. Here words, rightly, justifiably fail. Premised on material which Grabner understands to its most nuanced ends, her paintings, drawings and prints resist photographic reproduction. To know anything of these works you must stand before them. You must give them your attention. You must stare. Then you will see subtle shimmers, optical shifts and the luxury of surfaces. Like any experience worth having, it will not stay with you. You will only remember the thought of the experience and will try vainly to call up what made it so satisfying.
From the exhibition we take away a clear understanding that Michelle Grabner defies all the old axioms of what it takes to be a successful, relevant artist.
By building a career focusing on what deeply interests her and by seamlessly integrating the real content of her life into the products of her studio, she shrugged off the limits of prevailing wisdom and achieved her greatest work – the crafting of a fresh paradigm, one offering a much more inclusive and dynamic art world. Collaborative projects, such as The Suburban and The Poor Farm, undertaken with a cast of characters but most reliably with her husband and partner, Brad Killam, demonstrate how her inclusiveness and generosity serve her practice. The Poor Farm, located in Little Wolf, WI, is an actual early 20th century poor farm reimagined as a location for artist’s projects and yearlong exhibitions. The Suburban, a small simple eight-by-eight foot building that sits next to the family home in Oak Park, Il, is an exhibition space that gives invited artists complete freedom to conceive of and present their projects. For the MOCA exhibition The Suburban has been faithfully recreated within the museum’s walls and provides the site for four consecutive exhibitions to be staged within the purview of the Grabner show. These endeavors, The Suburban and The Poor Farm, provide Killam and Grabner with freedom, the freedom to present the artists and the work that they find interesting without institutional interference or the pressure of economic feasibility.
The Suburban was established as a remedy to the stultifying effects of the Chicago’s late ‘90s artistic-ruling class. Its website lays out in clear terms what drove Killam and Grabner to establish the space:
… Chicago’s contemporary art world was remarkably small. With just two-and-a-half serious institutions dedicated to visual culture, a single “blue-chip” gallery that survived by cherrypicking the programs of its larger competitors on the coasts, few committed collectors, and one wobbly media organ (since defunct), America’s third largest city struggled to support an active community of first-rate contemporary artists. The lack of a thriving commercial gallery scene deprived Chicago’s artists of the financial clout needed to strengthen their aesthetic hand; without the fuck-you money that underwrites hard-core imaginative independence, they were vulnerable.
…For those artists, curators, journalists, and gallerists who were not favored by the ruling forces, the situation was sclerotic and depressing …1
In a March 2013 interview with the Brooklyn Rail, Grabner said of her relationship to Chicago and the suburban Midwest:
…Great amounts of creative energy are still being wasted on promoting and reinforcing outdated cultural hierarchies or on criteria of success adapted from New York. I work very hard not to get caught up in that very real “second city” or “fly-over” psychology. Instead I work within the freedoms and resources that this city provides…2
Grabner’s response to the “art world” she found, her willingness to build what she found lacking, as well as her unapologetic and very honest critique of what she sees as a self-provincializing mindset often found outside of the major art markets, makes her particularly relevant for a city like Cleveland. She provides models for a DIY art world that privileges the real concerns of an artist’s practice. She pulls back the curtain on the often-dysfunctional myth of artistic success and demonstrates other, better ways to triumph. She stands as a reminder that the heart of Cleveland’s creative life beats and sometimes flutters in the many small endeavors that have sprung up in its periphery. It suggests that places like Zygote Press, Forum Art Space, Buck Buck and Survival Kit, just to name a few, deserve our attention and our support. They most assuredly represent one source of renewal for Cleveland’s creative wellspring. One has to wonder if David Norr conceived of this show in part as a means of providing this commentary.
1. On November 17, 2013 artist Dana DeGiulio crashed a 1996 Buick Sedan into the original Suburban building comprising the building’s structural integrity beyond repair. Dana DeGiulio is a current colleague and former student of Grabner’s. She sold a work by Grabner she had been given as a gift to underwrite the costs of this project. Killam and Grabner have confirmed that the building will have to be demolished. For further information view these sites:
2. On November 21, 2013 it was announced that David Norr would be leaving MOCA – Cleveland to take the post of Senior Curator of Exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, OH.
3. For a more intimate view of Michelle Grabner’s work, stop off at Shaheen: Modern and Contemporary Art located at 740 W. Superior Ave., Suite 101, Cleveland, OH 4413. The gallery is open Tuesdays through Fridays 11 am to 4 pm and by appointment. Up through February 28, Shaheen offers work by Grabner whose small size and personal scale allows the viewer to come in close. This emphasizes the subtle optical effects and sensual qualities of Grabner’s work and provides a nice compliment to the more monumental and sweeping MOCA show.
Lane Cooper, an Associate Professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art and practicing artist, holds an MFA in Painting. View more articles by Lane Cooper.