Michelle Grabner’s 10-minute video Restraining Oli is nothing but footage from a video camera aimed at Grabner and her husband as they try to hold their squirmy toddler son in their arms. Yet I am drawn to it more than anything else in Grabner's Northwest Work exhibition at Seattle University’s Hedreen Gallery, and I find that I love it in a way I wish I could love the rest of the work in this show, which mostly feels academic and jammed up with inflated claims.
Trying to write about Grabner's work, I find myself in a situation familiar to all of us living through these Trumpish times. The person who said the dumbest, loudest thing has already set the terms of the conversation I’m trying to join. I'm not going to do a bunch of linking here. I'll just say that a couple of years ago, a New York Times critic threw the term "soccer mom" at Grabner in a review. It was a slur, not a critical analysis. And, rightly, it brought many other writers to Grabner's defense.
The urge to repudiate the sexist idiocy of “soccer mom” by loving everything in Northwest Work flew around in my head when I encountered Restraining Oli and the rest of the work in the show. This is an attempt to get past that and show Grabner’s work the respect of a thorough review.
Grabner formed an art collective that included her children and her husband, Brad Killam, in the 1990s when the children were young. The exhibition now in Seattle includes videos from that collective, called C.A.R. (standing for Conceptual Art Research), dating back to 1996; a sculpture that's like a chandelier with paintings and glass pieces hanging from it by both Grabner and Killam; a sculpture that's an industrial feed trough full of broken colored hunks of glass by Grabner; and recent paintings plus a site-specific wall painting by Grabner.
Grabner was in the Northwest this spring and summer curating the 2016 Portland Biennial put on by Disjecta; that's why Hedreen curator Amanda Donnan invited Grabner to Seattle to show. Unlike any past curator of Disjecta's biennial, Grabner spread the artists and the sites all across the state. Geographic diversity is plainly an interest of Grabner's. So is stylistic range; she was one of three of the curators of the Whitney Biennial in 2014, and her display included paintings, ceramics, text pieces, appropriation works, and the notebooks of David Foster Wallace.
I am not sure there is anything meaningful in considering whether Grabner's Northwest Work is Northwest, except to note that she used geography in her title and maybe sees a connection there herself. The show includes that trough of glass, the glass pieces that Grabner created in a residency at Bullseye Glass in Portland, and a video that's a spoof of a boys' camp for glassblowing called Dale Chihuly Glass Camp for Boys from 2002. (I wanted to find this spoof funny and am not sure why it made no impression on me; here are some of my thoughts on class, glass, and Chihuly. Maybe the glass-art joke is all played out for me. Most Seattle artists don't work in glass, and they only get recognition from outsiders when they leave this place, which apparently to outsiders is defined by glass.)
The work that Grabner is best known for are paintings in which she uses a crocheted or knitted blanket or kitchen towel as a stencil. Spraypainting through the stencil, she leaves the mark of the actual domestic object's presence (or absence).
Grabner took the long, large wall that faces the windows in the Hedreen Gallery, and arranged upon it a series of these types of stencil paintings. On the wall itself she painted a solid yellow rectangle crossing the entire length. Inside that, she left ghostly white stencils of sagging blankets. They are soft and seem to move, like the reflections that pass on that wall all the time.
On top of that, she hung square stencil paintings. These date to 2014/15, but she began creating work in this way when her children were young and she needed "an antidote to the chaos of day-to-day life," according to the gallery statement. "'It was about controlling time and committing a perverse amount of it to filling in the negative spaces of an image of a crocheted blanket,'" she said.
What she means is that in these paintings, she laid down the stencil first on the support (in this case, birch panel), then she went about filling in every negative space with enamel. The result is that the paintings are a record of her labor that look highly unlabored. (Northwest Work.) The enamels are like jewels. Here, in silvery white on black and against the marigold wall, they look almost Pop-slick. There is a contrast to the almost bucolic laciness of the sagging ghost paintings in the background of the wall.
I don't believe Grabner is interested in slickness; Grabner has said she's interested in invoking the tension between a hard, idealized grid form and forms that sag, move, and live. This could be said of any number of 1970s-and-beyond artists, and Grabner's particular methods are smart as well as visually pleasurable, turning sentimental or castoff fabrics and patterns conventionally associated with motherhood into dislocated gallery experiences. Embedded in that is a gender critique. But the dislocation of art and motherhood is so abstract and unpainful in her work that it seems as if bringing domesticity into the space of art is actually a way of keeping it out.
Grabner's trough of junk glass is likable on its face. It is dumb, funny, colorful, and potentially could cut you if you did what you wanted to do, which is reach in and run your hands over the surfaces. But Grabner compares her trough of junk glass with Robert Smithson's highly conceptual notion of Non-Sites, which to me reduces it.
My experience with the material in Northwest Work, both visual and written, is that it is academic. "Grabner uses monotonous methods to cultivate radical boredom, a state in which time becomes malleable and tiny perceptual shifts are amplified," the statement reads.
I am a mother of three. I understand that any attempt to control time is in itself a representation of a lack of control, of "the chaos of day-to-day life."
But what I see when I look at these works is an incredibly circumscribed life.
Grabner’s actual life does not look particularly circumscribed. She is an artist, a curator, and a tenured professor at one of the best art schools in the nation, the School at the Art Institute of Chicago.* She is also the founder of two art spaces in the Midwest, The Poor Farm, on the grounds of an actual former poor farm in Little Wolf, Wisconsin, and The Suburban, now in Milwaukee. Setting herself off from the center has not been an act of rebellion, but an act of placing the center where it most logically goes for her. She is an artist who is interested not in walling off her art from her family life but in allowing them to flow into each other. This is seen as a feminist act because in the accepted conventions of the art world it is seen as "normal" to chop yourself into pieces and place them in discrete drawers.
Many artists, male and female, have refused that option in many ways for probably as long as Western art has been practiced (and once you go back farther, there is far less mainstreaming of identity compartmentalization). Recent examples include Guy Ben-Ner, who raises his children onscreen, while making films about play and illusion with them. He last showed in Seattle in 2009. In Seattle, artists like Klara Glosova, meadow starts with p, Mandy Greer, Dawn Cerny, Margot Quan Knight, and Jennifer Zwick are taking on this question of specifically how art and family life intertwine and are pushed apart and together.
But let’s get back to “radical boredom.”
Siegfried Kracauer coined the term in a 1924 essay for a German newspaper. He urged the bourgeoisie to take to the sofa and deliberately do nothing in an attempt to make space for thoughts that were other than the ones coming at them through the increasing inundation of urban and global noise. Meditation by another name.
You can imagine why "radical boredom" has gained followers and spawned think pieces in the 2000s. I don't know how to square its idealism with the complex and conflicting social and economic influences that technoglobalism is actually in the process of bringing about not just for comfortable white Americans who long to “disconnect” but for all people. Radical boredom is not radical. And it’s an unhelpful oversimplification if broadly applied to concepts like art, money, and mothering.
I forgot that I wrote about Grabner once before, in her role curating for the 2014 Whitney. But I had taken issue with something similar in her curatorial approach to what deflated me about her work at the Hedreen. Re-reading Carolina Miranda's interview with Grabner in the LA Times, I'm reminded of feeling disappointed that Grabner dropped the ball when asked to grapple with a serious question of racial representation, disappointed at a certain academic distance from questions that the art world already deems separate, too everyday, too "bookkeeping," as she termed it. In the Hedreen show I don't see signs of Grabner questioning her long-held practices much, risking much.
I will hold 1996’s Restraining Oli close, though.
In it, the toddler is an abstract sculpture come to disobedient life. His struggle is the whole family's. The setting is studio-ish, with nothing but white walls and the two parents switching off trying to get a grip on him. They kiss him, they switch positions, they snuggle him, they try to give him his autonomy by allowing him to sit upright and look levelly at them. For the most part you don't see his face, and you never see theirs, and the footage is silent.
When I saw them rhythmically rocking him in his red footie pajamas, and him calming, I felt rocked and calmed in my own body, despite not knowing whether this kid is dressed for bed because it’s bedtime or because it’s morning and mom and dad decided it’s time to make art. I realized that the whole time I was watching, I was being cradled between the different subjectivities in the family. Was I the child, being restrained, being soothed, being my unadulterated self? Was I the mother, with her body's particular style of movement and response? Or did I see myself in that way the father swayed as if to steady music? Then, one of them would kiss him, and I would think, "I am none of them, I am only out here, and that is private." To me, this is the most generous, best work in the show.
* In an early version of this story, it said School of Art at the Univ of Chicago. I don't even know if that's a thing. Image correct institution was always SAIC. Ahem.