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5 Questions: Michelle Grabner

For this month’s edition of 5 Questions, Paula Calvo interviewed Michelle Grabner, faculty member at SAIC, and curator of the upcoming 2016 Portland Biennial.

By Arts & Culture

5 Questions profiles SAIC students and faculty at work, in the school, and beyond. For this month’s edition of 5 Questions, Paula Calvo interviewed Michelle Grabner, multi-media artist, faculty member at SAIC, co-founder of The Suburban, and curator of the upcoming 2016 Portland Biennial. Grabner’s work is currently on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, in her solo exhibition, Weaving Life into Art until November 15th.

All images courtesy of the artist.

1) In your curator statement for the Portland Biennial 2016, you mentioned art fair fatigue and biennial fatigue. What is your motivation to actively participate in the organization of this biennial? Do you think there is a curatorial approach to battle said fatigue?

The process of Biennial-making is hugely enlightening to me as an artist, teacher and critic. I am given the rare and extraordinary opportunity to step into many artist studios where I get the chance to discuss work and ideas with other artists. I then get the opportunity to identify and shape cultural contexts around the information I glean from this research. The fatigue enters into the equation from a viewer’s point of view and the inability to see this active process in exhibition and display. Biennials are loved and hated for being comprised of a collection of “lucky winners”, artists whose greatest talent is wooing the attention of the curator. As an artist, my philosophy to biennial building is to ceaselessly foreground artists: their cognition and their process of making. I am not interested in evolving a professional record or a narrative as a curator.

2) What are some of the benefits and challenges of curating this upcoming biennial on your own, in comparison to co-curating the 2014 Whitney Biennial?

I am anticipating a more challenging albeit a more compelling and intimate process. A state-oriented biennial represents a geographically smaller cultural incubator. Yet the Portland 2016 biennial will be hosted by a multitude of venues throughout Oregon, giving me a chance to highlight a vast range of work and artistic practice.

3) You are currently displaying your work in a solo exhibition, Weaving Life into Art, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. How does the large dimension of your weavings relate to the smaller painting, photography, and video works in the exhibition?

IMA install

The metaphor of weaving is a great cliché, but an aptly workable one none-the-less. If one does the dedicated and daily work of continuously building a sturdy weft, then migrating different bodies of work and ideas into this foundation is both a responsibility and a creative endeavor.

4) During this past summer, you and your family have relocated to Milwaukee, along with the much-loved art space The Suburban. What drove you to move to Milwaukee, and how is this change going to affect your work and everyday life?

In the early 90s, with MFA degrees in hand from Chicago institutions, my husband and I immediately moved to Milwaukee where we could afford to raise a family, pay off our student loans, and nurture the beginnings of our lives as artists. Culturally, Chicago is fantastically rich. Its institutions are strong and vertically stacked, rightfully so. But as an artist, I don’t want to work in the shadows of any institutional value system. I want to evolve my own priorities and to think independently about art and culture. Paradoxically moving to Milwaukee means that I will be spending more time objectively looking at Chicago’s cultural offerings now that I am no longer entangled in its political landscape. I also feel that Chicago has made me a parody of myself. I was becoming evermore frustrated that the city where I lived reduced me to the roles it needed me to be: critic, curator, and proprietor of The Suburban. It is true that I delight in doing all those things, but I always thought it was weird that New York’s art-world always identified me as a “painter from Chicago”, but Chicago never did. In short, I no longer want to be distracted or contoured by the silly, yet widespread, cultural politics of the city. As fascinating as Chicago’s politics are, I need to put my head down and work. Plus we now live much closer to The Poor Farm, the exhibition space we run in Northeastern Wisconsin.

5) Given your remarkable multi-media work and dynamic academic career, what would you say is the most important lesson, concept, or advice you wish your students to take away from your classes at SAIC?

This goes back to my interest in work. As a young professor I would teach classes built solely around language and critique. And, although both language and critique are instrument in growth and assessment, artists also need to develop a talent for working. This is becoming more and more difficult in our age of distraction.

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