Sunday, September 8, 2013

Interview: Michelle Grabner

There’s hardly an area of cultural production that Michelle Grabner isn’t immersed in: for starters, she's an accomplished artist whose work has garnered international acclaim over the past 25 years. She also happens to be co-curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. She is the co-founder and director of two remarkable independent art spaces with her husband and fellow artist, Brad Killam: The Suburban, a tiny and vibrant art venue located in the backyard of their home for well over a decade… and Poor Farm, an artist residency and publishing program in rural Wisconsin. Since 1996, she has been a professor in the Department of Painting and Drawing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her critical writing has been published in Artforum, X-tra, Frieze, and Modern Painters. She has parented through pretty much all of it (her two oldest children are now adults), and generously shared her perspectives with us.

CR: Tell us a little bit about your kids, who I realize are no longer all “kids” per-se…

Michelle: Well my youngest is still a kid. Ceal (8 yrs old) is in the third grade and she is the love of my life. I was older when she was born so my theory is that her easy-going, sweet and eager-to-please disposition was culled from the fact that she realized early on that I wasn’t willing or capable of entertaining any sassy antics in my old age.

My second kid, Oliver (20 yrs old) is in his junior year at Northland College in Ashland WI. He is the kid with the big empathic heart but he also finds himself in loads of trouble as he challenges every injustice that crosses his path. However he is maturing and I trust he will have a great hand in social change when he learns to direct his profound sense of fairness at the true injustices in our world.

Oliver is also a Kantian, so says my oldest son, Peter (25 yrs old). Peter is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is writing his dissertation on the concept of planetarity. Do ask me to explain it, all I know is it is not the same as globalism. As the oldest he has always been dutiful but despite his academic inclinations, he is still an NFL fan.

CR: You’re critical of existing art world structures and as a result have done a lot of creative reconfiguring on your own terms, particularly through the art spaces you run with your husband, Brad Killam. Has the experience of motherhood impacted your ideas about the art world? If so, what decisions were made in response? 

Michelle: Indeed. Raising children since 1987 meant that we had to invent structures where the outside world would come to us. The Suburban is a good example of that. Artists come to our house in Oak Park to make an exhibition every 7-8 weeks. And they have for the past 15 years. The Poor Farm, our other project space is down the dirt road from our cottage in Northeastern WI. We spend much of our summers in WI so we joined art with our rural life. Basically we attached art and artists to a very conventional family model — nothing extraordinary, a Midwestern, middleclass, K-12 relationship to the artworld.

CR: I’m really curious to hear more about CAR (Conceptual Artists Research), the collaborative you formed with your husband and two young sons in the early ‘90’s. Could you describe that process, and the kinds of projects that came out of it?

Michelle: Brad came out of UIC in the early 90s. I graduated with an MFA from Northwestern. Pregnant with Oliver, we decided to move to Milwaukee for a more manageable and affordable life as young artists with a young family. Cast far from our peers and the discourse we became accustomed to in school, we started working together on conceptual projects. To be more specific we examined the family as a social structure, the aesthetics of childhood development, and the pressures of consumption on families and kids. I remember CAR doing a two-person summer show with David Hartt at Zolla-Leiberman right out of school. At that time our boys were starting to consume the Goosebump book series (the popular Goosebump television show wasn’t launched yet). The books had incredible spooky and alluring covers so we purchased hundreds of books and stacked them on a table in the gallery. If Felix Gonzales-Torres could give away candy, then we could give away kid’s pop culture. As parents we just wanted our kids to read, so the question of what they read was confusing to us. In another project we gave Peter, then 9 years old, $100 to shop at Toys R Us. The money came without the restrictions we typically imposed on the kids: no violent toys allowed in the house, share with your brother, etc. It was a kind of parent field test to see how well we did instilling these values in our children. Let’s just say he filled his shopping cart with all sorts of guns and bought nothing for Oliver.

CR: Women artists have long been advised to choose between motherhood and a serious career in the arts, and criticized for raising their kids badly if they managed to do both. Was this ever a concern for you when you first decided to start a family? Have you seen attitudes toward artist-motherhood change much since your first child was born?

Michelle: Defining oneself as a mother or as an artist (or as both) is a cultural abstraction. They are iconic and static narratives. To be perfectly honest, sometimes I think I am solely a teacher, a crafter, or a dotty administrator. But regardless, I want to be able to choose and change who I am AND to be able to play with how others frame me. Because I started a family young, I was idealistic enough not to even question the fact that I couldn’t do both plus more. Along the way when I was told not to bother at being an artist, I would happily flip those men off and work harder. That said, I am still hearing horror stories about pushback on women who choose to have children in the professional artworld. It is my guess however that what once was a power + fairness struggle is now a power + money struggle. Capital makes little room for distractions and big business defines much of the art world.

CR: Any strategies or advice you’d pass on to new parents struggling to balance parenthood, career, and a creative practice?

Michelle: Think long form. Work to balance a whole life, not the day. My eight-year-old daughter will not be eight forever. And I will not be the same kind of artist I am now as when she is twenty-one. In other words, don’t fight the arc of behavioral or creative development because it changes fast.

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