In and Out of the Studio: Conversation with Michelle Grabner

Stephen Berens and Jan Tumlir

On March 28, 2013, Stephen Berens and Jan Tumlir spoke with Michelle Grabner about her painting practice and how it differs from, yet influences, her writing and curatorial projects, including her role as one of the curators for the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

Stephen Berens: Jan and I were just talking about when the three of us met. It was back in 1997, and you were out in Los Angeles for a show at Richard Heller’s, and I’d had a show at Richard’s recently, so he suggested we meet. At lunch I was telling you about a new publication that I’d just founded with Ellen Birrell and Jan called X-TRA, right? And you volunteered to review The Eagle Rock Show that Laura Owens put together.

Michelle Grabner: I did, yeah. I remember being puzzled and inspired because the exhibition was being held in the Eagle Rock Community Cultural Center, a space more like a public library than a gallery, with all these artists I had been admiring from a Midwestern perch: Sharon Lockhart, Jorge Pardo, Laura Owens, Frances Stark. All the work seemed thoroughly at ease in that type of social context.

SB: And that review appeared in X-TRA’s third issue. One reason I bring it up is because I think that the connection the three of us have had over the years is that we’ve always tried to combine all parts of our practice—curating, writing, publishing, all these things. But I think for this interview, I would like to ground everything in painting, in the studio end of things. So maybe we could start by talking about the kind of work you were making in the 1990s, and then go forward.

Michelle Grabner, "Granny Square Afghan," 1996. Enamel on panel, 32 × 39 inches.

Michelle Grabner, Granny Square Afghan, 1996. Enamel on panel, 32 × 39 inches.

MG: If we are going to talk about painting then we should start in Milwaukee. Coming out of Northwestern in the very early 1990s, my husband and I decided to move our family of four to Wisconsin. Chicago is a big city and harder to navigate on a daily basis. In Milwaukee, we could actually make a living teaching part-time, while caring for our kids. But mostly we could invest real amounts of time developing our studios.

The result of that move was interesting. We knew we were going off-center. People in the Midwest see Chicago as a cultural mecca. We worried we would lose contact with those artists and friends who were in grad school with us. So we worked hard at developing projects that would keep us in dialog with the art world outside of Milwaukee. We guest edited an issue of Art Muscle, Milwaukee’s only arts magazine, where we focused on L.A., and I started writing regular reviews for Frieze. I also started organizing exhibitions. These were all ways of keeping invested in the conversations we had left behind in Chicago. I never had ambitions to be a writer or a curator. I only had my sights set on painting.

The paintings and studio practice developed differently from the social art stuff. In grad school I was dealing with fairly academic and critical issues. It was the late 1980s and I was looking at the role of women in popular culture, making these representational paintings of Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore. The compositions came from photographs that I was taking while watching television. I also spent lots of time in the 20th Century Studies Department when I was at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee getting a MA in Art History. This type of appropriation work continued when I was in the MFA program at Northwestern.

But when we moved to Milwaukee and I set up a painting studio in the basement of this little house we bought on the river, that’s when I began the pattern-based indexical work. My subjects were crocheted blankets, curtains, paper towel patterns, gingham motifs, the kinds of things that were within reach of my very middle-class domestic environment. What became clear was that it wasn’t the subjects that were interesting to me, but the repetition, the redundancy, the predictability of these domestic backdrops. It was the process that started to become really important. The paintings became a dependable counterbalance to all those other things, that social stuff that I felt obligated to do so that I could be part of a bigger discourse. With painting, I could go to the studio, be by myself, and change time.

So there’s this dichotomy between painting and the other critical and curatorial work that I started in Milwaukee and that has been in place right up to today. I need for my studio to be insular, more so now than ever. I talk a lot about situational boredom and really value the way David Foster Wallace took on the problems of distraction and the virtues of boredom. I desperately try to foster tedium and monotony in painting, but I am not always successful because these conditions are simply incongruent with our real temporality.

Michelle Grabner, "Black/Green Table," 1996. Enamel on panel, 38 × 32 inches.

Michelle Grabner, Black/Green Table, 1996. Enamel on panel, 38 × 32 inches.

SB: So what you painted at the time were things that one would generally find in one’s house, but your interest in them was not really about the domestic nature of those objects.

MG: Yeah. Not too long ago, Sabina Ott—who lives down the street from me here in Oak Park now, and who is an artist, along with Linda Stark, Linda Bessemer, Uta Barth, and Jennifer Steinkamp, that I was looking at in the early 1990s—mentioned to me that my practice was informed by L.A. painting and not the painting that was coming out of New York at the same time. And it’s not because I never used an oil-based medium or worked on large-scale canvases, but because L.A. painting was not afraid of engaging the subjects and the materials in reach of the everyday, and it never thought too much about the problems of subjectivity and the burdensome history of Expressionism. Certainly I was influenced by appropriation; I still am. My curatorial choices often platform 1980s-type criticality and the good kind of irony. But, yes, the vernacular, especially in terms of materiality, was important; the Milwaukee paintings were always painted with hardware store enamel on plywood panels. Canvas is a signifier of authority and it gives pathetically under the weight of the hand. It was never for me. Many woman artists in L.A. modeled other material possibilities for painting.

Jan Tumlir: The post-studio was formalized as a discipline at CalArts in 1971, and shortly thereafter you have the Pictures Generation, who were to a greater or lesser extent studio artists. The 1980s really seemed like a moment when certain types of practices that had ventured outside the studio and been expanded in various ways returned to the studio. So painting was possible again. I’m wondering about that legacy of the 1980s and how you’re dealing with it, because something happened at that point that was interesting.

MG: There’s also the Reagan-inspired movement in the marketplace in the 1980s. Jeffrey Deitch started brokering contemporary art to multinational conglomerates. So there was a market demand. I think in combination with the free market and a growing population of artists with degrees, a renewed interest in individual studio practices was seeded, and we see it today, multiplied, as a horror movie version of the East Village in the 1980s.

It messes with my head looking back at, let’s say, Artscribe, which we were all looking at in the 1980s, or even Artforum, where you had Neo-Expressionism actually coexisting with Neo-Geo and everything in between. What was happening then? Early forms of free market capitalism gaining hold in the art world? Strains of “unregulated” product coming forward? Or was it still ideological?

JT: Stephen opened with the suggestion that you do many different things. And they are kept separate, but only to an extent, right? At various moments the studio practice is obviously informed by these things that you’re doing outside of it—curating, writing, teaching.

MG: I’ve been thinking that it’s actually an ethic, all of these things that I do. Even in the studio, I’m talking about the process as being more important than the object that gets exported out of the studio. I understand the realities of display and consumption, but the ideal is located inside the studio, in the process of making.

Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam, "Lateral Drop," 2010. Aluminum, chain, silverpoint. Installation view of "Newtonland," White Flag Projects, St. Louis, MO.

Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam, Lateral Drop, 2010. Aluminum, chain, silverpoint. Installation view of Newtonland, White Flag Projects, St. Louis, MO.

SB: So let’s go back to the studio for a second now. When we look at the kind of work that you were showing at Richard Heller’s, it had a very handmade look; it looked like it came out of a studio. And then you made a conscious decision somewhere in the early 2000s that you were not going to make that work anymore. And you started making work that is more repetitive-gesture-based, and from a distance, it looks like you could program a machine to make those marks. So why the move to something more machine-like?

MG: This is the most glorious thing about being mid-career and fifty years old: you can look back on your work and understand whole waves of overcooked, undeveloped, and immature production and accept it. You can see struggles and missteps in the studio, and how they were influenced by all that life stuff—connections you couldn’t make at that time. It’s just human development, right? How one thinks about one’s relationship to the world, how the ego comes in and out of focus.

The work at Richard Heller’s was an example of the Milwaukee painting. I would create an index from domestic material and then fill in with color that corresponded to whatever it was that I was echoing. I was really interested in copying back then, nearing appropriation without directly lifting. I’d repeat these patterns again and again with enamel, creating a graphic field that also had a physical homemade thing-ness about it because of the raised enamel surface and the clunky plywood support.

When we moved back to Chicago in 1997, I took over a new studio space in our garage. I was getting a lot of critical attention for the work because it dealt with domestic signifiers; it had a relationship to the handmade, to craft, and to women’s work. But I wasn’t that interested in those issues; it was more the act of copying than what I was copying that interested me. It was also about controlling time and committing a perverse amount of it to filling in the negative spaces of an image of a crocheted blanket.

So the move to Chicago prompted a shift, as most disruptions do. I started representing platonic ideals via full-color spectrums, non-descript warp and weft patterns, and radiant compositions. No more granny square compositions. I found the perfect material: a loose fiberglass weave called Woven Roving, which I continue to use today. It provides me with a wonky grid that still references the material world. So I took on representing this big cliché, the platonic notion of the “Good.” Needless to say, I ran into big problems there, so I overcompensated with tedious mark making, machine-like production, as you say. From this “Good” series I fell into the Archimedes’s spiral compositions, a geometry that starts in the center and spirals outward. They still allowed me to use a monotonous vocabulary of mark making, the dots. And they provided me with a field of accumulation. But I stripped away color, using only black and white.

"Michelle Grabner: The INOVA Survey," 2012. Installation view at the Institute of Visual Arts at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI.

Michelle Grabner: The INOVA Survey, 2012. Installation view at the Institute of Visual Arts at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI.

JT: You are reinterpreting some early moves in hindsight, perhaps. And I’m thinking, when we were in school—it was probably at a similar time, in the 1980s—a lot of the artists showing were being interpreted in the light of a kind of anti-subjective “death of the author” type narrative. And key ways to get at that in works were either through appropriation or a kind of repetitive, rote form of making in which the subject could be voided in some sense. One can say that you start there, but as Stephen says, the repetitive pattern is applied by hand. This allows a certain leeway, if not for expression, then for something else to accrue there. I’m wondering if you were at all interested in those days in the discussion of alternatives to this kind of emptying out of the subject, other ways of getting at something in art that didn’t necessarily involve a grand statement.

MG: This goes back to being off-center, distanced from direct discourse and being exposed equally to secondary sources and a lot of academic and outsider practices common at the time. Even our mentors in graduate school in Chicago had a Midwestern perspective on issues of critique: Tony Tasset, Jeanne Dunning, Mitchell Kane, Hirsch Pearlman, Dan Peterman. So in my little studio on the Milwaukee River I had to interpret and translate these conceptual ideas into a very different context and value system. I wish I could say that I was compelled by notions of the alternative, but to be perfectly honest, Jan, I was just synthesizing Chicago Conceptualism with New York Appropriation, L.A. painting, and the funk sensibility of my teacher Ed Paschke.

SB: So if we look at those paintings of the early 2000s, these very mechanical-looking paintings, and we put those in relationship to the history of painting—where someone puts a mark down, steps back, looks at it, puts another mark down, and then at some point decides it’s done—you, because of the system that you’ve put in place, you don’t decide when it’s done. You just get to where there’s no place left to put a mark anymore, and that tells you you’re done. Like, you’re not Robert Ryman, trying to get to this point where, if you changed just one little thing, it wouldn’t hold as a painting, right? As you make that painting, and then another painting, and another, it seems that this notion of progress within a body of work gets put aside.

MG: It’s mostly process: counting, marking, ticking off time. I hope to set up systems that evade aesthetic decisions during the making of paintings. Sometimes adjustments have to be made but as soon as I can identify a need to make a correction, it’s an indication that the idea of the painting went terribly wrong. It doesn’t mean that the painting is not good. Sometimes my best paintings come from these breakdowns. But that is the difference between painting as a conceptual act and painting as, well, painting. The athletic ability in mark making becomes imprinted, and one becomes good at it. And that’s when I start to open things up, to set up new painting conceits. There has to be some kind of attentiveness to the process of painting so that I can understand the condition of time, of boredom, embedded in it.

JT: The way you’re describing it, perhaps, is about displacing the notion of progress from this larger narrative, a teleology if you want, to the realm of micro-phenomena within this infinitely elastic concept of time. Because you’re really attending to this gesture, that gesture, and the relationship between them, the hand-eye coordination that’s happening. But these are tiny things appearing in a pattern that you’re making that, for all intents and purposes, is always the same.

MG: That’s exactly right. Difference is abundant in the realm of micro-phenomena, and because I am attentive to changes within these systems I set up, I am also endlessly making anew. This is something not always noticed when work circulates outside of the studio, but honestly, I am okay with that.

Michelle Grabner, "Untitled," 2013. Flashe on panel, 14 × 11 inches.

Michelle Grabner, Untitled, 2013. Flashe on panel, 14 × 11 inches.

JT: I was struck by this emphasis on time in its relationship to the studio and, again, it occurred to me that you are carrying over some of the legacies of the 1960s and 1970s that were all about making time and duration evident in the work. And, to some extent, that may be something that got brought back into the studio: the attempt to somehow encode that time. Your work is almost clock-like in its encoding of time. But clearly you also want to open up the moments of time, even within a rote system, to the possibility of invention.

MG: That’s right, within these minutia-like operations, to still find loads of wonderment, making what seem to me to be huge conceptual and material discoveries; that’s enough to keep me going. It’s certainly not the sublime, but there is this kind of awe that comes from the inconsistencies that my body and the paint will make that is acutely important. Time and its relationship to power and control are also, as you said, specifically encoded in the work. I hope that it doesn’t appear to be just a fetish issue, but that the paintings open up a dialog with contemporary gendered politics lodged in notions of time and of production.

SB: So maybe we could also talk about your decision to move from showing works exclusively on the wall to incorporating them into installations. Having a painting that’s free-floating, or hung from the ceiling with all this stuff on the back, how did that come about?

MG: That corresponds with the economic crisis of 2008 and the sense of great instability that was predicted on all fronts. It was kind of a great moment where you could imagine, what if that wall and all those thing that are supposed to be stable suddenly aren’t?

It was also at this moment that I realized very profoundly where the value of my work lies—in the studio and in production—and that when it went out into the world, well, that was going to be a crap shoot. There’s a whole industry of people who take care of that end of things and as an artist I have become indifferent to them. But when I do have the opportunity to make exhibitions, fine. I realized last year working on my twenty-year survey exhibition at INOVA, the Institute of Visual Art at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, that exhibitions are a total fiction, that they don’t represent the truth of practice. That realization was delightfully freeing.

JT: Some of your projects from that period have the look of curated shows, or they seem to be attempting to connect your painting practice, which is, as you’re saying, relatively solitary and focused, to something outside itself—i.e., to the space of the exhibition, to other people’s works, to all this other stuff.

MG: Yeah, and recognizing and playing to that social and networked interface of exhibition making. And why not? The commercial world does a great job controlling inventory, such a good job that artists can really expand the notion of display without undercutting the collectability of its parts.

Michelle Grabner, 2013. Installation view at Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago, IL.

Michelle Grabner, 2013. Installation view at Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago, IL.

JT: I’m looking at your website, at the documentation from your INOVA survey exhibition, and there’s this one wall with what looks like a cluster of some of the gingham paintings, and then some surrounding material. This again maybe has the function of connecting painting to things outside itself, like curating, and also to other forms of art making—drawing, photography, sculpture, installation, etc.—but then finally to other information. Some of the things that surround the painting function, if not in an explanatory way, then  maybe as keys to understanding something about the context of your work, what it comes out of, maybe even what you’ve come out of. The one thing I see clearly is a drawing of a pigeon.

MG: Those very carefully rendered silverpoints depicting pigeons were made simultaneously with the gingham paintings from the mid-to-early-nineties. The pigeons came from thinking about pedagogy; this goes back to having young kids. We would regularly travel down from Milwaukee to the University of Chicago to see exhibitions at the Renaissance Society. We’d go to the Seminary bookstore, and pad around the Classics Department as a way of esteeming higher education for our kids, but instead the boys would rather run at the pigeons on the quad. The pigeon, not the most regal of your feathered friends, is quite prosaic, not unlike gingham. I did a series of these relatively large-scale pigeon drawings while I was working on gouache gingham patterns as another way of circling around my art and life themes.

So, Jan, what you’re looking at there is a selection of pattern paintings that range from 1992 to 2012. But they are integrated in a colossal field of prints, photographs and metal-point drawings, a big patchwork of 2-D stuff. Also in that survey show I exhibited work by former students. Obviously, I’ve worked with a lot of students over twenty-some years of teaching. In addition, I also installed a gallery that featured work by my former teachers. This way viewers could start making interesting connections regarding influence, where it comes from and how it is built upon.

SB: You’re very invested in painting. You’ve curated shows, organized panel discussions, and published on the subject. And I want to ask, why? What is it about painting now that interests you? And how are you thinking about this in relation to your role as one of the curators for the upcoming Whitney Biennial?

MG: I keep it at the fore because a lot of contemporary painting is hugely frustrating to me. I’ve been thinking a lot about style, in its relationship to the freedoms of the free market, but then also in terms of thinking through invention. Often the problem is directed at contemporary criticism and I think that is right. I am not talking about critics failing us, but the artists themselves failing on a critical level. I want to both see and hear an ethical engagement with painting. In curating the Biennial, I hope to showcase artists who think more about the language than the reception, the viewer, or themselves. To do this, I have to be more heavy handed. If I am asking artists to take an ethical position, then I have to do so too.

JT: I like that idea of heavy-handed curating because I think subtlety is overrated these days, right? But on that point, to reiterate Stephen’s question, heavy handed in the interest of what in particular in relation to painting? Like, what sorts of painting do you see mattering? And then, secondly, I wonder what exactly this has to do with ethics, as you were saying.

MG: I don’t know if I’m able to answer that. I can only say the 1993 Biennial and its heavy-handed political agenda was an exemplary work of curating. The criticism at the time was bruising to the institution but in the long run that is what is demanded. I can only say I am trying to be as transparent as possible, laying bare my process so as to not mystify curating or the idea of the Biennial. As opposed to many professional curators, who attach themselves to obscure histories or who invent thin storylines illustrated with artwork, I instead hope to act as a steward of something bigger than me, bigger than the artists I am including.

With the Biennial I am particularly interested in focusing on a core group of multigenerational women painters and how these women have identified new threads of power in abstraction. David Joselit’s essay “Painting Travesty,” included in the 2012 Whitney Biennial catalog, hugely influenced my thinking here. Painting’s performative principle, its relationship to the artist’s body and the body’s relationship to power, culminating in not-so-tasteful abstract painting is really exciting to me. It really comes down to what’s happening with power outside of the market place. Could it still be located in the authority of painting?

Michelle Grabner, "Untitled," 2013. Flashe and gesso on canvas, 24 × 24 inches.

Michelle Grabner, Untitled, 2013. Flashe and gesso on canvas, 24 × 24 inches.

JT: Obviously you’re deriving some of your insights from your own experience as a woman who paints. And you’re developing a kind of thesis that would probably begin with the first paintings you made, and all the questions that surrounded those first paintings, like how are they related to feminism, to craft, and so on. And then perhaps you wrestled a little bit with that, like, well, they are and they’re not…

SB: …And even when you found that you were not that interested in the feminine, domestic materials you were representing in your paintings, being a woman in the studio, in the art world, remained relevant. And so, yeah, it must start there, right?

MG: I’m starting to think about some of the artists I’m working with on this Biennial project in relation to my own work. It’s about being able to leverage authority, to create a kind of freedom in which one can consider painting’s varied epistemologies and frames, and not painting as an Amy Sillman or Laura Owens or Michelle Grabner. I’m not interested in a collection of names. I’m really interested in foregrounding criticality, productivity, time, and, of course, power in painting. And how do you get to that point? Jan Verwoert talks about how painting is “attended to,” especially by women today. He makes a parallel to attending to the laundry or the dishes. He calls it “crab walking,” meaning off to the side. This observation sounds like how I was thinking about painting in the early 1990s, but his theory is hugely frustrating in terms of power relationships and the lack of advancement and forward movement. For him, the most compelling painting is still working with and in the margins, off to the side. Don’t get me wrong, there are very beautiful patterns and motifs that reside in these places, but evoking them shouldn’t prohibit progress, ambition, influence.

This is a great aside, but when Verwoert, who has a thick Belgian accent, was talking to an audience of Minnesotans during a panel discussion around the Painter Painter exhibition at the Walker Center that I too was involved in, they thought he was saying “crap walking.” It was a beautiful thing. But then again, maybe I am crap talking?