November 20, 2015 Repository 185: Michelle Grabner on Boredom and Inclusiveness | Disjecta Biennial 2016 Posted In: art practice, community, contemporary art, exhibition of note, perspective

Artist and curator Michelle Grabner with untitled silverpoints on canvas on wood, at her Oak Park studio in 2014. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

Artist and curator Michelle Grabner with untitled silverpoints on canvas on wood, at her Oak Park studio in 2014. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

This past Summer Disjecta, a small non-profit artist space in Portland, Oregon, announced that Michelle Grabner would curate the Portland2016, their version of the area’s biennial. This evening Ms. Grabner had a public talk and QA session at the Pacific Northwest College of the Arts as part of PNCA’s 2015-2016 Hallie Ford School of Graduate Studies Visiting Artist Lecture Series.

I’ve written previously about Ms. Grabner’s achievements to date, specifically about the irony of the “anti-curator” returning full circle to the ultra-curator (i.e. co-curating the Whitney Biennial). She was the first artist to do so, and as the co-curator of the Whitney Biennial she presented some inspiring and new twists on what it means to curate. In the talk this evening she reminded the audience that artists curate in their studios all the time, so the rise of curatorial studies actually bothers her greatly. Some of Ms. Grabner’s super powers are her commitment to community, to unabashedly sharing work that sits dangerously on the edge of the domestic, and believing in the importance of the perspective of the fringes of the art world. She truly believes that from outside of a busy “art center” one can see more clearly the brilliance that may be hidden in clear sight.

Throughout the talk she referenced her own practice and how themes of boredom greatly influenced her. She actually used the term ennui which is a more painful slice of the concept of boredom borrowed from the French word ennuyer. She began the lecture with a still from the video “Fat Chance John Cage”, by Bruce Nauman where he famously filmed his studio over night – the footage is a boring loop of nothing happening, except for some bugs, a cat scampering by and maybe a mouse at one point. Later in the lecture she declared that Bruce Nauman is “the artist I want to be”.  She also generously shared her other influences, among them painter Sheila Hicks and the inventor of kindergarten Friedrich Fröbel.

Because of her experience of overlapping communities and creating new platforms for artists she is a great candidate for her curator role at Discjecta. This biennial started in 2010 due to, among other things, the Portland Art Museum’s succession at the time of celebrating contemporary local artists. It has had much criticism initially where community members found the artists chosen have been friends of the curator, and with no clear theme or scholarship. Disjecta’s ability to bring in curators from the outside over time has served them well in erasing this integrity issue.

In her talk Ms. Grabner highlighted her extreme inclusiveness in that it seems she will be including all of the 100 artists on her studio visit list. Either at the Disjecta building or throughout Oregon, the artists will be exhibited in the Summer of 2016. Here’s the question – while regionalism is a sandwich board that she has successfully hung her practice on, I see regionalism as a symptom of some larger problems in Portland. I have many friends who are artists and teach in Portland, but live over the bridge in Washington because economically it makes more sense. These artists are not to be considered for this Disjecta biennial because it is an Oregon only art exhibit.

So should a viewer expect to see Oregon-ish art? Will the essays in the catalog make the project more transparent in how the 100 or so artists were chosen? Why state only? Pacific Northwest is comfortably used in other collections’ and museums’ efforts why not here? Better yet, since Ms. Grabner has a solid history of bridging communities why not create a scenario where artists from Baha to Vancouver BC are exhibited? That would be brilliant, as there is no true venue for such inclusiveness for quality emerging artists anywhere on the west coast. If we must look back east – there is no such thing as a New York City Biennial, so why have that provincial push continue on the West Coast and in Portland? Our brain waves are longer out here, and time lapses differently – we could totally make it work!

I wish I could have asked her to address these challenges, as I was watching the comments-disabled live streaming event from my office in Washington state, 11 miles away from the venue. In the suburbs. Unfortunately the questions from the live Portland audience were more about her practice and whether or not an artist really did drive their car into their gallery The Suburban. Indeed the artist did, no one was hurt, and Ms. Grabner found the project to be good.

Wishing her and the Disjecta team much luck as they turn out another ambitious biennial this year, and hoping that the collection of artists is something that breaks Ms. Grabner’s ennui and the Portland community’s anxiety about relevance in the larger field of contemporary art.

(Article also published on Temporary Art Review.)

Image of the original Suburban Gallery, courtesy of The Suburban web site.

Image of the original Suburban Gallery, courtesy of The Suburban web site.

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