Grabner welcomes art to “The Suburb

Jess Vogt

Friday, Jan. 19 Appleton native Michelle Grabner discussed her ongoing projects at “The Suburb” as well as her past and current work, selections of which are showing this month in Wriston’s Hoffmaster and Kohler galleries.
Deep in the suburbs of Chicago lies a 10-by-10 foot addendum to an old house. Previous owners had used it as an office for their home-run auto fix-it shop.
If you were to venture inside, however, you wouldn’t find any old pistons or spark plugs, or even an oil stain on the concrete floor. You’d find a crisp, clean room, well lit, with a solid gray-green canvas at one end, upon which is hanging a painting. Or you might find a television set placed on wood blocks on the floor, flashing images.
Welcome to “The Suburb” – artist, critic and professor Michelle Grabner’s ongoing project to bring a Chicago venue to out-of-town artists who wish to display one or two works in a small, intimate setting.
“‘The Suburb’ provides a place where artists can take a risk,” explained Grabner. The artist opened her exhibit titled “Mid-Career Retrospective” with remarks delivered in the Wriston Auditorium Jan. 19.
“When we’re in the studio, we’re all risking something,” continued a passionate Grabner. “And so this space is aligned with the studio and not the professional artist.”
Indeed, a few of the exhibits shown at “The Suburb” have been risky and some might even say unprofessional.
During the 2004 election, the space also served as the campaign offices for the Green Party and Ralph Nader’s presidential bid.
“No reflection of how we voted, mind you,” Grabner assured her audience on Friday.
During the most recent election season, an artist erected a giant inflatable thumb on the building’s roof. Unfortunately, the flesh-colored inflatable resembled a giant penis, more than slightly confusing the neighbors.
“The Suburb” is a place where art slips into the social side – “a public place given over to the artist,” Grabner said of the venue. It is a mix of politics, art, social justice and anything else an artist wants to contribute.
It is a place where even TP-ing becomes a thing of beauty.
A few seasons ago, a university graduate who had been recouping her tuition in university toilet paper for four years asked if she could TP the house and yard at “The Suburb.” Grabner, a Northwestern graduate who can sympathize with college tuition grievances, acquiesced.
“The Suburb” is merely one facet of Grabner’s extensive portfolio. She has had one-woman exhibitions in Chicago, New York, London, Boston, Melbourne and Los Angeles, to name a few.
But as an alumna of Appleton East High School, the Fox Cities hold a special charm for her, bringing her and her work to Lawrence’s galleries. Her paintings and paper weavings focus on the patterns and light present in everyday objects such as rugs, quilts and even colanders.
“I’ve found that the aesthetics of wonder in everyday things is much more powerful than the aesthetics of the sublime,” Grabner said, highlighting the mysticism and “curiosity” in a rainbow that mesmerizes every one of us no matter how many times we witness the phenomenon.
She captures this wonder in her art through simple representations that are meticulous, repetitive and contemplative.
“There’s something greater than ourselves out there,” Grabner concluded. “It’s about seeing how these every day things can stimulate and connect you to something bigger.”
Indeed, “The Suburb” emanates this concept of the simple, humdrum and routine connected to something greater through art.
The building is plain – whitewashed siding and concrete. But behind the paint-chipped door, art of any and every form – political, photographical, biographical, tele-visual and inflatable – has an intimate home.