Michelle Grabner thrives on hard work. She acknowledges as much over coffee at Fuel Café’s new Fifth Street outpost, just down the street from The Suburban, one of the galleries she and her husband, Brad Killam, run together. The couple also owns a second location in Riverwest, plus The Poor Farm, an artist space in Little Wolf, Wisconsin.
Additionally, Grabner commutes to Chicago to teach painting and drawing at the Art Institute, writes for high-profile publications such as Artforum and juggles curatorial projects. But she thinks of herself primarily as an artist: Her studio work comes first, she says, with teaching coming in a close second. “And all these other things – curating, writing, running The Suburban – help me in my teaching. I’m at my best when I’m engaging them.”
Originally from the Fox Valley region, Grabner feels that she can juggle her disparate endeavors more easily in Milwaukee than in Chicago, where she often felt as if she was under intense scrutiny, especially after she co-curated the 2014 Whitney Biennial.
Since her return to Milwaukee in 2015, she’s logged thousands of hours in her studios here, creating new works. Many are sculptural casts of hand-knitted and crocheted blankets that reflect her career-long interest in domestic environments and everyday life.
One such work has been installed at 301 E. Wisconsin Ave., where it remains on display through October 22 as part of Sculpture Milwaukee, a free outdoor exhibition of 22 pieces.
Another, multi-panel weaving, made of strips of brightly colored paper, hangs in the Milwaukee Art Museum exhibition “Paper Play,” on view through October 29. The show is more participatory than most – MAM is inviting visitors of all ages to create weavings of their own, inspired by Grabner’s work, and is saving what they leave behind, so that Grabner will have an archive for future paintings.
Critics have sometimes scoffed at Grabner’s willingness to blend craft and conceptual art. In a 2014 New York Times review, Ken Johnson called her “a comfortably middle-class tenured professor and soccer mom,” implying that middle-class moms can’t create compelling works of art.
She doesn’t bristle at the labels, though. “What his review represented, which unfortunately had nothing to do with my work,” she says, “was a prejudice about where contemporary art should come from, about whether it must be male driven, cosmopolitan. What is the contemporary avant-garde? Where does it have to come from?”
According to Grabner, art can come from anywhere. From classically trained coastal urbanites, yes. But from soccer moms in the Midwest, too. ◆