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INDIANAPOLIS — Michelle Grabner: Weaving Art into Life is the fitting title of Grabner’s first exhibition at an encyclopedic museum. On view at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, it features a concise selection of works for which she best is known. These include: paintings based on baby blankets, dish towels, and other domestic textiles; photographic images, some video and some still; a carpet-like installation of her woven-paper works; several metalpoint and Flashe images on gessoed tondo panels; and three constructions, fabricated from pieces of bleachers and hung with video monitors, still photographs, and more Flashe paintings.
Grabner participates in several aspects of what Arthur Danto called the Artworld. In addition to working as an artist, she’s a curator, a published critic, and an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. At the same time, she’s a wife and a mother. But instead of pushing the personal side of her life into the background, Grabner successfully assimilates it into her art. This is a difficult, perhaps dangerous path to navigate: the domestic and personal are accorded critical attention, but more often when cast as dysfunctional. Grabner presents the domestic as a relatively positive creative force.
But I very much like what she does. I like the way she pulls — or should I say “weaves” — together such seemingly opposed motifs as Archimedean geometry and American football. I like the way she sees the Daoist largeness in the smallness of daily activities, enthusiasms, and objects. Her philosophical stance translates the mundane into things that can be isolated and recognized as art, but not so completely that their vernacular origins are lost.
For me, that balance is struck most satisfyingly by the first gallery, featuring enamel-on-panel pieces in which Grabner uses the grid as a conceptual and formal organizing principle. Grids underpin patterns in material cultures from Iran to Ghana, from Guatemala to Japan to Scotland, so I’ve always been bemused by Rosalind Krauss’s casting the grid as an evil modernist trope. Thankfully, Grabner seems to appreciate its expansive conceptual potential as well as its manifestations in homely textiles. I’m also grateful that Grabner’s recent “untitled” panel paintings revisit works from the late 1990s — Curtain Sample (1998) and Granny Square Afghan (1996), among them — rather than relegating them to the past.
The second gallery further emphasizes Grabner’s use of grids, particularly with the carpet-like installation of colorful woven-paper works, arrayed on a room-dominating riser. In a subtle but inescapable jab at Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s hostility toward gay rights, Grabner made several rainbow-woven sheets that fit seamlessly into the quilt-like arrangement. This room also contains a small selection of tondo works, which are especially attractive: each of these mesmerizing, circular pieces embodies the process of their making, based on Grabner’s programmatic applications of Flashe or metalpoint. As such, they communicate a sense of potentially infinite generation, even as each work’s continuous edge circumscribes and delimits each round field.
The last gallery features two sculptural constructions, akin to the suspended piece at the exhibition entrance, along with two groups of framed pictures that are based on multiple generations of photographic images. The constructions are a collaborative effort between Grabner and her husband Brad Killam, and feature variously formatted images mounted to frameworks made from sections of aluminum bleacher seating. Involving, as they do, disparate elements and more than one creative perspective, these assemblages embody an unresolved tension that contrasts with the more fully integrated works described above. The photographic images also involve Grabner engaging with another person’s vision but, because she is solely responsible for their ultimate resolution, they possess a much higher degree of integration.
One grid of 10 vertically installed images is based on pictures of players for the 2014 Indianapolis Colts, originally published in the Indianapolis Star. Here, Grabner enlarges fragments of those offset-printed photographs to the point that the original images dissolve into arbitrary clumps of colored dots. Nonetheless, Grabner gives each image a title that includes the player’s number—reconnecting those inchoate jumbles with an individual identity, and offering viewers a chance to reconnect with the familiar.
The other group of works, Untitled (Nancy Holt) (2013), pays homage to another artist as well as to Grabner’s own enthusiasm for American football. It consists of 12 screenprints of photographs of television screens. Printed in black ink on white paper, they are composed of diagonal grids of millions of tiny dots that barely coalesce into blurred figures of men battling on the gridiron. Operating similarly to the Colts-derived pictures, they also connect the world of spectator sports with an Artworld increasingly devoted to the spectacular. Opening up such parallels, Grabner suggests that life has such a capacity to bemuse, captivate and outrage that art might be better off if it were devoted to more mundane ends.
Michelle Grabner: Weaving Art into Life continues at the Indianapolis Museum of Art through November 15.