JAMES COHAN GALLERY | OCTOBER 9 – NOVEMBER 15, 2014
For Michelle Grabner, there is no distinction between her life and her art. She is a consummate artist with a conceptual agenda: to what degree can the domestic and the artistic be fused? Her self-proclaimed desire for a “relatively conventional lifestyle—family, kids, a mortgage”—has helped her merge her domestic life and her studio practice. Every piece on view at James Cohan, Grabner’s first solo show in New York, questions how fully the domestic and artistic can be integrated.
David Robbins, whose work Grabner curated in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, made a short video that introduces the artist. “A Few Minutes With ... Michelle Grabner” plays on a loop in the foyer. By splicing together scenes of Grabner’s domestic life (she gardens, she cooks) and scenes of her artistic work (she weaves, she discusses her creative process), Robbins shows us the degree to which Grabner’s domestic and artistic lives exist in tandem. In both realms, Grabner works at the same pace and with the same precise technique: slow, repetitive, meditative.
Not only do Grabner’s “conventional” and artistic lives co-exist, but they mutually reinforce each other. In the beginning of the film, we see Grabner make a pie: she rolls out dough, she slices the extra into roughly half-inch strips, she weaves the strips to make the top of the pie. Pan to Grabner’s studio, where we watch her make a paper weaving, one of the dozens featured in the show. Grabner explains that she prepares for her paper weavings by cutting color-aid paper—an educational tool familiar to most art students—into half-inch or one-inch strips. She then weaves the first strips using simple math. This initial pattern determines the appearance of each weaving. Indeed like all patterns, it is planned and repeated without any certain start or stop point.
A group of Grabner’s graphic paper weavings have been placed haphazardly on a low table in Cohan’s first room. The arrangement of the weaving—overlapping each other—diminishes their visual effect. It is impossible to take in a single weaving as a complete piece, and the graphic, matte, saturated colors begin to look like placemats. In Cohan’s main room, the weavings’ relationship to the domestic is deepened. Here they lie horizontally on a large, low table. This group resembles a carpet. The work’s association with the domestic is not a fault; rather, it suggests Grabner’s inspiration. Grabner began making these weavings 20 years ago after her son came home from kindergarten having completed a similar project.
A large installation hangs from the ceiling in the gallery’s main room. Gently rotating above the second group of paper weavings, the installation resembles a child’s mobile. Its two arms hang in harmonious symmetry. The large sculpture makes literal Grabner’s refusal of work-life balance and signals her insistence on integration. On one arm, she and her husband, a collaborator on this piece, have strung replicas of children’s furniture and a family photograph. On the other, a giant assemblage of flattened trashcan lids emanate from one of Grabner’s circular paintings. The first arm represents domestic life, the second artistic. One suggests humans and the figure, the other abstraction and pattern. Both arms participate equally in her art.
Grabner’s black-and-white paintings hang on the walls of Cohan’s large main room. Grabner has made her surfaces flicker by carefully placing dollops of enamel paint on a flecked surface. Whereas Grabner’s paper weavings seek to expose pattern in its simplest state, her paintings reveal patterns embedded in our daily, domestic lives. In her paintings, the most impressive visual work in the Cohan show, Grabner transforms patterns from crocheted baby blankets into compositions for abstract paintings. In so doing, Grabner collapses the distance between pattern and composition, yet again proving how the domestic and the artistic can blend into each other.
The most rewarding room in the Cohan show is the last one, where Grabner’s colored paintings hang. Her jewel-like colors are tints rather than the fully saturated hues of the paper weavings, and the works demonstrate a keen understanding of color relationships. For example, in “Untitled” (2014), a slightly green enamel paint sets off the orange and yellow haloes underneath. Without the distractions of the mobile or the paper weavings, it is easier to approach the works and appreciate their subtlety and beauty. The patterns dissipate and we can appreciate Grabner’s systematic, repetitious, perhaps even tedious, method of applying paint.
Grabner’s work has attracted much attention and has been widely criticized. Critics have correctly, yet disparagingly, linked her formal concerns with pattern and weaving to her gender. They have improperly established a causal relationship between the domestic and how interesting her art can be (i.e. the domestic is boring, so her art must be too). But critics have failed to point out that domestic work is work, is labor. In Robbins’s five-minute film, we never see Grabner not laboring; she gardens, cooks, weaves, constantly using her hands to complete precise motions. To diminish the domestic is to participate in an exclusive, outmoded paradigm that refuses to acknowledge its validity, both as a place of labor and a source of inspiration.
KATE LIEBMAN is a painter who works in Brooklyn.