Judith Ann Moriarty

Michelle Grabner, deja vu all over again

UWM Alum Grabner's major show at Inova launches the university's Year of the Arts.

By - Aug 5th, 2012 02:13 pm

grabner-inova-UWMOn the way to visit Michelle Grabner’s exhibition on Prospect Avenue (Inova Kenilworth) I stop at the Green Gallery East to chat with John Riepenhoff and  his partner, Jake Palmert. They’re standing among stacks and boxes of “orphans,” i.e., artworks that survived the disastrous fire at their Riverwest Green Gallery. The building that housed the Center St. version of Green is about to be demolished, and the two most important young curators in town are seeking a new venue to shelter the orphans. They await conservators, insurance guys, and all others involved in helping out with the aftershock of the conflagration. Even on a steamy day, Riepenhoff and Palmert are unflappably cool.

In the backroom of Green East, one of Grabner’s large tondo paintings hangs on the north wall, its beautiful face, elegantly arranged in a glorious series of dots, smudged by smoke damage. A year ago, I reviewed an exhibition of her work at this very gallery, and it bodes well that John Riepenhoff curated the exhibition I am about to visit at the Inova/Kenilworth Gallery at 2155 N. Prospect Ave. They both graduated from UW- Milwaukee. This show launches The Year of the Arts at UWM, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Peck School of the Arts.

The first thing I see inside Inova, is a notice that a “Center Street Artists Relief Fund” has been established by the Milwaukee Artists Resource Network.


Grabner’s show invitation card.

Trust me when I advise you introduce yourself to the exhibition (now – Sept. 23) in the intimate screening room, tucked into the larger space. The continuous loop DVD sure gave me a feeling for a middle-aged woman living a middle-class life in middle-America.

Grabner produced the four segments with her spouse, Brad Killam, a regular Joe who, oh yeah, is also the chap in one of several videos in the front gallery, the dude who looks like he’s wearing a wig while repeating over and over and over, the same phrase, the same phrase, the same phrase. There are subtle variations on the theme, which come to think of it, makes most of what we say bearable. He speaks in a foreign tongue. Italian? It doesn’t matter. It’s repetitive in any language.

The phrase mouthed by Killam sets the tone for the entire exhibition, which to my mind is about Grabner’s life to date, i.e., a life arranged on a more or less predictable grid of everyday things. Bake cookies, wipe the baby’s butt, teach, drive, make art and then do it again and again and again. It’s deja vu all over again. It’s the little things isn’t it, that make life worth living? Tell me you didn’t get teary-eyed watching the Christmas Lights DVD segment in the screening room. It’s as ordinary as corn-on-the-cob, and surely I got weepy out of pure nostalgia for something that frankly never was that glorious. In fact, it is cheesy as all get out. Advertising makes us remember things in odd ways, and curiously, Grabner’s paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures (and DVD’s) have more than a touch of “advertising” motifs, indeed, at times I was reminded of the art of James Rosenquist. Flags fly red white blue; cookies bake (mommy baked them).

So tell me, how did Grabner rise to be a Professor and Department Chair at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago? A visiting Professor at Yale University? Could it be she’s really an art snob disguised as a regular person? Someone who has found a niche which appeals to middle class slobs in middle class America, folks like you and me who want to like art but aren’t sure how that works.

grabner-inovaI don’t think so. This is a brilliant show. It rings true. Is the finest ever. Ever. Ever. I’d like to say words fail me, but obviously they haven’t, in fact, I can’t find the right words to describe my Inova Survey experience. There’s a bit of art history in a gallery hung with teachers and others who influenced her during her years at UW-Milwaukee. You’ll pass through it on the way to the screening room.

A great addition to my day was talking to Bruce Knackert, the Director of Galleries, a quiet but influential force behind the Inova scene. We explored the “meaning of Grabner’s work.” Perhaps (I’m thinking), there is no meaning and a cookie baking is just a cookie baking. Knackert (MFA in painting and drawing) considers himself (most modestly) a “technical” person who doesn’t know much about art. Yeah right. He takes me for an elevator ride and we exit into a huge space a few floors above Inova Gallery. A section is set aside for the rental of parking space for cars. At first glance, I think it’s an art installation.

I glance to my right and there’s the space built-out by Bruce Knackert, a stunning cube of creamy ivory, a replica of snug The Suburban, a Grabner/Killam run gallery in Oak Park, Illinois. It’s an amazingly beautiful structure, wrought in a purely modernist stripped-down mode. Inside are concrete block walls hung with black and white graphics detailing comments by artists who exhibited at The Suburban. Knackert says when he takes the building apart, he’ll donate the concrete blocks to Habitat for Humanity.





Categories: A/C Feature 1, Art

0 thoughts on “Michelle Grabner, deja vu all over again”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi Judith, Your review really made me want to go see this show, and I will!

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