Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Ken Johnson - Michelle Grabner controversy

Michelle Grabner, untitled, 2012

I've never seen a Michelle Grabner solo exhibition.  But individual pieces, similar to the above, have been  shown in a number of exhibition spaces around town.

Not that I have anything against a red-checkered  tablecloth, but I don't  think it belongs on a gallery wall.    Are there too many art exhibition spaces and not enough artists ? 

So, belatedly,  I am among those who appreciate the impatience expressed by  last year's  controversial Ken Johnson review in the New York Times.  He concluded his brief comments with:

Nothing in all this is more interesting than the unexamined sociological background of the whole. If the show were a satire of the artist as a comfortably middle-class tenured professor and soccer mom, it would be funny and possibly illuminating, but it’s not.

The "all this" to which Johnson refers is the video and the installation of family pictures and crushed garbage can lids that accompanies the graphic work.  The video depicts the artist working in her rural studio and  its bucolic surroundings.  There are also peaceful scenes of pies baking, suggesting the artist's other role as happy homemaker.

If Johnson had left out the phrase "soccer mom", he probably would have escaped unscathed. But  it allowed the art critic of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to assert
that:   "New York Times art critic Ken Johnson effectively called artist Michelle Grabner a dull, middle-class soccer mom"

Then taking yet one more interpretative step, the columnist at Hyperallergic asserted that:

Grabner may make “bland art” (his words), and she may be a “middle-class tenured professor and soccer mom,” but to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between those two conditions, as Johnson does in the paragraph, is sexist (and classist).

This interpretation  has traveled such a distance from Johnson's original words, it is only credible with reference to allegations of his previous expressions of sexism. (which I'm not going to examine)

In a comment to the ARTF CITY  posting on this issue , Grabner herself wrote:

I have no problem that Johnson did not identify David Robbins's didactic video, "A Few Minutes with Michelle Grabner" made specifically for my exhibition at James Cohan Gallery as hyperbolic and ironic My problem is that Johnson's art review was not printed in Thursday's Style section.

If the video was meant to be ironic, to what was it contrary ?  Does it suggest that Grabner does not really lead such a sweet, domestic, bucolic life ?  Does it suggest that such a  life is not worthy of admiration, or is merely a fantasy ? Was the bit about mathematics in the creative process also intended to be ironic?

If the art feels bland, why not conclude that the art was also intended to be ironic?  As if to ironically say "this is the kind of art that contented, domestic women make. (despite their application of mathematics)" 

That was the plausible message that Ken Johnson received, and he did not find it interesting because he did not find a sharp insight into that social context. And, by the way, no sharp insights were suggested in any of the four essays that labeled him a sexist.

Corinna Kirsch Jillian Steinhauer,   and Rit Premnath all emphasized that part of the video where Grabner discussed her creative process. Kirsch even  contrasted Grabner's  "authenticity" in contrast to "bad-boy-postmodern ironic stance", so apparently, she did not find the video to be ironic at all.

Mary Louise Schumacher tells us that the video is;  " a wonderfully droll and camp anti-commercial that's typical of Robbins' work and that invites us to explore ideas about Midwesterness, boredom, intended audiences and serious artistic intention."  --

But how is that  different from just boring an un-intended audience with typical Midwesterness?  What sharp insight has the video offered to initiate a fruitful intellectual exploration?

I wonder whether these four women would have attacked Johnson if they had actually seen the show and also judged it to be bland.

The above images, taken from the exhibition that Johnson reviewed -- appear to be much more interesting than the three pieces that I've previously seen.   Possibly, I would have found this work  as compelling as some of Ethel Stein's geo-form weaving

Here is another show that also works with ordinary, everyday household shapes and colors, but which, upon close inspection,  transcends them with aesthetic delight.


If I had  found the work in this show to be visually bland,  it's success as a humorous or illuminating satire would not  have concerned me. Like Ken Johnson, I would have found the self-satisfaction in the video to be annoying. But the only art that makes me laugh is art that looks really good.  Such achievement is  always surprising.  And good looking art is also the only kind that illuminates me -- because it exemplifies yet one more delightful way of being human.

 Which is where I part ways with Ken Johnson and the post-modern critical community -- all the way back to Duchamps "Foundtain" and the  inception of  conceptual art.

But if  I had found the work, though minimal, to be visually exciting, I would have found the video to be charming and playful.   "Good for her!"... I would have thought ... "She bakes pies and makes good art, too.  Can I have a piece of both?"


The  world  of contemporary art honors both the conceptual and the visual - so possibly, Grabner ambitiously tries to work both ways.  Sometimes, she offers art that is bland enough not to interfere with the conceptualization intended. .  Other times, she may try to make art that can command attention, regardless of context.  Though I have not yet seen her achieve that, and the establishment of context seems to be the most important part of her practice.



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