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Michelle Grabner   
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Michelle Grabner on Soccer Balls & Art in the American Interior

By Sehba Mohammad on September 22, 2015


Founding the Midwest's most avant garde art spaces (The Suburban and Poor Farm), co-curating last year's Whitney Biennial, enriching young minds at the Art Institute of Chicago, and a robust studio practice, couldn't save Michelle Grabner from Ken Johnson's lackadaisical New York Times review last year.


For twenty years Grabner explored dynamics of domesticity through thoughtful paper weaves, hypnotic needlepoint canvases, and ironic documentary videos, but in his critique Johnson boils her down to a "middle-class tenured professor and soccer mom."


Instead of lamenting, Grabner — with the help of object-based publication The Thing Quarterly — turned the classicist critique into a cheeky and creative rebuttal.  The Grabner-designed issue is an actual soccer ball patterned with the artist's iconic gingham.


Flavorpill caught up with the artist to discuss The Thing Quarterly issue, art in the Midwest, and of course balls. Below, our discussion via email.


What was your first reaction after reading Johnson's New York Times review?


I was in D.C. at the time doing a visiting artist gig at American University. I remember that I could not contain outbursts of laughter as I read it to my husband over the phone. Honestly I was most disappointed in Johnson's opinion being culled from a distorted narrative of me, instead of it being based on the activity of scrutinizing and assessing the artwork in the exhibition. His review was built solely on the ironic, didactic video made by the artist David Robbins that functioned as a 'send-up' of 'identity narratives' rampant in the contemporary art world.


Why a soccer ball and not a more weave-oriented goal net or soccer gloves?


The soccer ball is much more iconic, and a more perfect geometry.


What do you plan to do with your soccer ball?


It will go on the shelf in the garage with the rest of our sports equipment.


You've used the gingham pattern for two decades. It takes various incarnations, the most recent of which is The Thing Quarterly issue. What draws you to this pattern?


Gingham is a simple weave. It is color and geometry that functions as a spectacular social cliché. Included in a forthcoming artist book published by Rocket Gallery in London are two essays by scholars Lottie Hoare and Laura Perry who examine the textile's history, first as an industrially produced material developed in the Dutch colonies of Indonesia, and today as an American brand of nostalgia.


Your work contains references to domesticity, suburbia, and boredom, which Johnson distorts in his review. How do you explore these themes in your art?




Your response to Johnson's article (on the surface) appears dually masculine and feminine. Is this intentional? Does the ball have feminist undertones?


The ball is a result of a fictional "identity narrative" that certainly foregrounds woman's work. But I would go further to say that the greater feminist position is based in the freedom to call out Johnson's lazy criticism with an iconic object and a sense of humor.


You're one of the pillars of the Midwestern art community. What is unique about the art scene in the area, and how is it changing?


The vertical shadows cast by cultural centers don't reach the American interior. Plus, do you know how much studio space you can get in Milwaukee for $300? The Midwest offers an abundance of space, time, and resources ideal for dedicated work. Even though, to be perfectly honest, it is often more difficult to be an artist living in the Midwest because it is up to individual artist to develop and nurture the criteria for how work succeeds. Yet there is great vision and ingenuity here that can only evolve from a perennial lack of commercial and institutional distraction.



Michelle Grabner's The Thing Quarterly Issue 27 is available, in an edition of 1000, for $65.  Please go to:

To see images please go to:





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