Michelle Grabner at PNCA

Michelle Grabner. Photo: Sam Deitch/BFANYC.com

Michelle Grabner. Photo: Sam Deitch/BFANYC.com

This past summer Disjecta, a small non-profit artist space in Portland, Oregon, announced that Michelle Grabner would curate Portland2016, their version of the area’s biennial. On November 20th Ms. Grabner had a public talk and QA session at the Pacific Northwest College of the Arts (PNCA) as part of their 2015-2016 Hallie Ford School of Graduate Studies Visiting Artist Lecture Series.

I’ve written previously about Ms. Grabner’s achievements to date, specifically about the irony of the “anti-curator” returning full circle to the ultra-curator (i.e. co-curating the Whitney Biennial). She was the first artist to do so, and as the co-curator of the Whitney Biennial she presented some inspiring and new twists on what it means to curate. In the talk, she reminded the audience that artists curate in their studios all the time, so the rise of curatorial studies actually bothers her greatly. Some of Ms. Grabner’s super powers are her commitment to community, to unabashedly sharing work that sits dangerously on the edge of the domestic, and believing in the importance of the perspective of the fringes of the art world. She truly believes that from outside of a busy “art center” one can see more clearly the brilliance that may be hidden in clear sight.

Throughout the talk she referenced her own practice and how themes of boredom greatly influenced her. She actually used the term ennui which is a more painful slice of the concept of boredom borrowed from the French word ennuyer. She began the lecture with a still from the video “Fat Chance John Cage,” by Bruce Nauman where he famously filmed his studio over night – the footage is a boring loop of nothing happening, except for some bugs, a cat scampering by and maybe a mouse at one point. Later in the lecture she declared that Bruce Nauman is “the artist I want to be.” She also generously shared her other influences, among them painter Sheila Hicks and Friedrich Fröbel, the inventor of kindergarten.

Because of her experience of overlapping communities and creating new platforms for artists she is a great candidate for her curator role at Disjecta. This biennial started in 2010 due to, among other things, the need to celebrate in earnest contemporary local artists in Portland. There were no other local institutions doing this biennial format at the time. While the first biennial seemed to have no clear theme or scholarship, with the curator admittedly choosing friends for the roster of artists, the biennial has grown and matured over the years. Disjecta’s ability to bring in curators from the outside over time has served them well in erasing this integrity issue.

Here’s the question – while regionalism is a sandwich board that she has successfully hung her practice on, I see regionalism as a symptom of some larger problems in Portland. I have many friends who are artists and teach in Portland, but live over the bridge in Washington because economically it makes more sense. These artists are not to be considered for this Disjecta biennial because it is an Oregon only art exhibit.

So should a viewer expect to see Oregon-ish art? Will the essays in the catalog make the project more transparent in how the 100 or so artists were chosen? Why state only? Pacific Northwest is comfortably used in other collections’ and museums’ efforts – why not here? Better yet, since Ms. Grabner has a solid history of bridging communities why not create a scenario where artists from Baha to Vancouver BC are exhibited every other year at rotating venues? That would be brilliant, as there is no true venue for such inclusiveness for quality emerging artists anywhere on the west coast. If we must look back east – there is no such thing as a New York City Biennial, where only New York artists are allowed to participate, so why have that provincial push continue on the West Coast and in Portland? Our brain waves are longer out here, and time lapses differently – we could totally make it work!

I wish I could have asked her to address these challenges, as I was watching the comments-disabled live streaming event from my office in Washington state, 11 miles away from the venue. In the suburbs. Unfortunately, the questions from the live Portland audience were more about her practice and whether or not an artist really did drive their car into their gallery The Suburban. Indeed the artist did, no one was hurt, and Ms. Grabner found the project to be good.

Wishing her and the Disjecta team much luck as they turn out another ambitious biennial this year, and hoping that the collection of artists is something that breaks Ms. Grabner’s ennui and the Portland community’s anxiety about relevance in the larger field of contemporary art.




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  1. Mack

    Nice piece CHE. I am also very curios to see what transpires this biennial cycle. I am not sure regionalism is its self a problem, but provincialism is the real issue. Balancing a healthy amount of knowledge of what is going on in the “centers” or elsewhere without copying their moves or anguishing over there press presence is what I see a lot of us in the NW struggling with. Working our thinking to encompass WA and BC and Norther CA in our region would be do us well. Add there are other shows that look at regions, even NY with the Greater New York or Made in LA. Regionalism is a healthy thing. Even with the internet where we live and work has a strong affect and gets into what we paint, write, think, etc.

    • Catherine

      Thank you Mack for the thoughtful response and reading of the piece! I agree fully that where we live and work has an affect on how we think and therefore produce, however I still have a beef with the term regionalism. It has a history in art from the 1920’s that is simply rejecting city life and making work reflective of “hometowns”. There is a better word I think, and it must be along the lines of the benefits of less distraction from living in cities – the freedom to create something unrelated to specific geography or taste. By keeping an art event such as the the Disjecta one Portland-specific, creates an ongoing dialog of Portland art, which assumes there is a Portland specific aesthetic. Dialogs are more fun the more the opinions and perspectives vary. Which is generally why cities have such a rich and diverse scene of art – because they embrace many perspectives on what art is, where it comes from and how it is experienced. Portland is not big enough to have that many perspectives, which is why I believe it should broaden it’s horizons for these types of art showcases. 🙂

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