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Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012

Michelle Grabner Looks Back and Moves On

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Michelle Grabner is a busy artist with an international reputation. The exhibition “Michelle Grabner: The Inova Survey” at Inova/Kenilworth, curated by Green Gallery director John Riepenhoff, is a moment of pause, glancing back over 20 years while moving into the next decades.

The majority of works are two-dimensional paintings and photographs, but these are also stretched into the three-dimensional realm. Hanging sculptures comprised of paintings and other pieces enliven the space. Lateral Drop is the most ambitious, serving as an opening for the exhibition and as foreshadowing of what is to come. Four circular paintings are suspended in the air, arranged on a sharp, descending diagonal. It is like making polka dots in mid-air. Bleacher seats create lines of varying length, drawing out a horizontal staff or acting as exclamation points deconstructed and put to sleep. Geometric and sharp? Certainly. Playful and nervy? Most definitely.

This sets us up for the tonalities of Grabner's oeuvre in this retrospective. Geometry and abstract precision are strong, as is an undercurrent of nostalgia. The installation is overtly of Grabner's art career, but draws in moments and memories of childhood—not necessarily her own childhood, though references to her family linger under the surface. Peter / Toys-R-Us is one such piece, a black-and-white photograph of a boy and a shopping cart, standing among all sorts of wonders on the shelves. He seems on the verge of leaving all that childhood fun behind, but doesn't quite know it yet.

This photograph is by Grabner and longtime collaborator Brad Killam, as are a number of pieces in the exhibition. In addition to her work with Killam, artists who have influenced Grabner and pieces by her own students round out other areas of the show. It is a curatorial representation that embraces partnership and collaboration, and acknowledges influences. Grabner is not a hermitic artist, toiling away in isolation, but rather she embraces the quotidian complexities of her life outside of Chicago. Ordinary images become ample material to work with. Photographs of colonial-style houses, manicured and pristine examples of American suburban architecture, are lightly glossed with rainbow colors, a shot of surprise and color.

A number of Grabner's circular paintings are on view. These are large, round canvases, which become disks of elegant metallic lines or coalesce into braided circles. These latter works are decorated with small, modulated dots of white and gray on a dark background. Up close, you can imagine these points as far-off constellations in the universe. Standing back for a fuller view, they organize into braided rugs and the textiles of home.

Video also forms a significant part of the installation, with pieces that play up motifs of domesticity, or a fascination with repetition. In the Inova/Kenilworth screening room are a number of short films not to be missed. If you haven't grasped the sense of irony and play in Grabner's art yet, these will certainly help bring it out.

“Michelle Grabner: The Inova Survey” continues through Sept. 23 at Inova/Kenilworth, 2155 N. Prospect Ave.