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Winslow Smith

Mamie Tinkler

The Suburban at MOCA Cleveland

November 1 - November 26
Karl Haendel
Opening on FRIDAY, NOV 1 / 7-10pm

December 1 - December 31
Michael Smith
Opening on SUNDAY, DEC 1 / 2-4pm

January 5 - January 22
Amanda Ross-Ho
Opening on SUNDAY, JAN 5 / 2-4pm

January 26 - February 16
Jessica Jackson Hutchins
Opening on SUNDAY, JAN 26 / 2-4pm

The First Ten Years of The Suburban

with essays by Forrest Nash and Michael Newman. Design by Jason Pickleman.

Artists: Kevin Appel, Vasco Araujo, David Hullfish Bailey, Mike Banicki, BANK, Stephen Berens, Cindy Bernard, Walead Beshty, Dike Blair, Gregg Bordowitz, Keil Borrman, Andrea Bowers, Yvette Brackman, Troy Brauntuch, Ralf Brög, Alex Brown, Elizabeth Bryant, Elijah Burgher, Michael Byron, Lisa Caccioppoli, Gary Cannone, Todd Chilton, Peter Coffin, Cip Contreras, David Coyle, Julian Dashper, Paul Druecke, Meg Duguid, Jeanne Dunning, Sam Durant, Tim Ebner, Mari Eastman, Sharon Engelstein, Karl Erickson, Marcos Ramirez ERRE, Jan Estep, Peter Fagundo, Andrew Falkowski, Ken Fandell, Rochelle Feinstein, Tony Feher, Joel Feldman, Andreas Fischer, Bernard Frize, Ceal Floyer, Howard Fonda, Gabe Fowler, Nicholas Frank, Alicia Frankovich, Gaylen Gerber, Matthew Girson, Amy Granat, Terri Griffith & Serena Worthington, Joseph Grigely, Katharina Grosse, Wade Guyton, Karl Haendel, Chris Hanson & Hendrika Sonnenberg, Terence Hannum, Paula Hayes, Julia Hechtman, Drew Heitzler, Adriane Herman, Alex Herzog, Matthew Higgs, Richard Holland, Steven Husby, Jessica Hutchins, Sergej Jensen, Henrik Plenge Jakobsen, Mitchell Kane, Clinton King, Jakob Kolding, Konsortium, Michael Krebber, Olga Koumoundouros, Thomas Lawson, Shana Lutker, Duncan MacKenzie, Cameron Martin, Corey McCorkle, Rodney McMillan, Sam Messer & Jonathan Safran Foer, Olivier Mosset, Dave Muller, N55, John Neff, Peter Newman, John Nixon, Helen Maria Nugent, Jamisen Ogg, Olof Olsson, Aaron Parazette, Amy Park, Martin Parr, Claire Pentecost, Joe Pflieger, Jan van der Ploeg, Elizabeth Pulsinelli, Autumn Ramsey, David Reed, Scott Reeder, Tyson Reeder, Matthew Rich, David Robbins, Kay Rosen, Susie Rosmarin, Sherman Sam, Loul Samater, Maya Schindler, Shane Aslan Selzer, Marie Shannon, Stan Shellabarger & Dutes Miller, Joe Smith, Michael Smith, Chris Sperandio, David G. A. Stephenson, Kirsten Stoltmann, Shannon Stratton, Ricky Swallow, Neil Taylor, Mungo Thomson, Padraig Timoney, Nevin Tomlinson, Brad Tucker, Gavin Turk, Luc Tuymans, Lesley Vance, Philip Vanderhyden, Pedro Velez, Michael Velliquette, Amy Vogel, Dan Walsh, Jeff M. Ward, James Welling, Curtis Whaley, Griff Williams, Kelly Williams, Kevin Wolff, Lars Wolter, B. Wurtz, Andrea Zittel and The Smockshop

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Michelle Grabner & Brad Killam interviewed by David Robbins about The Suburban gallery

June 20, 2010

DR: What influences fed into The Suburban? What was the gestation of your experiment?

MG: A lot of it had to do with pragmatics, and with what we inherited when we moved to Oak Park. The property we bought there in '97 included a funny little outbuilding adjacent to the garage. We parked the lawn mower in it for the most part but we also knew that it had some kind of potential. At only 8 by 10 feet it was a little too small for a studio...

DR: And the thought to turn it to some other use...?

BK: There were a few other galleries or exhibition places that you could point to and think, wow, that's interesting, that's not the usual thing. Thomas Solomon's Garage in Los Angeles was always interesting, Los Angeles was a natural place for a different exhibition venue to pop up because LA is so decentralized and so much of it is suburb-like in terms of street plan and architecture. Another model was Matt's Gallery in London, way out in the East End before the East End had any galleries. We also liked what Gavin Brown had been doing early on, making exhibitions in pubs. Steven Pippin made exhibitions in an office space in a Manhattan high-rise, you had to check in and ride up in the elevator and all that. All these were outside the norm and all were appealing and interesting. Their existence reinforced our instinct that we could use the little building in our backyard for something a

MG: Thinking in terms of making exhibitions wasn't that unusual for us. When we were living in Milwaukee, in the years prior to the Oak Park move, we had put together exhibitions, inviting people like Tracy Emin who we'd seen in Frieze, which would come to our home mailing address. Artists were responding to our requests. When we moved to Oak Park we just continued asking and offering. And a lot of it had to do with your thinking, too, David, after you'd moved back from Europe to the Midwest. "Here we are in the middle of nowhere, away from the center, let's try something different. "

DR: At that time I was taken with the idea of opening a contemporary art gallery in a suburban strip mall. That location was so "wrong" something about it just had to be right. Why had I never seen a contemporary art gallery in a suburban strip mall, housed in that kind of architecture, instead of the usual clustering in urban neighborhoods? In New York or Chicago or Boston some people of means and education will live in the city but in most of the country they live in suburbs. And if, presumably, your audience is people of means and education who can perceive the value in contemporary art and support something called a contemporary art gallery, then why is it such galleries still consign themselves to art ghettos--clusters of galleries in, very often, run down parts of urban neighborhoods where artists congregate? Right there's your answer, of course: those neighborhoods are where artists, especially young artists who seek dialogue and want constant reinforcement of their lifestyle choice, congregate, even when doing so is ghettoizing. Still, the idea of an experimental gallery in a suburban strip mall suggested a host of questions as to why galleries are situated where they are and whether that can be altered or added to. Also, at that point, 1997 or '98, one had to recognize the decentralizing force of the Internet. Not even twenty years ago, if, as an artist, you wanted the kind of information around which contemporary art coalesces, you'd move to New York or LA in order to interact with people who produced such information. The Internet, though, obviated the need for that move, and disrupted that pattern. Now the disparity between the information that you had living in New York and the information that you could get living in Oak Park is no longer that wide. That, too, informed questions about whether you could have a venue to show the kind of thing we were interested in, away from the traditional centers...

MG: When talking about The Suburban I often evoke Frank Lloyd Wright's choice to open his studio in his Oak Park home and to no longer take the train downtown to work for Louis Sullivan. A hundred years ago that was a fairly radical decision. The suburb was not where anyone would have expected a whole new visual vocabulary to bloom. So there is some history in terms of using the suburb as a base, a starting point.

DR: Good point about Wright. And we might include Charles and Ray Eames here too. But mostly artistic experimentation happened in cities, being loci of economic diversity and cosmopolitan sophistication. The existence of a contemporary art gallery in the suburbs thus confounds two traditions. One tradition being the perception that the suburbs are merely places of complacency, safety, and child-rearing that don't generate adventurous information culture.--

MG: Right. The suburbs have a construction already and we just don't make room for imagination there.

DR: --and the other tradition being the avant-garde's disdainful attitude toward the suburbs. The Suburban complicates both those traditions. The two models of the avant-garde that have been dominant during the modern period are, on the one hand, the cosmopolitan, hyper-urban, sophisticate embodied by, say, Warhol, and on the other, the George O'Keefe model, where the artist goes into the wilderness for a more direct relationship with the natural world. Both of these models reject the suburb. Underexplored by artists, then, has been the space in between, the suburban blend of city and country that I like to characterize as "trees and traffic," that sort of balance or hybrid. It's a place where a lot of artists come from but abandon once they learn the specialized language of art and begin producing a class of objects whose uselessness resonates within the diversified economy of the city. For all these reasons, to me it's interesting to explore being a producer of contemporary information from a suburban setting.

MG: Whether it's the Southwest or Manhattan, there are too many artists and not enough audience. The arts are overbuilt in some places and underdeveloped in others.

DR: The mere existence of The Suburban, situated where it is and performing as it does, suggests a change in some long-standing patterns, then. When the city becomes so expensive that you have to work all the time just in order to pay the rent to keep living there, then at least some intelligent, creative people are going to choose out of that. It's easier now to do so because of the Internet.

MG: People who have agency and control discourse don't see it in these terms. The NEA still sees the arts in terms of revitalizing, say, Woodward Avenue in Detroit. So after ten or eleven years, or after Matt's in London, or Thomas Solomon's Garage, the idea of a contemporary art gallery in the suburbs which aspires to something other than revitalizing a depressed neighborhood is still relevant as an intellectual question.

DR: Ten years in, The Suburban is still a pioneering effort. Who is your audience?

BK: We didn't set out to determine a business plan to draw a certain audience. The audience has happened the way it has happened, and it's primarily artists. The plan was to make exhibitions that relied neither on commercial considerations nor on the non-profit grants process. The whole point was just to make exhibitions that had neither one of those pressure points determining some or all of what happens. We didn't want decisions to be based on a potential sale of a work or on this grant or on that patron giving x amount of money for such and such a program. So, apparently, if this is a ten year test case, artists are more interested in quote unquote "pure exhibitions for exhibition's sake" than is any other demographic or audience.

MG: Brad and I are artists who also teach, and a good percentage of people who come to Suburban shows are students, but there's also a tourist element. Tour buses pull up in front of the house full of people from the Seattle Art Museum tour group who are on their way to see the Wright studios. Yet curators still won't come out from downtown Chicago! Curators and collectors in Chicago won't make that twenty-minute commute to Oak Park to check out The Suburban but we'll have people fly from Southern California or Birmingham, Alabama, or Seattle!

DR: That says a lot about their agenda.

BK: We have enjoyed the idea that we are presenting another type of exhibition experience. Physically it's not that much different: there are white walls, there's a painting on the wall. But because of the framework of The Suburban being neither this nor that--

DR: Like the suburb itself, neither city nor country-

BK: --it presents an alternative to commercial or non-profit spaces.

DR: Has it always been entirely funded by you guys?

MG: Yes. On occasion we will have someone coming from New Zealand or Denmark to whom we will write a letter of invitation and they can solicit some money from their state--

BK: --which may cover their airfare. But otherwise there's nothing.

DR: How is your relation with the commercial galleries who represent many of the artists you show? Is there friction?

BK: There is. We're adding another wrinkle to their inventory management. There always seems to be a little friction in that regard. No matter what and no matter how smoothly the whole exchange can go or will go or did go, there always seems to be something that's a little big niggling.

MG: Commercial galleries have a particular way of valuing work, and the art needs to be handled in a way that is consistent with that.

BK: Sometimes a big old gorilla stomp happens too!

MK: That's mostly with the really big galleries. The other side of it, though, is that I think commercial galleries actually value The Suburban. We don't represent that artist, we're giving that artist a chance to show in Chicago which they otherwise might not have had, we're not going to want to hang on to that work or take that artwork to a fair, so in a way we function as perfect outreach. Most artists are sort of chomping at the bit to have exhibitions elsewhere, and The Suburban is safe for them. And that's valued.

BK: We don't have a relationship with the gallery, we have a relationship with the artist.

DR: Have you ever sold anything out of The Suburban?

BK: We 'facilitated' three sales in ten years.

MG: However rough the relationships with dealers over the years, artists more than make up for that.

BK: It should also be noted that the majority of the artists who show at the Suburban usually live in other cities and usually pay their own travel costs to come to the opening. It's rare that an artist isn't at their Suburban opening.

MG: I'd say only 5% in the ten years haven't showed up and installed their own work and made the opening. That's impressive.

BK: From all over the world. For the artist to dedicate their time and resources to be part of it really makes it a special event.

MG: Quite honestly that's the only way that the context of The Suburban as a space and a social construction, or the relationship between public and private that The Suburban puts forward, or coming to the Midwest gets negotiated. So for artists to show up and see how their work is contextualized within this other frame means a lot. Let me say that, not surprisingly but still disappointingly, it's the younger artists who just want the Suburban on their resume that give the least of themselves. The artists who have established careers have really been extraordinary in their generosity.

DR: More mature artists really understand the difference that The Suburban represents.

MG: That's right.

DR: You've shown a range of artists--some just out of graduate school, and some, like Luc Tuymans or James Welling, with very established careers. How do you go about identifying who it is that you want to invite to exhibit? You're not doing it because you're going to make money from the show, so that incentive has been taken off the table.

BK: To a certain degree it works like the rest of the art world. It's not all that innovative in that regard. You meet somebody at an opening, you have a friendly conversation, you run into them again a year later, you invite them to show, and two years later it happens. Some combination of that normal networking process...

MG: It's directly related to our movement through the world and who we've encountered, and laying out an invitation to those people. We were traveling to Helsinki or wherever as invited visitors and ran into so and so... They have to kind of get what's going with The Suburban, have a full understanding of its limitations, the public/private, the suburban context, the space, the miniscule budget... We don't make pitches to anyone.

DR: To try to raise the gallery's profile...

MG: To what end? Right. Nor do we extend invitations based on unsolicited proposals from people who have never been there-"I'm interested in your program from what I've seen on the web." Never happens. Frankly we don't get many people sending us slides. We maybe get two or three submissions a year... European artists send four or five catalogues in a box! Apropos inviting artists: since 2003 we've had two spaces--one small, one very small--that run concurrent exhibitions. Sometimes the two invited artists would converge in Oak Park and maybe not get along or there was confusion about who got what space. We alleviated that by inviting one person and letting them invite a co-exhibitor.

BK: That was Michelle's idea, and that could be one of the more innovative programming things that happens at Suburban, because it does happen regularly. Andrea Bowers suggested Marcos Ramirez ERRE, and so on. The list is long.

MG: It opens up a lot of territory for us. For instance, Jeff Gibson, an Australian artist based in New York, asked if Jeff Kleem an artist from Australia, could show with him in another space. This kind of "program" introduces us to other people while allowing us to avoid interpersonal conflict. The two artists then have the option of integrating their work in both spaces. Walead Beshty and James Welling did that.

BK: Lars Wolter and Dan Walsh literally collaborated completely on showing in the two spaces, but that is the rarest example.

MG: Most artists just sort of go to their space and deal with that. Which again reinforces an unfortunate reality of the art world, which is that even in a tiny space in the suburbs the artist will take possession of their exhibition and their work.

DR: "I am the author of this space..."

MG: Yes!

BK: There's nothing wrong with that necessarily.

MG: Well, it's pretty predictable.

BK: Have a little sympathy for those predictabilities! Maybe the artist is having an off year or hasn't shown in a while, and they want to stand out.

DR: Letting other people invite their co-exhibitor loosens your authorial grip on the space...

MG: Absolutely. It's a way of acknowledging networking, another force that actively shapes the contemporary art world. We move through and our careers progress through a kind of web. That's been part of The Suburban's reality all along. I have been very vocal about not being a champion of the contemporary curator. When you run an art space, having to invite even one person is a curatorial exercise. That has always made me uncomfortable even though we let people come and do whatever they want and don't select the work that's exhibited. Running an exhibition space, there's no getting around a certain curatorial aspect but there is a way of sharing it.

DR: Diluting it...

BK: It's an interesting dilemma to operate an art space and keep looking for new ways not to be the curator!

MG: While maintaining quality, and the integrity of all the things we're talking about, and keeping them front and center. How do you do this and not compromise some of these critical interests that we have while at the same time avoiding the trap of "branding"?

DR: "We don't show that kind of thing here."

MG: Right.

DR: How would you characterize the kind of work that you do show there, the general affinity...?

MG: "Contemporary practice."

BK: I don't have a name for what we do show but there's plenty of stuff out there that we prefer not to show.

DR: Someone who has never been to The Suburban might say, "I'll bet they show outsider art there."

BK: We show insider art.

MG: That's one boundary. I think that's right.

DR: Inside...what?

BK: Inside the loop of what you, David, have characterized on many occasions as "the international avant-garde."

DR: Art that seeks to advance what art can be.

MG: We're inside the loop but we're all over the place too. An invited artist may come from New Zealand or Berlin or Milwaukee but still work within a recognizable insider relationship to international art making, that information set.

DR: Which of course points to the rise and acceptance of a language, a specialized language learned in art schools and university art programs that together release thousands of artists into the marketplace each year... Fifty years ago were there thousands of artists trained in a visual language of something called "contemporary art"? No. It was a tiny community. But today it's a language used everywhere there are artists. If the Suburban, because of its setting, offers a context that can be interpreted as an opportunity to introduce something different, we also discover what doesn't change. We discover shared thought and shared values but also shared suppositions. The Suburban has been a means of channeling a bit of art world traffic through a space in your backyard, but to some extent it's the same traffic as elsewhere. Which says more about artists than it does about The Suburban.

MG: The cultural questions set in motion by The Suburban don't get resolved immediately, nor should they be. To give you one example: the Shane Campbell Gallery occupied one of the spaces in The Suburban complex before opening a space downtown. Local collectors told him "you better have a space in town because we're not going to come out to Oak Park." They'll buy in New York but they're not going to get into a car, because they live downtown in a high rise, and come out to Oak Park! So it's weird. It's not resolved. Also, I hear about a lot of small spaces starting up, in Richmond, Virginia, or Des Moines, Iowa, they're not suburbs but they're off-center. But they're usually tied to a school. Where artists are, where artists work, the places where artists can afford to have space to work. But the idea to take into account the ideology that supports what the suburb is today, whether it's Chicago or New York or St. Louis, it's still not engaged by artists

DR: This is exactly what I was pointing to ten years ago! How to reveal the ingrained ideas and assumptions shared by artists about art? I know that it isn't The Suburban's charter to reveal these tropes but in the process of The Suburban going about its business, tropes do get revealed. What anyone wants to do about them is of course an open question. In their projects for The Suburban, have any artists thematized the setting-"a contemporary art gallery in the suburbs"?

BK: A few. When Meg Duguid draped our yard in 300 rolls of toilet paper, she definitely zeroed in on a suburban phenomenon: the tradition of toilet-papering the front yards of the homes of particular students at the beginning of the school year or for the homecoming weekend.

MG: Jeanne Dunning's big inflatable "thumbs up" that used the same visual advertising grammar seen at car dealerships certainly played into the drive-by car culture of suburbia. When artists choose to install their projects in our yard as opposed to retreating into the white walled space, often that's the work that, because it's clearly situated at the intersection of private and public, most directly uses the suburban context as a material. Otherwise I'd say the "suburban" theme has gone largely unexplored. . Artists don't take it on as a specific construction. Artists will take on sites, but those sites are usually within their reach, whether the site is in Iowa or Virginia or Oak Park, Illinois. So that too is something that still hasn't resolved itself culturally.

BK: Shows at The Suburban seem to fall within one of three zones. In the first, the artist breaks off a little piece of their production and sends it to The Suburban.

MG: Which is perfectly fine. Garth Weiser might do a wall painting that is very similar to a wall painting he did six months prior at Casey Kaplan Gallery in New York, but in this other location he's expecting another kind of feedback, right? So when you transpose the same thing into different contexts, something interesting happens.

BK: "Let's see how this plays in another context..." Then there are the shows where an artist presents a minor-key aspect of their production that they see as a good fit for The Suburban.

MG: Right. Trying something out that they haven't tried in the more official venues yet. Examples would be David Reed and Ann Pibal. David Reed showed his drawings-studies which he'd never exhibited prior to The Suburban, after which he then had a full exhibition in Europe. Ann Pibal had been doing collages down in Mexico, she wasn't quite ready to introduce them to her New York gallery but she thought that she could try them out here and see what the response was. That's ideal, when artists can see the space in that way. But not everybody does. I would say that it takes a secure and questioning artist to be able to use The Suburban in ways that not only can contextualize their work in a suburban location but actually pose questions that they have about their own production.

BK: The third exhibition zone is when somebody who might have a very straightforward successful practice decides to really jump out of their skins and make something that is completely uncharacteristic of their own work-a painter making, say, a video.

MG: Artists can come here, they can do whatever they want, we're not working with them in terms of a commercial gallery's needs. We give them the space but we don't give them conditions, and compared to an institutional show their show with us happens relatively fast. So a different set of values maybe supports the same work, and it's left to the artist to decide which they prefer. An exhibition at The Suburban is more closely related to what happens in your studio than to a proper exhibition at an institution. You have to succeed and fail the same way you do in whatever studio construction you have.

BK: I can say for myself that I don't think I framed The Suburban as "now we can bring the artworld to us." I think probably in my bad attitude kind of way, I framed it as "we can do it better."

MG: Or we can do it with a different set of conditions and values. Ultimately we see The Suburban as a grand experiment, and we will tread very far from our own studio interests to discover what that experiment can hold and explore. It's not exclusively about enriching our own studio practices or our teaching. To see how other people engage ideas, even if it's an idea that we keep distance from in our own work, is hugely important.

The Lives of Objects at The Suburban, an online project by Mieke Marple

Article in The Highlights

The Suburban featured on art:21 blog


Interview with Michelle Grabner about the Suburban at The Highlights - Click Here

Local distributor for LA published X-TRA