Disjecta Contemporary Art Center announced that the curator for its Portland2016 Biennial of Contemporary Art will be Michelle Grabner, who also happened to be one of three curators of the 2014 Whitney Biennial (the most important and inevitably controversial biennial in the country, for those keeping score at home). Her choices then included lots of mid-career and later women artists, including a room full of big abstract paintings, and she combined them with work by artists more involved in the art hybrid forms that have conquered a wide swathe of art world attention.
Grabner is an artist herself (her work includes abstract paintings, video, and sculpture), and chair of the Art Institute of Chicago’s painting and drawing department. She’s also a curator and writer. The press release included a quote from David Norr writing in the introduction to her exhibition at MoCA, Cleveland: “All of Grabner’s activities are driven by distinctive values and ideas: working outside of dominant systems, working tirelessly, working across platforms and towards community.”
In her curator’s statement, Grabner wrote about the importance of place and our sense of the local in our thinking about art today:
In an essay examining “localism” published in the May 2015 issue Frieze, writer Jennifer Kabot asks, “localism could be called provincial, but it could also ask questions such as: what makes work contemporary now? What issues are being grappled with and which questions asked? As more artists and writers move outside the ‘centre’, how can that open up art and increase its relevance as artists confront new communities and contexts?” The questions shaping the discourse addressing place and proximity are the most compelling questions emerging from contemporary art today. Biennials are the perfect organizing conceit to bring these issues to the fore as they are fundamentally structured to be a recurrent measure of art and context.
Which makes how she will approach this exhibition even more interesting. What makes a Portland biennial “Portland”? How does the city affect the artists working here? How visible is that effect? What does it tell us about art and about Portland?
Grabner also runs two spaces with her husband, artist Brad Killam, The Suburban and The Poor Farm, in Oak Park, Illinois, and Little Wolf, Wisconsin, where she experiments with ideas about presenting and encouraging artists’ work. Stayton, Oregon, artist and frequent ArtsWatch contributor Patrick Collier showed there last fall.
More from her resume: “Grabner holds an MA in Art History and a BFA in Painting and Drawing from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and an MFA in Art Theory and Practice from Northwestern University. She joined the faculty of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996, and became Chair of its prestigious Painting and Drawing department in the fall of 2009. From 2012-2014, she was a senior critic at Yale University in the Department of Painting and Printmaking. Her writing has been published in Artforum, Modern Painters, Frieze, Art Press, and Art-Agenda, among others.”
Bryan Suereth, Disjecta’s executive director, was predictably happy to enlist Grabner. “I am beyond thrilled to have a curator with the stature of Michelle Grabner lead this program,” he said in his statement. “Her participation continues the trend of bringing experienced and influential curatorial voices to Oregon for meaningful engagement with our art communities. I hope this will be a substantial and lasting experience for the
Previous curators of the biennial include Criss Moss (2010), Prudence Roberts (2012) and Amanda Hunt (2014).