Thursday, April 24, 2008

Changing the World: The Suburban

Recently I visited The Suburban:
“…an independently run artist exhibition space” located at 125 N. Harvey in Oak Park, IL. run by artists Michelle Grabner and Brad Killan. On their website they say: “We give complete control to the artists in regards to what they choose to produce and exhibit. Thus it's a pro artist and anti curator site. The Suburban is not driven by commercial interests. It is funded within the economy of our household. Its success is not grounded in sales, press or the conventional measures set forth by the international art apparatus, but by the individual criteria set forth by the artists and their exhibitions. In this, The Suburban is more closely aligned with the idea of studio practice than that of the site of distribution.”
The Suburban has existed in Oak Park, where I live, for ten years. I have driven, walked and biked past the modest and anonymous building that houses this endeavor countless times. There is no signage indicating an art venue. I have vaguely known that ‘some artists run a gallery in their garage’ and for years had it on my mental list to find out exactly what this meant.
Ironically, in the last two days I have also witnessed the new objects announcing the “Arts District” in Oak Park, four large metal objects that look like ice scrapers that have been erected at the Harrison Ave. and Austin Blvd. and at Harrison St. and Ridgeland. I owned and operated Studio Pardes at the corner of Harrison and Ridgeland for five years in the euphemistic arts district. One of the factors that drove me from this enterprise was the weight of expectation of being in a public space in what was essentially a retail district masquerading as something to do with art. (Disclaimer: There are some actual artists surviving on Harrison, visit Sally Wolf’s Calypso Moon for example). There was a sense of obligation to be “open” and available to a public and offering a product that was counter to the necessary solitude and self-regulation of art practice. Maybe I’m just too sensitive or easily pressured.
Both Michelle and Brad of the Suburban are art professors, Michelle at the School of the Art Institute and Brad at College of Dupage. They have consciously and deliberately created The Suburban as a site of resistance to the commercial art world while also participating in that world as gallery artists and art critics on their own terms. Milwaukee Museum of Art and the Chicago MCA have collected Michelle’s work and she is a contributing editor to X-TRA, a contemporary art journal published in Los Angeles. She is also currently completing a book about The Suburban. This is no outsider endeavor but instead a living counterpoint to global commercial art locating meaning in the site and the economy of everyday life. (See their website for an engaging reflection by the couple’s son on what it means to have an art gallery as part of the family’s economy of everyday life.)
Michelle Grabner and her husband Brad Killam have solved the dilemma that I was defeated by: they have created a commerce-free zone for art. This is an essentially political and revolutionary or maybe evolutionary act in that the Suburban also influences the other institutions of the globalized art world since artists who participate in the Suburban also participate in the world of museums, galleries and international art fairs. Work sometimes travels from the Suburban to the MCA for example or from the Suburban to the major art fairs. Art journals recognize the space and the artists who show there. By stepping outside of the circle drawn by others: art as commodity, art as investment, art as another manifestation of celebrity culture, they reduce the crushing sense of monoculture that pervades our globalized world.
I realize how powerful self-definition is. Where will the next free public art making space arise for creating culture and consciousness in community? I learned that the implicit expectation of a “storefront” had weightier implications than I realized when I signed my lease at Harrison and Ridgeland. I’ll be on the lookout for where the next opening presents itself for a meeting and mixing space where a little mess can be made and we can experiment together in making art and making life.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Nuanced Language of Image

This time last year I was engaged in a project I called the Pomegranate Exercise. I had begun finding hollowed out pomegranates on my walks in Ojai and the image of the empty fruit spoke to my imagination. I was (and am) working on a novel about an underground group of older women. The pomegranate, its lush innards gone, skin dried dark and leathery put me in mind of the Crone. After meditating on the fruits and on all the friends who were in various sorts of life transitions, I invited women I know to engage in a meditation on the topic of age, creativity, the pomegranate itself, whatever came up. I mailed the pomegranate shells to about twenty women friends and friends of friends who responded and asked them to create art about or with fruit. The resulting art and witness writing can be viewed on my website (click on collaborative projects).
Last year the pomegranate shells were few and far between, the scarcity contributed to my sense of their preciousness. My own intention was to feel less isolated as I engaged in my fiction writing as my primary form of expression during the winter months. I also sought to experiment with collaboration, a skill I would like to learn more about. Sallie Wolf, one of the artists, agreed to host a show of the actual objects in her studio and I committed to create an exhibit on my website. All of this transpired and was very fulfilling.

This season, the pomegranates appear very differently, many remain on the trees, eaten, but not as thoroughly eviscerated as last year. I suspect weather conditions made the fruit more abundant so the birds and animals didn’t have to do such a thorough job of cleaning them out. My association this year is that the fruits look like exploded grenades. (In Hebrew, the word ‘rimon’ is both pomegranate and grenade). I am offered an opportunity to consider that destruction is aspect of creation. Death, endings, finishing something -- all these are necessary for anything new to manifest. I have some resistance to this. There is some grief scratching at my door, just outside of my consciousness and I have been staying a little too busy to answer the door. Until I greet that guest I know that something else that is waiting cannot arrive. What’s keeping me? Do I need a suicide bomber to enter my space? What would such a being look like? The storms of the winter attempt to instruct me, tear off the roof, flood the living room, burn down the storage shed. But do I?
It is something to do with just being, not doing, withstanding the winds of chaos, the explosions of things breaking down, with my eyes wide open and my heart wide open and my feet planted firmly on the earth. And this, strangely, feels like death.