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.