Michelle Grabner – 2006
THE OLSON GALLERY | Bethel College
MICHELLE GRABNER | September 22 – December 20, 2006
About The Pleasures of Merely Circulating
How appealing the title is of this exhibition by Michelle Grabner: The Pleasures of Merely Circulating. The word “merely” offers to release the eye from navigating some heavy agenda; “circulating” seems to free the mind from obligation to straight line pursuits of narrative; and so “merely circulating” allows a kind of wander with no greater requirement than to enjoy the pleasure of it all. The viewer wanders from the gallery’s perimeter into its center, and from there into the heart Grabner’s imagery; all into a series of spirals, circles and webs.
There is a symmetry and a stability felt in “circulating,” in circling in. There is a centeredness that feels dependable the way the regular cycles of daily life feel dependable. And in fact, Grabner’s art intentionally orbits around the call of daily life. As she says, her art is about a search for equivalence and balance within the busyness of life. She paints out of her experience of being middle age, middle class, living in Middle America. Her art is a kind of correspondence of all that. When Jérôme Sans said to Grabner, “you are making ‘home paintings.’…You work in the living-room, at a table watching TV. Can you talk about this idea of domestic painting?”, she replied:
Painting…is just another component of my daily life like vacuuming, making the beds, preparing a lecture, reading to children. …It is a practical and aesthetic activity, leisurely and routine, casual and obsessive. It is also cathartic; the fastidious filling-in of the endless negative and positive spaces. I think the paintings are fundamentally a momentary stay against the confusion in a busy day.
This more rounded, inclusive, less linear way of thinking and making has deep resonance, ranging from the visions of Black Elk to the poem of Wallace Stevens from which Grabner took her exhibition title. Black Elk claimed that the best way to live “is in a circle because the power of the world always works in circles and everything tries to be round.” For Black Elk, living in balance according to the sacred hoop of being is what makes people flourish. “The sky,” he tells us, “is round like a ball, and so are the stars. The wind in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles. The sun comes forth and goes now again in a circle. The moon does the same. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing. And the life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood.”
But Grabner’s circular works here are not simplistically celebratory of routine or naively cathartic. There is also a subtle element of threat within them, just as there is in the Stevens poem she references. Sustained looking at these works discovers a quiet tension that increases the longer one looks. The web etchings pull between centric and eccentric compositions. For all the miraculous beauty of the spider’s domestic architecture, there is also the threat of ensnarement. And despite the spiral’s richness in nature (as with the furled fern leaf or the nautilus shell); or its spiritual and magic meanings in ancient Celtic symbolism; or its role in meditation (as in mandalas); these spirals also have an eye-throbbing optical illusion that mesmerizes like a hypnotist’s spinning disk. The distance between the spiral’s elegant inward arc and a hypnotic trance is no greater than the distance between brief moments of peaceful equilibrium and the compulsive running inside a squirrel cage in pursuit of life’s infinite demands. Grabner’s circular paintings and prints seek balance yet hint at compulsion. But they do so with such beautiful nuances of grays, sensitive lines, and fine-tuned touches of paint shifting in hues that the viewer is richly nourished in the meantime.
Professor of Art History