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The Great Suburban Frontier

On Sunday July 23rd, I boarded the Green Line to Oak Park and stopped by the opening of an exhibition of work by Simon Ingram and Douglas Melini at The Suburban. It was unlike any opening I’d been to in Chicago. Visitors hung around for hours in the back yard of The Suburban with co-founders Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam.  We sat on seats converted from tree trunks, eating peach pops, generously handed out by Michelle, while watching a robotic arm create a painting hanging on a former shed, one of two exhibition spaces. In the adjacent space, a converted coach-house, hung a speaker omitting sounds of waves, hanging across from a lone geometric painting. Three pieces between two artists? Popsicles? A rope swing? I followed up with Michelle the next week to learn more about her and her husband’s alternative approach to exhibiting art.

Zachary Johnson: You give artists free reign when they show work at The Suburban, which must add a certain element of surprise to each exhibition. What have a few of the most surprising uses of your space been over the years?

Michelle Grabner: Transforming the smaller space into a convincing tiki bar with Western Exhibitions’ Director Scott Speh as bartender was a project that stands out over the years. Or Kay Rosen’s project in 2003 where she locked the door of The Suburban, employing the concrete block structure as a found object. Jeanne Dunning created an inflatable thumb for the roof of the gallery during the 2004 presidential election season. Dunning’s thumb looked like a fleshy phallus flopping pitifully from on-high for three months. Over the course of 12 years many projects have delighted me and many have annoyed me. But the purpose of The Suburban is not to create a program that is agreeable to me or Brad. It is a space for artists, not a space solicitous of collectors, critics, or curators.

The Suburban 2007

Simon Ingram adds more paint to a robotic arm as it produces his painting. July 16, 2011. (Photo Credit: Zachary Johnson)

ZJ: What do you think The Suburban offers artists different from other art spaces?

MG: The spaces are challengingly small and tethered to a domestic situation in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. And after a decade of artist projects, The Suburban has a long history in terms of Chicago’s artist-run spaces and we feel obligated to track and document that history with publications. And let’s face it, because we mostly show artists who do not work in Chicago, the city itself is a great attraction.

ZJ: What do you hope artists take advantage of when they show at The Suburban?

MG: My hope is that artists can work through an idea, a problem, an experiment, or curiosity that they can’t get at in their studio or in another type of conventional venue.

ZJ: I really enjoyed reading your son’s thoughts about living alongside The Suburban. Are there any intersections between exhibiting artists and your family life that have stood out to you over the years?

MG: Indeed. It is one of the most rewarding factors about The Suburban. Artists from out-of-town stay with us, and they make an impression on the kids and our lives in direct and indirect ways. But I need to acknowledge that this is also one of the most challenging aspects of the public/private configuration of The Suburban. Every 6-8 weeks our family pattern is disrupted and attention is given to our artists. It is a social dynamic that has been the most difficult aspect of The Suburban to sustain.

ZJ: I live in Chicago, but I attended the show with an Oak Park friend of mine who’d never been to The Suburban before. Looking at the crowd, I remember feeling happy that there was this cultural resource that Oak Parkers could enjoy without heading into the city. Later, I realized that I didn’t actually know where the people at the opening had come from. What kind of audience would you say The Suburban usually draws? Chicagoans? Suburbanites? Tourists? A mixed crowd?

MG: Each opening brings an unpredictable set of visitors. Different artists attract different viewers. I can tell you that we are not at all interested in the idea of community outreach but happily that doesn’t prevent Oak Park neighbors and suburbanites from finding us. There is a welcome SAIC following, which comes as no surprise, and often my kid’s friend’s parents will show up too.

ZJ: Has running The Suburban giving you any new opinions or insights on contemporary art or artists?

MG: The scope in which artists think through their ideas and execute their projects never ceases to amaze me. Yet at the same time it is remarkable how an artist from Auckland can be on-point with a discourse that is being played out in Houston or Glasgow.

ZJ: Are there any current art spaces that you admire? Since The Suburban’s inception have you seen any new spaces pop up with a similar approach?

MG: I admire Midway Contemporary in Minneapolis for consistently facilitating and exhibiting strong contemporary art. I keep my eye on Regina Rex in Bushwick, Castillo/Corrales in Paris, Possible Projects and Possible Press in Philly, Green Gallery (east and west) in Milwaukee and Lucie Fontaine in Milan. Here in Chicago, Julius Caesar, Adds Donna, Iceberg and Peregrine Program are doing their own thing, and I deeply admire that.

ZJ: Finally, what’s next for you and Brad? Are there any future projects you’re particularly excited about?

MG: The Poor Farm, the Suburban’s rural cousin in Northeastern Wisconsin demands much of our attention during the summer months. But that doesn’t mean we are slacking on The Suburban front. We are already developing content for our 15 Years publication and we have programming in place through Spring 2013.

The Suburban is located just a five minute walk from the Green Line Ridgeland Station. Hours are available by appointment. To learn more about the Suburban and read other interviews with Margaret, please visit their website.

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