Balls: Michelle Grabner’s Soccer Mom Art

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Last year, the artist Michelle Grabner was subjected to a tremendously sexist review of her work by the New York Times’s Ken Johnson. He ticked many of the boxes for “most ignorant things you can say about a woman artist’s work.” Is her work narrow because it references the domestic? Yes, he says! Is her work childish for her having children? Why yes! Is her work boring and meaningless, just like housework? God, yes! He makes zero reference to the feminist contexts through which one might read her work. He punctuated this now notorious review with the following two sentences.

Nothing in all this is more interesting than the unexamined sociological background of the whole. If the show were a satire of the artist as a comfortably middle-class tenured professor and soccer mom, it would be funny and possibly illuminating, but it’s not.

So, in response, the feminist professor made a gingham soccer ball. You can buy one for yourself, perhaps you can kick it around with your kids. It’s actually less expensive than official tournament balls.

As Grabner well knows, the kind of things Johnson said about her work have been said for the past couple hundred years about women artists (e.g. Rosa Bonheur, Jane Austen) — esp. those who work from the textures of everyday life. In his review, Johnson faults Grabner for not providing a “sociological” angle to her practice — a ludicrous expectation, frankly, for Grabner’s work. (What is sociology in the context of contemporary art, really? What would make it feel sociological enough?) That kind of demand — that things feel “sociological” and REAL — is not made of masculinist artists like, say, Frank Stella. Stella makes big art from manly things like steel, and produces them in factory like conditions romancing an idea of Productive Labor. This manly work is made by a MAN and in a manly way — and that tidy lining up of masculine signifiers is enough to give it meaning and value.

Reproductive labor is always abject, even when it’s really beautiful — it’s very beauty becomes the signal of its worthlessness (the abjection of feminine/reproductive labor is explored by a wild range of artists — e.g. Mary Kelley, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Kara Walker, Faith Wilding). I have more to say about this, but other deadlines are pressing on me!

Some good articles responding to Grabner’s work and Johnson’s review:

Jillian Steinhauer, “On Ken Johnson and the Question of Sexism,” Hyperallergic

Mary Louise Schumacher, “Why Michelle Grabner warrants more scrutiny,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 

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