Art by the Balls

With her latest work, the artist Michelle Grabner takes a critic's insult—"soccer mom"—and turns it on its head.

Oct 21 2015, 4:39pm

Courtesy of The Thing

In the end, it was the laziness—not the venom—that most disappointed Michelle Grabner.

As an artist, Grabner explores the vernacular and familiar through formalism, the application of shapes and patterns as art in and of themselves. These somewhat abstracted works can then reference a multitude of themes, including repetition, domesticity, and suburbia. A professor at the highly regarded School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Grabner's work has been exhibited around the world; she was one of three curators chosen for the 2014 edition of the Whitney Biennial, among the most important contemporary art exhibitions in the country.

Her eponymous exhibition at James Cohan Gallery last fall spawned a tempest when New York Times art critic Kevin Johnson appeared to write off the show with strokes broad and base enough to hazard accusations of sexism.

"Nothing in all this [the exhibition] is more interesting than the unexamined sociological background of the whole," Johnson wrote in his concluding paragraph. "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."

In unhinging his jaw to devour the middle class (already an endangered species!) and women in general, rather than Grabner's work specifically, Johnson made a crucial misstep. He has every right to not like Grabner's work, of course, but in his generalization—and too-casual tossing off—of the work, Johnson committed the cardinal sin of damning the artist, not the art (and did so incorrectly, at that: Grabner never played soccer, nor was she ever a soccer mom).

All of which makes Grabner's soccer balls—brightly banded with her signature gingham print—a most pointed sphere indeed. They were released last month as her issue of THE THING, a quarterly publication that takes the form of artist-designed objects rather than glossy editorial spreads.

"When the review was written last October, there was a lot of fallout," Grabner said. Her voice was barely audible over the traffic moving down Michigan Avenue, in the jeweled crown of Chicago's Loop. "I realized that all of these letters, all of the petitions, all of the follow-up press was no longer about me. It was really about the state of criticism, the state of domestic position or patterning within contemporary art"—i.e., not poo-pooing domestic or feminine themes as Johnson had just done.

The first to point out the problematic nature of the review was Corinna Kirsch, of Art F City. Kirsch wrote that Johnson, in crafting his "soccer mom" narrative from a brief documentary shown at the exhibition, left out crucial elements of both the art and the documentary. He mentions, for example, how in the video Grabner describes her paper weaving pieces as being partially inspired after her son brought one home from kindergarten, yet leaves out how "she also mentions finding inspiration for her paper weavings in math and philosophy."

Released roughly a year after Johnson's review and the subsequent row, Grabner's soccer ball is a feminist counter you can kick. It addresses, in the simplest and most elegant manner possible, the sociological concerns which Johnson seemed to want plumbed more overtly: the "soccer mom" releasing the key component of her supposed role as an objet.

"It came out of a conversation with Michelle last fall, just after the review came out," Jonn Herschend, a co-founder of THE THING, wrote in an email. "We were talking about how ridiculous the review was and also how essential the soccer Moms and Dads are ... So, almost as a joke, we were talking about how it would be an excellent rebuttal if she made a soccer ball for her issue."

Grabner hopes her art will get "totally kicked around and scuffed up with grass stains." Courtesy The Thing.

In addition to turning the "soccer mom" epithet on its head by subverting the banal image that goes with it and making it dynamic, art, Grabner's ball defuses another criticism of feminism commonly used to undercut feminist response: the classic writing off of the woman scorned. This argument would posit that anything Grabner did in response to Johnson is really in retaliation for his castigation of her show; that she is merely a wounded ego, lashing out at a bad review. It is tough, however, to read a cheerfully colored, literal plaything as a harpy's rage.

"I think the response is super playful, right? It's kind of a joyful look at what an iconic metaphor of the soccer mom would be," Grabner said. "If I was carrying around a grudge, and it was really cutting into me, I don't think I would make it such a playful response."

While the soccer mom parallel is obvious, the comments on domesticity are slightly subtler. The print is key; Grabner makes use of gingham among the most widespread and approachable weave patterns, regularly used to make simple dresses and table cloths and picnic blankets. It is, in short, what you would rest an apple pie upon, perhaps in a red-and-white check, while wiping your brow in your blue gingham-checked dress. It is an explicit reference both to patterns and repetition and domesticity.

Take into account, as well, the populism associated with soccer. While not admittedly at the forefront of the creative process, the fact is that many garages in America—certainly every one in the America Johnson wished examined—have a soccer ball similar to this one. The democratization of art is key both to Grabner and THE THING; while only 1,000 balls were made, their $65 price point makes them—by a large margin—the most affordable Grabner available.

"We want to be in a world where someone can be a fan of an artist in the same way that they might be a fan of a specific soccer team," Herschend wrote. "With this issue, we love the idea that someone would have a dilemma about whether they should take it out to play a game or place it on a shelf ... and that taking it out to the pitch would win out over the shelf."

Grabner agrees.

"I think they should do what they want with them," she said. "I would love to see one that was totally kicked around and scuffed up with grass stains and so forth. And then I'd like to see that come back into a visual location. And I would also like to see the kind of pristine one sitting on a shelf in the garage next to all the sports equipment. So I guess I would just be interested to see how it moves around."

Sport, woven as it is into the American experience—especially in the suburbs, when it comes to soccer moms, orange slices, and SUVs—is never too far from Grabner's mind and practice. She is a Wisconsin native and thus a devout Packers fan; it was the only way, she maintains, to gather a Wisconsin father's attention in the fall. She comes from a family of athletes, as well: Grabner predominately played tennis, basketball, and golf, and her brothers played professional hoops in Europe.

Grabner's use of repetition in her practice to explore domesticity (cf. this interview with Flavorpill) is at least partially informed by her hours spent training for her various sports.She also sees parallels between the repeated tasks of suburban home life and the practice required of athletes.

"In terms of how it imprints on the body, right?" Grabner said. To her, the fact that one can swing a gold club or tennis racket over and over and over again, fix the motion on the body and the mind, is a source of fascination.

"It's the funny connection, the mind/body connection," Grabner elaborated. "You can overthink it, and that can askew how it is embedded in the body. And you can under-think it, not pay attention, and get sloppy, lose rigor."

There is, of course, also the sweet spot in between the two, the place from which both Roger Federer's tennis and David Foster Wallace's lyrical descriptions of said tennis spring. The soccer ball may be Grabner's Wallace moment: a perfect marriage of art and sport, which is about both and more at the same time.