In order to appreciate Michelle Grabner's work, you've got to understand the concept of 'stuff'. As well as indicating a general sense of material things, the word carries all sorts of sociological nuances peculiar to our time. There's the way an office worker will talk about how the work that crosses his desk is all just 'so much stuff'. Then there are the flaky overtones of a distracted teenager who might tell you what a bummer it was when her parents got divorced 'and stuff'. The word warns listeners not to ask too many questions. It says that the speaker doesn't want to elaborate on what is already an all-too-complicated situation. It indicates a kind of fatigue or ennui that is quite satisfied to squash the details into one big lump and gloss over its surface without probing the contents. 'Stuff' does more than clutter one's world, it clutters one's mind.
Grabner makes paintings about this kind of 'stuff' in all its dimensions. Her images present both a generic materiality and the numb mindset it produces, the omnipresence and the ennui, the abundance and the fatigue. One oscillates between these poles because one oscillates between the positions of viewer and maker in her art.
These works are unframed panels of plywood whose surfaces have been painted to mimic the pattern and texture of other surfaces, like the stamped floor linoleum you might remember from your mom's kitchen, or the tile designs from a high school lavatory, plastic tablecloths, overused bedspreads and afghans, the wire mesh from an exhaust screen, and so on. All of these are the static visual background against which real human dramas (like those of the adolescent or the clerk) are staged. Without drawing attention to themselves, they fill out the empty space in those scenes from daily life. They are there, but not there. Their job is to be self-effacing but ever-present.
Then there's the fact that these are paintings. That realisation comes almost as an afterthought given how dutifully the art mimics the workaday ethic of the materials and surfaces it imitates. The resemblance here goes beyond optical and tactile similarity it has to do with the way the paintings are made. There's no virtuosity in the artist's technique. In fact, her laborious transfer of designs, which can include processes like laying the actual fabric onto the panels and spray painting through it to trace the pattern of the weave, is about as dogged and downright mechanical as you can get. What comes next filling in the spaces that result with thick oils might even be compared to colouring by numbers, but that's not a put down. It isn't the skill of the artist that fascinates, but how the object substitutes itself for a banal reality without glamourising itself. Grabner gives the scenery, rather than the actors, a close-up, and shows just how shallow and completely suffocating it can really be.
That's why the paintings benefit so much from being produced on cheap plywood. Plywood has no density of its own. It is, essentially, nothing more than a sandwich of alternating surfaces. But this is also where the artist pulls her punch. Rather than fully acknowledge the correspondence between materials and subject, Grabner goes for dramatic tension. The painted patterns conspicuously refuse to align with the well squared angles and edges of the supports, bespeaking sagging, stretching, age and wear in the materials being depicted. The human quotient quietly re-enters the story in the form of those who have used the textiles in any number of ways, even if it was only to stretch them out in order to make a painting.
So although the pictures come close to reproducing the stultifying condition of a world too filled with things, and the superficial mentality that condition produces, in the end they submit to more sentimental narratives about history, resistance and human intervention. Still, it's a sneaky and unexpected sentimentality: the way it injects itself into the otherwise soulless space of the paintings is unpredictable and incongruous. Ultimately, it is a worthy quality, if only for the way it comes off as something odd, out of place and new.