Off-space No 21: The Suburban, Oak Park, Illinois

Karen Archey, from the September 2014

By Karen Archey

Artist Seth Hunter repairing damage to the Suburban’s 2.5sqm exhibition space. Courtesy the Suburban, Oak Park, Illinois

After attending college in Chicago for five years, I packed my bags, hopped on the Naive Idiot Dream Train and moved to New York. It was 2008 and the global financial crisis was in full bloom. To a green, lifelong Midwesterner, the blue-chip galleries of Chelsea, Uptown and SoHo were striking not for their surplus of incredible art, but for the intimidating amount of capital flowing through them. ‘Where are all the project spaces at?’ I wondered. Back in Chicago, besides the Museum of Contemporary Art and the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society, the two institutions dedicated to showing solely contemporary art, project spaces and apartment galleries are how new work gets shown. And most Chicagoans are pretty happy about it.

One such outfit is the Suburban, a 15-yearold exhibition space run by artist and School of the Art Institute of Chicago professor Michelle Grabner and her partner, artist Brad Killam. The Suburban isn’t even technically in Chicago; it’s on the border, residing in Oak Park, an idyllic middle-class American suburb about a halfhour’s drive west from downtown. The Suburban compound – a duo of cinderblock huts outside the Grabner-Killam residence – could be understood as an anti-Chelsea, a space by and for artists that attempts to circumvent commercial and institutional means of distributing art. Since 1999 they’ve mounted about seven exhibitions a year, working with artists ranging from megastars including Luc Tuymans and Mary Heilmann, to longtime friends, such as fellow SAIC faculty Scott and Tyson Reeder (who are also well known in their own right), as well as Grabner’s former students. From 2003 through 2013, Chicago dealer Shane Campbell occupied a third space in the Suburban compound that complemented his main gallery in Chicago proper. That space has since been taken over by Wisconsinites John Riepenhoff and Jake Palmert, who also run the commercial Green Gallery in Milwaukee.

As of the publishing of this article, the Suburban is showing works by New York artists Russell Maltz and Victoria Munro in their large space, while artist Seth Hunter, there on a long-term residency, has been lending a hand repairing damage the small, original Suburban sustained during a previous exhibition

The Suburban proper, a 2.5sqm cell abutting Grabner’s driveway, is a site as iconic as it is dinky. Programmed mostly by Grabner, the gallery has become something of a Chicago institution, despite solely relying on the economy of their household. What can art do when it’s not made to perform for rich people in a cavernous white cube? For one, the gallery has fostered indelible experiences for Grabner and Killam’s three children, who have shared hot dogs with artists and curators from around the world. (See the Suburban’s website for an incredible essay by Grabner and Killam’s eldest son, Peter, on growing up next to a gallery in Midwest suburbia.) Despite being a curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, Grabner maintains she’s an artist organising an exhibition and shudders at the term ‘professional curator’, avowing that artists know how to install and contextualise their own and other artists’ work with more finesse than any administrator ever could. As of the publishing of this article, the Suburban is showing works by New York artists Russell Maltz and Victoria Munro in their large space, while artist Seth Hunter, there on a long-term residency, has been lending a hand repairing damage the small, original Suburban sustained during a previous exhibition.

The story behind the damage to the gallery is a grisly one. True to form as both a laissezfaire programmer and art educator, Grabner gave the gallery keys to artist Dana DeGiulio, who rammed the diminutive building with a junked Buick LeSabre. DeGiulio, one of Grabner’s former students at SAIC, sold a painting that Grabner had given her to James Cohan, the elder artist’s representing gallery in New York, and used those funds to purchase the automobile. DeGiulio then backed into the space full-force, knocking the building off its foundation and cracking its walls to the roof. As Grabner and the Suburban are Chicago icons, it seems to be DeGiulio’s desire, however credulous, to upend them in order to provide room for a less-established generation of artists.

During a recent phone interview with me, Grabner spoke fairly and plainly about DeGiulio’s piece, even insisting that the traumatic experience gave her pause to reconsider the Suburban’s programme amid an exceedingly hectic period managing both Whitney Biennial responsibilities and a retrospective at MOCA Cleveland. Imagine a world in which a car hurtling into a gallery isn’t a frat spectacle akin to Dirk Skreber or Dan Colen’s commercial gallery gimmicks, but the honest processing of a clash of generations within a heuristic environment. Believe it or not, that world exists in Oak Park, Illinois.

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue.