Monday, November 9, 2015

The Suburban Gallery: Y/N?

"Anything but an art gallery," the cheeky graffiti that mysteriously appeared outside Soapies laundromat after it burned down in April, 2014, has become a familiar joke within the insular confines of the Milwaukee art scene. The joke being, of course, that Soapies was transformed into just that: an art gallery. Run by artist Michelle Grabner and her husband Brad Killam, the small space on Locust now goes by the name "Suburban," and boasts a regular schedule of contemporary art shows throughout the year.
The scenario brings to mind a few relevant questions, such as:
-Why did the clandestine artist so badly desire a different future for the charred laundromat?
-What is it about art galleries that is so repugnant?
-Could it be the Milwaukee art scene as a whole that caused this person so much angst?
That last one is the question we’re all afraid to ask.
After attending the Suburban's premiere a few months ago, there were a few of us who thought that maybe the rogue graffiti artist had made a good point, and the gallery was, in fact, a misuse of a good space. The bleach white walls were scantily clad with a selection of minimalist art works by Fergus Feehily that left more than a little to be desired (and more than a little bleach white wall exposed). The show was followed by an uninspiring comedic performance in the back alley – a clever attempt to use every part of the buffalo, so to speak – but it was slightly cramped, and majorly forced. Overall it felt like the gallery was having trouble forming its identity in its new home. 
The latest show, however, a collaboration between artists Polly Apfelbaum and Steven Westfall, proved that the Suburban should be given a second chance, and should not be converted into another Riverwest bar, yoga studio, or perhaps a new laundromat. 
Fiber artist Apfelbaum hung from the ceiling a solar system filled with donut-hole sized ceramic beads that challenged the viewer to navigate through the space without colliding into a ball. Apfelbaum herself was present, handing out free charm necklaces to the gallery's guests.
The tapestries by Westfall worked in perfect symbiosis with Apfelbaum's ceramics. They hung at the perfect intersection with the balls to guide the viewer through the complicated maze. Most importantly, the two artists managed to concoct enough girth and color to fill the room and jettison the show safely outside the distinction of "minimalist," a style which can sometimes be a turn off for people who don't give a crap about art galleries (people like our angry graffiti artist). Overall the show made much better use of the space without trying to force it, and didn't feel as stiff and unapproachable as the previous attempt.
After that night, the questions remain:
-Will the Suburban continue to be progressively more user-friendly, or have Westfall and Apfelbaum already realized the maximum potential of the space?
-Will the gallery fill a hole in Milwaukee, or will it be a nuisance to those who would have rather seen it turned into something else?
If the Suburban turns out to be just another white cube, wholly detached from and blissfully ignorant of the tightly-knit Riverwest neighborhood, there could be some continued grumblings from the community. While many appreciate the effort to bring a larger world view to Riverwest, Grabner and her husband are long detached from the Milwaukee scene, and need to remember the territorial nature of its constituents.

Luckily, they get a reminder every time they step out their doors. 

1 comment:

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