Unremarkable Handiwork: Translations and Collections

Unremarkable Handiwork: Translations and Collections

Michelle Grabner at the Alice Austen House

During 2021 and early 2022 Michelle Grabner collaborated with the Alice Austen House to create a new series of paintings and photographs inspired by the home, studio and collections of trailblazing photographer Alice Austen. Drawing on her own studio-focused practice and Austen’s photographic documentation of her home’s interior decoration and fabric collections, Grabner’s work re-examines fabric patterns and materiality in doily making, expanding on repetitive design and layering. 

“As an inventor, translator, copier and re-articulator of patterns, I predictably embrace Gombrich’s general observation that ‘the arrangement of elements according to similarity and difference and the enjoyment of repetition and symmetry extend from the string of beads to the layout of the page in front of the reader, and, of course, beyond to the rhythms of movement, speech and music, not to mention the structures of society and the systems of thought.’

When researching Alice Austen and her collections I was most taken with her negligible lace collection, a small box of snippets likely a practical assembly of remnants collected for mending Victorian collars and cuffs. Lace, like doilies and other domestic ornamental handiwork has varied craft and materials qualities but pattern invention is undemonstrative and mostly undeviating. Gombrich notes that decoration ‘changes slowly.’

Domestic ornamental work is practiced, produced and influenced by habit. Moreover domestic ornamental artifacts occupy habitual spaces, punctuating daily routine.

‘Radical invention is nonexistent, considerable invention the exception, and the gradual evolution of decorative motifs, some of which can be traced back for millenia, the rule.’

It is not for the lack of invention that compelled me to rearticulate and rearrange the excessively ornate patterns of lace and doilies but to challenge my aesthetic aversion to the white delicate complexity of lacework while at the same time pressing on painting’s suspicion of unoriginal abstractions. The works made for this exhibition seek to upend the Gombrichian pronouncement that ‘painting, like speaking, implicitly demands attention whether or not it receives it. Decoration cannot make this demand. It normally depends for its effect on the fluctuating attention we can spare while we scan our surroundings.’ “

– Michelle Grabner