Like so many distinguished Washingtonians, Maggie Michael is from somewhere else. Wisconsin, actually. Arrived here as a college student at the end of the previous century and never left. She first came to attention for her notorious early paintings—ambitious, messy, disciplined, filled with illegal colors famously purchased from Home Depot’s bargain bins—paintings that authored a revisionist history of abstraction as, well, a kind of sculpture.
All well and good, just not good enough. Michael is certainly interested in critiquing the history of abstraction, and really, who isn’t? but in the scheme of things that’s a pretty small game. What she’s really interested in is history, not just art history. Which is why that even though nobody saw it coming, nobody should have been surprised either that paint and canvas would inevitably prove too limited for her real project. So lately she’s started throwing in all kinds of things into her work: text and film and LPs and books. Sometimes it’s words: the title of a song, band or novel, sometimes the thing itself. In a particularly inspired move, Michael incorporates a massive paper roll from a player piano, decorated in steampunk proto-digital codes. In the art-theory business, we call books, performance, movies and music “time-based.” Even a pop tune takes at least three minutes of your time, a movie a few hours, a novel might take half a day or more. To understand a book you have to read it, (or pretend to, and even that can take several minutes), whereas with a painting you can, in the words of Michael’s 2008 exhibition, consume it “all at once.” Given how busy everyone is these days, and an ever-diminishing global attention span, painting should be the hottest art form on the planet. I have no idea why that isn’t the case.
Michael insists on both time-based art and instant art because we experience both, in different ways, and this shapes who we are and how we see the world. Paintings that aren’t, player pianos on the edge of music, vinyl records, obsolete yet proud, names of novels that no one reads anymore, and art house movies no one watches become archives of independence.
Like most Americans of her generation and station, Maggie Michael has lived all over the place and travels widely. She could easily define herself as a citizen of the world who happens to live in DC., instead she describes herself as a Washingtonian, and is intensely aware of the freighted geography of her city. Designed by the famous French guy Pierre L’Enfant, mapped and calibrated by the African-American astronomer and surveyor Benjamin Banneker, the city’s bloodlines and contradictions aren’t a matter of secret Masonic conspiracies, but cheerfully transparent for anyone to see. How transparent? Well, back in the 1960s, the city bulldozed a thriving waterfront neighborhood to make way for L’Enfant Plaza, a splendid example of Brutalist architecture, with grand avenues and vast spaces that intimidate government workers as they scurry about for a place to have lunch (most restaurants are underground) and are utterly deserted after 5 and on weekends. At the end of L’Enfant Plaza is a circular concrete park, with water fountains in the summer (when the city has money in the budget). The park is named for Benjamin Banneker. I’m quite certain both men are still steaming and spinning even after all these years.
Or the Kennedy Center and the Watergate, jammed next to each other and have never spoken, not even once. Or the Pentagon, the largest building in the world. You get my drift? Not a lot of nuance, architecturally speaking.
Here we say New York may be the capital of the world, but Washington is still the most important city on earth. Why? Because we have atomic weapons, that’s why. Does Mayor Bloomberg have atomic weapons? I don’t think so. We also have no congressperson, only a non-voting delegate, and the coolest license plates in the USA: “Taxation Without Representation.”
DC is a military town, don’t kid yourself about that. The local all-news radio station ran ads last year for a demographic that doesn’t even exist in most cities, but here are so numerous you must actually buy airtime to reach them. This demographic I speak of are people who have, or have had top secret security clearances, which were/are at risk because of substance abuse or gambling. In other words, there are some hundreds or thousands or perhaps even tens of thousands of residents who have high-level security clearances and who are also drinking and drugging and gambling, so many of them in fact that there’s a company whose sole purpose is repairing your security clearance. Another example: on the Metro you often find yourself looking at ads for military systems that cost billions of dollars. These must be aimed at an even smaller group than the troubled intelligence workers; probably House and Senate staffers.
Nearly all of Michael’s career has taken place in the aftermath of 9/11, the event that changed all of us, and changed Washington in ways we have yet to fully acknowledge. The Bush Administrations, as exhausting as they were for the country, were even more exhausting for DC. Although the city has been on wartime footing, with endless conflicts on three fronts (Iraq, Afghanistan, Terror), most days you would never know it. These eerie mobilizations, so unlike other American wars, are nearly invisible, yet always present.
With Tattoos of Ships, Michael expands her canvas even further, with works now embedded into gallery walls, connected to each other as if each element is part of a single, massive mural. Murals tell stories and invite conversation. They are an institutional format, often funded by governments, and thus perfect for Washington, and perfect for Maggie Michael.