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One perfect moment tucked away in Maggie Michael’s mid-career painting survey shines through the show. It’s a sequence of four of her “Clone” paintings, early works that saw the artist pour latex into puddles and carefully maneuver them to produce mirror-image pools of paint. This is a moment that the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center does its best to bury.
Like cells divided by meiosis, Michael’s clones demonstrate her twin impulses as a painter. She strives for abstractions that address the big questions: totemic themes, such as nature’s dual identity as life-giver and lifetaker. Yet she also pushes painterly strategy to the forefront, pressing form forward as an engine for content. “A Phrase Hung in Midair as if Frozen” succeeds in showcasing both of these impulses in Michael’s work, narrative and tactical. And despite some missteps, the show makes the case for her as the strongest painter to emerge from D.C. in a generation.
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For “A Phrase Hung in Midair as if Frozen,” curator Sarah Newman has avoided any simple chronological or stylistic categorization. While a sampling of her older poured paintings are presented together in one gallery (including those 2002- and 2003-era “Clone” paintings, sentenced to a corner), the rest of the show hums with paintings from across Michael’s 15 years or so in the District. Hung all at once this way, they illustrate the fact that her work has never evolved in a linear direction.
As always with shows at the museum, Michael’s survey is wedged into too tight of a space. The sharply curved walls, along with several irregular galleries in the EYP Architecture & Engineering–designed building, have never been forgiving for painting shows. But it’s the museum’s insistence on stuffing the galleries chock-a-block with exhibits that makes the museum so hard on viewers. No show in the building’s history has ever been given the room it needs to breathe. On the night of the opening of Michael’s show, for example, three other large surveys also opened (all of them starring female artists, a meta conceit). So much programming means that shows are shoved up against every corner and crevice of the institution.
Newman turns these restraints to her advantage, for the most part. At least two-dozen paintings in “A Phrase Hung in Midair as if Frozen” are installed salon-style on one large wall on the museum’s third floor. This lets out some of the pressure on the rest of the show, which stretches out to fill the remaining third-floor galleries. But the salon-style hanging also raises a point about Michael’s work and her place in art history.
Along the spectrum of American abstract painters, Michael falls somewhere between Jackson Pollock and Agnès Martin. Perhaps unstably so—not at the midway point, but rather lurching backward and forward between Pollock’s totalistic abstraction and Martin’s grid-oriented reductivism. In a catalog essay, Olivier Schefer describes Michael’s simultaneous appraisal of order and chaos as “a unique and unexpected encounter of two major and antithetical tendencies of modernism.”
The salon hanging teases out a different dimension of Michael’s work, a vector that runs orthogonal to the whole Pollock–Martin continuum. Think of either of these painters’ works in a museum: They stand alone—severe, standoff-ish, iconic. There’s more give-and-take between Michael’s paintings, by comparison. Her works flow in fluid sequences, borrowing liberally from prior arcs in her career. Paintings by Michael read like phrases of a long and winding sentence.
“A Phrase Hung in Midair as if Frozen” is a success for sussing out this quality of Michael’s art: that she only ever adds to her vocabulary, never discarding brushstrokes or applications. Text surfaces rarely in Michael’s paintings, but not all at once; she’s returned to letterforms several times. The same goes for spray paint, scrapes, stains, and so on. Three paintings from Michael’s “Perfect X” series, hung along a single wall adjacent to the salon room, show how she mines certain concepts over and over. While they’re newer works, the Xs are cousin to the Os she first showcased back in 2002.
In places, especially the large-format salon hanging, the busy nature of the show underscores something frenetic about Michael’s work. It’s easy to see the repetitions across her career, as one kind of brushstroke resurfaces in a totally different painting 10 years later. What gets lost is something narrative: There are too few opportunities to isolate and compare certain elements (for example, the way the feminine figure appears over and over, across all kinds of works). Paintings as loud as Michael’s are bound to take up every part of a space they’re given. The only disappointment in her mid-career survey is that they weren’t given more.
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