Imagine that Mingering Mike’s career had gone another way. He was served draft papers in 1970; as a conscript, he might have found his fate in Vietnam or Cambodia, a world away. Instead, he went underground and stayed there, making his records until 1977, when President Jimmy Carter issued a pardon to the hundreds of thousands of men who evaded the draft. Mingering Mike the artist could retire. Mingering Mike the man could get a job.
Mingering Mike certainly imagined that other path he might have taken. The cover of “Home Coming/‘But When You Drink’” (1972) shows a soldier (himself in all likelihood) returning from war, stepping off the bus with a standard military-issue duffel in tow. Maybe this “album” was Mingering Mike’s tribute to Marvin Gaye’s classic 1971 album about a returning Vietnam veteran, What’s Going On. Or maybe picturing himself as a servicemember was his own way of processing the stress of dodging the draft during our warrantless war.
“Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits,” now on view in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is not just an exhibit that showcases how an imaginative craft career by a reclusive D.C. artist entered into the collection of the national treasury. (Although it is primarily that.) “Supersonic Greatest Hits” tells a story about music, ambition, imitation, and the black experience, an intersection the likes of which the Smithsonian almost never covers—except through American Art’s vernacular collection.
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., the man who goes by the name Mingering Mike started making records in his teens in the 1960s. Some of these were honest-to-goodness reel-to-reel recordings, but many, many more—scores of fantastical albums and singles, produced via some three-dozen different record labels—were fabrications. Dori Hadar, a record-digger and DJ, discovered a haul of these hand-painted cardboard vinyl records, tucked into hand-drawn sleeves, at a flea market near the D.C. Jail in 2003. They’d been missing for years and presumed lost to time.
Once Hadar tracked down the secretive artist, the rest was history, thanks to D.C. art dealer George Hemphill and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits” isn’t a departure from what we’ve seen from the artist since his discovery (rediscovery?) more than a decade ago; he’s shown this work at Hemphill Fine Arts, where he most recently exhibited portraits of every member of the D.C. Council in 2013. And Hadar’s 2007 book, Mingering Mike: The Amazing Career of an Imaginary Soul Superstar, might as well serve as the catalog to the Smithsonian show. (Browsing through the museum bookstore, it more or less does.)
Whole essays and lectures serve as explainers for Mingering Mike’s musical cues, especially the Stax and Motown soul albums he adored, but what the American Art Museum brings to Mingering Mike studies is a visual-art framework. Seeing the collection—“3 Footsteps Away From the Altar,” “Minger’s Gold Supersonic Greatest Hits,” “Can Mingering Mike Stevens Really Sing,” and dozens more “legendary” recordings from a career that never happened—in the same building as James Hampton’s near-compulsive, aluminum foil-made “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly” is proof positive that Mingering Mike’s work found the right home.
Imagine that Mingering Mike’s career had gone still another away. Imagine if the National Gallery of Art or the Museum of Modern Art had devoted resources over the last century to procuring vernacular art, also known as folk, visionary, self-taught, craft, and outsider work. Today, those museums might have better records for showing works by black and brown artists, by regional artists, by women artists, by poorer artists, by neuroatypical artists. Hampton and Mingering Mike might have been celebrated at the height of their production. Instead, we are lucky to have their works at all.
What if the outsider works had been brought inside? That’s the alternative art history proffered by the American Art Museum’s overarching emphasis on folk art in its collections. Peel away the museum’s modest holdings of post-war art (pedigreed art, elite art, MFA-required art) and what you get is an institution entirely devoted to this alternative history. A far more representative American history.
Mingering Mike’s albums add to American Art’s holdings of folk jewelry, religious iconography, decorative arts, Works Progress Administration murals, Indian paintings, and other artifacts to help tell a story about the America that canonical art history either disdains or ignores. Mingering Mike’s fake records are the realest—no question—but it takes the right museum setting to make room for his rightful place in art history.
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