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Clarice Lispector’s fingerprints are all over Maggie Michael’s latest show. Quotations from the Jewish-Brazilian writer’s novels appear in the titles of Michael’s paintings, but the connection is closer than that. It’s as if Lispector’s lyrical urgency, her experimental perspective and sense for repetition, have taken physical form in Michael’s latest solo show, the local painter’s seventh in D.C.
Longtime viewers who have seen her approach to abstraction advance and rebound and advance again might say no, these paintings are a return to form for Michael. The text is gone, the biomorphic imagery is back, the argument might go. And it’s true: The works in “Colored Grounds and Perfect Xs” call back to the paintings Michael made when she first got her start in the early 2000s. But she’s no less upfront about the way she processes her influences and ideas in her pure abstractions than in artworks with the words painted right on the surface for viewers to read.
In “Colored Grounds and Perfect Xs,” two experimental cycles play out side by side. “Colored Ground Series: Grey Crosscutting Silver (Delta)” (2014) and “Colored Ground Series: (Orange), How to Make (Frame) a Black Rainbow” (2014) are titles that fairly capture the way she arrives at those paintings. Which is to say, the “Colored Ground” paintings are logical, Maggie’s strategies nested and bracketed and stacked like compound clauses over a plain color base. On the other hand, “Perfect X Series: White” and “Perfect X Series: Nailing Tints and Wisps,” plus the three X paintings titled “Undoing,” each describe a singular form, with every iteration a new exercise. Both series remind me of Robert Ryman, the playful minimalist, with his love of jazz and monochromes.
Another of Michael’s new paintings—“Melting Eyes and Stones ‘More than the instant, I want its flow.’ (Clarice Lispector, Água Viva),” a chewy title—appears to depict cellular meiosis, as two stained forms divide. If it looks familiar, that’s because she’s recycling something from her “Clone” series, paintings of twin latex pours. Maybe Michael’s found something in Lispector’s writings that she could only work through by returning to schemes from her past.
That’s how Michael paints: like a problem-solver. Her abstractions are often musical and soaring, like landscapes, but she’s a methodical worker, one decision a segue to the next, plain and simple (yet not). Even her catholic interests in media—latex, enamel, spray paint, ink, oil, graphite, stencils, text, nails, even water from the Potomac River—seem to flow from first principles. Somehow, Michael is always working through other artists’ work, whether it’s paintings or poems or pop songs, and her paintings are inputs turned into outputs. Still, they add up to much more than the sum of their parts.
“Deconstructing ‘A Lover’s Discourse’ (Fragments of a Long River)” is a means to an end. Standing in front of the painting, I feel like I’m on the wrong side of it, looking out; like the real painting is on the other side of the canvas, and only the people on the other side of the mirror can see it; what I am seeing instead is the inversion of processes, the reflection of tactics, the ways of painting instead of the painting itself. I like my side just fine.