Mingering Mike, As High as the Sky, mixed media, 1972

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Mingering Mike is sincere about his desire to connect, too, but he’s nowhere near as scattered as Tillmans. From the creation of his first album, Sit’tin by the Window, in 1968, to the release of the soundtrack for his career-capping 1976 road picture, The Road to BimBombay, the quiet, unassuming man from Northeast D.C. relentlessly pursued soul-music superstardom, producing and designing album after album by himself and by various members of his family, under a slew of imprints all run by the artist himself. His album covers, currently on view at Hemphill, were drawn and lettered by hand in a crude yet exuberant style; in them, Mingering Mike exhibits a striking visual inventiveness, a strong desire for social justice, and a lot of quirky humor.

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A review of Mingering Mike’s liner notes might convince the viewer that he did indeed make his mark on the entertainment industry. Jack Benny is quoted enthusiastically endorsing Mike on the back of his debut album, calling him “a bright and intelligent young man with a great, excitting [sic] future waiting him.” A curious quote from James Brown graces his second record, Can Minger Mike Stevens Really Sing? Under a large black-and-white photo of the young, smiling singer, Brown offers a near-haiku: “With a look of success/Singing and Dancing/Boy he’s a mess.”

What sort of dynamic personality could bring both James Brown and Jack Benny into his orbit? Well, none: Mike’s career was all in his head. If you could pull out one of the Mingering Mike records currently crowding a long narrow shelf at Hemphill, you’d discover that it’s unplayable. They’re made out of cardboard, not vinyl; what might appear to be grooves are often rings of nail polish and spray paint.

From 1970, when he went AWOL from the Army, to 1977, when President Carter pardoned draft dodgers from the Vietnam War, Mingering Mike (who’s never publicly disclosed his real name) mostly stayed home, assembling his elaborate album covers, coming up with ideas for movies and, sometimes, recording actual music. By the time he left his imaginary career for a full-time job as a security guard, he’d created more than 50 albums and as many or more singles.

Dori Hadar was understandably baffled when he first encountered the artist’s work. Hadar, a DJ, part-time criminal investigator, and author of a new book, Mingering Mike: The Amazing Career of an Imaginary Soul Superstar, was rummaging through boxes of records in a D.C. flea market when he stumbled across a slew of Mingering Mike LPs. Hadar was stunned by the sheer volume of material, the number of imprints, and the fact that everything looked so obviously handmade.

Even Mike’s name seemed strange, and for good reason: “At first I was thinking ‘Mingling Mike,’ ” the artist explains in Hadar’s book. “But that didn’t sound right…so then I was in someone’s car one day and I saw a sign that said ‘merging traffic,’ so I kind of combined ‘mingling’ and ‘merging’ and came up with ‘mingering.’ ” In other words: Mike’s moniker is as inscrutable—and as fake—as his career.

It’s tempting to call Mingering Mike an outsider artist—surely this strange stuff belongs in, say, the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. But Hadar resists the term: “Mike is actually very in tune with what’s going on in the world,” Hadar told me. “He’s content with life the way it is.…The work is playful, not delusional.”