As the painting’s title suggests, “Phallic Warlord” belongs locked away in the basement. Virtually isolated from the rest of the artworks on view at G Fine Art, this 2017 painting stands out among Maggie Michael’s latest paintings: dense, loud, overbearing. It’s similar to the textured, chaotic, all-over style that has marked Michael’s surface work over her last few shows. But across a small suite of laser-focused paintings on the main gallery level, it’s negative space that reigns.
Cubes and Pyramids Share the Same Base, Michael’s latest show with G, marks another transition in her winding career as an abstract painter. Her touch is lighter and airier than in past shows: That much will be immediately apparent to any fan of her work. Several of her compositions look downright wispy compared to the dense paintings she last showed here in 2015. The lightest new work may be “Residual: Constructing Magic Skies” (2017), a spare and almost Suprematist arrangement of intersecting arcs and angles, made using ink, clay excavated from her studio, and metal rust.
The notion of opposition rises to the fore in Michael’s work. Not quite to the level of resistance: There’s agitation in her abstract paintings, but only one, “Untitled Yellow Painting (TU XX)” (2017)—another outlier tucked away in the basement, with its Trump yellow color and harsh consonant letter forms—suggests anything so immediate and topical. The sense of alarm in her new, taut composition resonates in the title of one painting: “Red Cross, Red Crescent, White Helmets” (2016–17).One thing that Cubes and Pyramids Share the Same Base demonstrates is that Michael’s horizontal and vertical paintings don’t always share the same values.
“Afterlife Orthodox: Spyridon bends fire, water and clay with Blinky (Suspend and Surrender)” (2017)—the last note in the cacophonous title an allusion to Blinky Palermo, a painter’s painter—depicts a violent atmosphere that hinges on a single stable triangle form at mid-canvas. Michael’s horizontal paintings are more legible; the vertical paintings have more action.
Then there’s “Naming an Arab: An-Nur (الضوء) vs Meursault on Camus’ Beach” (2017). Michael has tacked an acetate transparency photocopy of pages from The Stranger to the canvas, the artist’s most Robert Rauschenberg-ian gesture to date. The painting features two bloody plum-colored forms—opposites, and in Michael’s formal language, clones. Meursault and the knife-wielding Arab he murders on the beach, probably. Or maybe it’s Raymond Sintès and his Moorish girlfriend. Or Maggie Michael and Albert Camus.
With Michael’s work, it pays to read closely. In several of the paintings in this show, most notably “Residual: Phantom Icon Merges Her and Him” (2017), the artist is revisiting formal innovations she first debuted as a student at American University. She remains the District’s strongest painter. In this show, Michael is working epi-cyclically, retracing her steps, painting through her own retrograde formal concepts even as she works out new tactics for their composition—processing, processing, processing.
At G Fine Art to Oct. 14. 4718 14th St. NW. Free. (202) 462-1601. gfineartdc.com.