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Maggie Michael's Notes From the Edge

By Glenn Dixon
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 30, 2004; Page C05

Always be giving us something we're not quite used to. Ever since art became "modern," that's been part of the mandate.

Not a bad idea, but it has its limitations. Today, BFAs and MFAs by the thousand, each well schooled in brand management, plant their flags on microscopically distinct pieces of turf. The number of not-quite-the-same things available gets to be overwhelming.


Maggie Michael's "Trunk" at G Fine Art. (G Fine Art)

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But just when you're thinking of renouncing novelty altogether, along comes someone who's excellent at it.

Maggie Michael keeps it new for us by keeping it new for herself. A couple of years ago she was an American University graduate with a passable gimmick. Since then her work has developed at a rate that is little short of astonishing. Right now she is one of the best painters in town.

When she had her first solo show, at G Fine Art's awkward old Georgetown space in fall 2002, she was specializing in twinned puddles of latex she dubbed "clones." One controlled pour was calculated to repeat another with unnerving precision. But such unlikely duplication had been explored decades earlier by Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein, as a comic rejoinder to the abstract-expressionist doctrine of painterly uniqueness. Michael's variation on the theme wasn't really novel enough.

Earlier this month, Michael inaugurated G's bright and spacious 14th Street digs with "Run," a show that maps out the route she's been taking since. It culminates in large, ambitious canvases employing an array of spills, stains, splatters, sprays and squeezes, in which latex is joined by ink, enamel and oil. The cloning technique is still present, particularly evident in the small-scale "Deep," which though painted this year comes across as something of a throwback. Rhyming blobs also anchor last year's "Genie" and "Canon," the latter a welcome holdover from the Corcoran's "CENSUS 03" roundup of young locals. And a partial pairing is detectable, though masked by contrasting color, in "Sligo." But by and large, hard-edged pours have become merely part of her formal vocabulary, a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

With new techniques and materials comes new pictorial organization, based largely in landscape, and new tricks, which open up the pictures beyond your first impressions. The title of "Crest" seems to refer to the mountainlike outline that has been haloed with a defacing ring of blue spray paint. Except that it appears likely that the spray came first -- and the title could refer to a zooming diamond-ish shape, a marbled flow the color of Crest toothpaste, which melts the mountain into a stream that runs off the edge of the canvas and coagulates into a rigid puddle that juts from the side of the stretcher.

The sense of paint as hardened liquid also governs "Trunk" (Michael likes five-letter, one-word titles). Crashing thunderheads in a range of blues boil and crackle, then runnel the vertiginous crags that appear to have been sketched in from a Chinese landscape just in the nick of time. Hung as a companion piece so that the pair flanks the front window, "Split," also eight feet tall, works its vertical drama with spumes of spray paint, like refined graffiti tags, against a plash of aqua.

In "Ghost," a rhythmically jagged, almost crenellated coastline thickly built up, rimmed in blue and stained the color of pumice implies an aerial perspective. But Michael's latest pictures never go in just one direction, and all the rivulets this time run to the top edge of the canvas.

The old formalist push-pull was about relations of figure and ground, advancing and receding color, but Michael's game is about playing with our own engagement, the viewer's literal and figurative distance from the picture. A skin of paint swiped away from another in "Sligo," leaving behind streaky, slate-colored scars, suggests the grand scale of plate tectonics. But just above it, a similar skin, also of a hue that in pre-PC Crayola days would have been called "flesh," tears and dissolves into a bloody pulp. It works on the too-personal level of bodily injury, toying with the mixture of disgust and wonder we feel on those unfortunate occasions when we get to see exactly what's inside us. All this happens on the left side of the canvas; on the right is unabashed decorative elegance.

Michael extends her paintings and ties together their loose ends with a variety of drawn motifs. There are the boxy geometrics of Sol LeWitt and the scatological clouds of Sue Williams, a faint block-lettered numeral fragment and schematic lines of perspective and support.

Everywhere is the crush of semi-choreographed accident, set up in the studio, carried out in slow motion and rectified as needed, the results balancing boisterousness and finesse.

It's one thing to take such risks, another thing to have them pay off.

With "Run," Michael proves both daring and sure-footed, willing to push herself to the brink and able to stay upright once she's out there.

Dull Tools

Across the street at Fusebox, the gallery that three years ago put 14th Street on the art map, James Huckenpahler's computer-generated color abstractions try hard to be new but instead whiff of technological mustiness. Distantly derived from photos, the digital prints in "Places I've Never/Always Been" (the title seems an inevitable bit of hedging) are handsomely made. But there's no getting past the suspicion that their steely mathematical curves, highly polished and slightly threatening, could have been boosted from a mid-to-late-'90s announcement card for a rave.

The likely culprit is Huckenpahler's reliance on Photoshop and Illustrator, the Adobe packages that have for years been graphic-design mainstays. They are versatile programs, but their signature effects have been well explored.

Similar issues have long plagued musicians. A particular model of synthesizer may claim to open up an entire world of sound, but every tone might as well be tattooed with a manufacturer's logo. Jump on the bandwagon too late, and you end up aping the early adopters.

Huckenpahler needs to start messing around with some new code.

Sometimes it isn't the craftsman that is the problem, it's what's in his toolbox.

Maggie Michael: Run at G Fine Art, 1515 14th St. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-462-1601, to Oct. 16.

James Huckenpahler: Places I've Never/Always Been at Fusebox, 1412 14th St. NW, Tuesday-Thursday noon-6 p.m., Friday-Saturday noon-8 p.m., 202-299-9220, to Oct. 30.


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