With her original approach to abstract art, Maggie Michael has been a rising star in DC’s art world, but as she prepares for a major show at the American University Museum, the painter is due for a broader audience.
Maggie Michael can hear the street from her studio. She is working in a new second-floor space in one of the few light-industrial zones left in Washington, DC, a warehouse district that people used to call the Capital City Market. There are Asian, Latino, and Italian wholesalers spread over several blocks of warehouses, selling fruits and meats to ethnic restaurants or provisioning Obama tchotchkes in bulk.
Nowadays people call this place Union Market, named for the transformative, block-long market that opened here in 2012. The revamped warehouse and its dozens of upscale retail vendors set the high-water mark for hip commercial development in DC. For Michael, 40, it’s a radical change of scenery from her last space, on tony Capitol Hill, just a block from the Hart Senate Office Building.
“My other studio was in a carriage house in an alley. It was very quiet,” she says. “Here I hear everything. I hear people talking. I hear people picking up their cabbage in the morning.”
Michael is grateful to be here. She and her husband, Dan Steinhilber—a sculptor who shares studio space in the ground-level floor of the building where she works—have cycled between 11 different studios over the 15 years they’ve lived in DC. Michael hopes this studio will be her last—but knows it won’t be.
The city should consider itself lucky she hasn’t left yet. Over the course of her career, Michael has established herself as arguably the District’s greatest young painter. Bar none, she has produced more and more consistent shows, landing her work in the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and even the Wilson Building, the seat of city government.
She hasn’t come by her success easy. Part of the challenge of working as an artist in DC, even as a high-profile painter, is keeping up in a city that’s quaking with change. The gelato factory for Dolcezza, a fashionable local chain, and the meat-processing plant for Red Apron Butchery, an upscale DC butcher, both recently set up shop just behind Union Market, at 550 Penn Street NE. Edens—the developer behind both of those new buildings—also owns the dilapidated office space two blocks away where Michael and Steinhilber keep their studios.
Thanks to Edens, the artists will have their studios for at least one year. But the writing’s on the wall for ramshackle buildings in the District. Still, better Union Market than Capitol Hill.
“The Hill is kind of sleepy,” Michael says. “It always made me laugh when I would go outside and I would see politicians. That’s right! They work here. They’re always wearing their business suits, and skirts with tights—it was a whole scene. This place feels much better to me.”
Michael keeps one corner of her studio clear for visitors. Near a window looking out over busy Florida Avenue NE, she’s set a leather chair, a vinyl chair, an arm table, and a giant bell—this piece an artifact from her 2010 show at George Mason University, “Tattoos of Ships.” There’s also a mirror set in a painted horse collar, with the words YOU ARE A MOVING IMAGE painted over it—one of her rare works of sculpture.
Everywhere else is paintings. Canvases over stretcher bars line every wall. A long flat-file rack built for art storage couldn’t dream of containing it all. With so many dozens of paintings in her studio, it’s hard at first glance to figure out where she paints.
“I’ve always been a very prolific artist,” Michael says. “That’s partly because I work on more than one painting at a time. I moved here three weeks ago, and I lost a lot of time just moving. But in the last week and a half, I’ve done these paintings,” motioning to a set of four works in progress on the floor. “I had to stop unpacking at a certain point. I could unpack forever. I could organize forever.”
Given the way that Michael works, putting her house in order would seem to be a simple task. She’s established several discrete painting series over the years, which come with titles like “Clones,” “Icons,” and “Perfect Xs.” She refers to her paintings, at least the finished ones, with this scheme in mind: This piece is a River painting; that one is an Explosion.
With every series, Michael wrestles with a different formal innovation. For “Clones,” for example (the first series she showed in DC back in 2002), Michael poured two puddles of latex paint onto a support that she then manipulated, by moving and turning it, in order to arrive at paintings that look twinned precisely. Her vertical “Icons” are her most figurative paintings—although these abstractions only loosely suggest thighs, hips, and other body parts.
She distinguishes one series from the next by her sense of repetition. Taken together, the small, gray “Perfect Xs” paintings look like Stations of the Cross: dense, devotional variations on a highly personal theme. The viscous “Clones” paintings are rooted firmly in earth tones and biomorphic forms. These could be meditations on the four humors (sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic, choleric). That’s not to say that she is depicting the humors specifically or even deliberately; but rather, like the ancient Greeks, she is exploring the elements, tracing the celestial sphere, and examining the realm between phenomena and noumena.
Michael’s series are never truly complete. New series emerge by the blending of old ones. In “Colored Grounds and Perfect Xs”—her latest show at G Fine Art, the gallery that has represented her work since 2002—one new painting took the form of her older “Clones” series. Yet it also adopted the abrasive, gray, thick palette of her newer “Perfect Xs.”
Her paintings take a long time to settle. She finished one painting recently that she hasn’t touched since she was in her last studio, she says. “I feel like I worked on that painting for nine months, but it only took really two weeks to make,” Michael says. “I had to think about it long enough to say that it was done.”
When I meet with Michael, she is preparing for a visit of some 30 donors and collectors associated with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She also has an informal show in the lobby of the local office for Gensler, a global architecture firm, thanks to a new collector who works there (and bought a painting from her last show). Her biggest show yet is on the horizon: a midcareer survey that will occupy the entire third floor of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center.
“I want to tell a story through each series,” says Sarah Newman, consulting curator for modern art at the National Gallery of Art, and the curator for Michael’s show. “I want to show the ideas that are at play, the kind of formal strategies she’s dealing with, and the background soup of ideas she’s working through.”
In one sense, she says, Newman associates Michael’s work with singular midcentury Abstract Expressionist artists. Of course, painters like Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, and Jackson Pollock are hard to avoid in any discussion of Michael’s paintings. Yet the “indexicality” of her paintings—the tactics and texture she introduces through lines of text, prints of leaves, and stencils of player-piano rolls—are a more direct form of narrative communication that summons, say, Louise Bourgeois.
“I think about [Michael’s] work as communication,” Newman says. “Sometimes it’s an utterance. Sometimes it’s this incredibly layered babble, almost, and you can see the urgency, but it’s clouded in this complex, torturous form. And then sometimes, you get beacons.”
For her part, Michael is already thinking ahead. Her next goal is to find gallery representation in LA or San Francisco; the West Coast, she says, is a good fit for her work, but she has no plans to leave DC. But she’s forever mindful that here, the next studio is just a notice away, no matter how supportive the developer or owner.
“Artists are always looking for other studios,” Michael says. “If we have an eye for anything, it’s not necessarily for art—it’s for finding another building.”
Ideally, she says, she’d be living in a church and painting in a fire station. She is content with a space that has the essentials—electricity and water, that’s really it—and thrilled that she is working in a studio that is larger than her home. And she’s excited that her studio is where it is. Artist studios are often the canary in the coal mine—the sign that an area is on the cusp; but Michael sees her studio (and her husband’s studio) as adding to the neighborhood’s vibrancy, not anticipating it.
“We don’t have such a consumable product,” she says. “But we’re certainly part of the spirit of the place.”
Photography by Shane McCauley. HAIR BY PEGGY IOAKIM; MAKEUP BY KARI ELLEN
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