In 2013, the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired a collection of over 150 artworks made between 1969 and 1976 by a self–taught Washington, D.C. artist known only by his alter-ego, Mingering Mike.The Mingering Mike collection comprises artworks constructed as part of the artist’s youthful fantasy of becoming a famous soul singer and songwriter, including LP albums made from painted cardboard, original album art, song lyrics and liner notes, self-recorded 45 rpm singles and more, all tracing the career of a would-be superstar.
The works powerfully evoke the black entertainers of the late 1960s and ’70s and are a window onto an historical moment when black radio was new and Washington-based performers like Marvin Gaye were gaining national attention and transforming American music. Mingering Mike was among the countless kids who dreamed of being discovered.
The lines between fantasy and reality are fluid in this body of work—Mingering Mike’s exuberantly illustrated record covers feature characters drawn from the artist’s own family and friends as well as “reviews” by real musicians such as Marvin Gaye and James Brown, and recordings of the artist’s original music are stamped with claims of having been made live in Washington hot spots such as the Howard Theatre.
The collection was lost to the artist in the early 2000s and discovered at a Washington flea market by “record digger” and criminal investigator Dori Hadar in 2004. Hadar posted pictures of the albums to an online record forum and the imaginary superstar quickly became a cult sensation. Hadar eventually located the artist, who still resides in Washington, and connected him with art dealer and curator George Hemphill, who arranged the first exhibitions of Mingering Mike’s work.
Untrained as either musician or visual artist, Mingering Mike nonetheless embodies a critical component of the American Dream, conquering tough circumstances by actualizing—to whatever extent possible—a world filled with fame, fortune, and happiness. This exhibition presents the vibrant creativity of this singular artist and powerfully conveys the larger American cultural phenomena that are so fully enmeshed in his words and images.
This installation will feature a wide array of objects from the collection, selected by Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art.
American Art Museum (8th and F Streets, N.W.)
February 27, 2015 – August 2, 2015