Opening: Friday, February 27 at 11:30am
The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits presents more than 100 works of art by a Washington, DC, artist known only by his alter ego, “Mingering Mike.” The collection, created between 1968 and 1976, 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 and Washington-based performers were gaining national attention and transforming the American music scene.
The collection was acquired by the museum in 2013 as part of the its ongoing commitment to collecting and exhibiting the work of self-taught artists in order to more fully tell the story of America through the art of its people. Museum Commissioner Mike Wilkins and Sheila Duignan significantly contributed to the acquisition, assisted by the museum’s Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment.
The installation will be on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, from Feb. 27 through Aug. 2, and is organized by Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art. The museum is the only venue for the exhibition.
“It is wonderful to discover that right here in Washington we have an artist whose work encapsulates a time when D.C. played a pivotal role in music history, and when the soul movement defined an era across the country,” said Betsy Broun, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “We feel so fortunate that this collection of his work, lost for decades, was discovered intact and that we have acquired it for this national museum.”
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. Mingering Mike’s original lyrics and illustrations span topics relating to the artist’s personal experiences and his slyly humorous dreams of stardom; love, war and the plagues of poverty are reoccurring themes.
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 difficult circumstances by actualizing-to whatever extent possible-a world filled with glory and recognition,” said Umberger. “This exhibition presents not only the vibrant creativity of a singular artist, it powerfully conveys the larger American cultural phenomena that are so fully enmeshed in his words and images.”
An essay by veteran music critic and Washington Post staff writer Richard Harrington placing Mingering Mike in the wider context of ’60s and ’70s soul music will be available on the exhibition website, americanart.si.edu/mingeringmike. Harrington traces the rise of black stars in music and in popular culture after the civil rights movement created new opportunities for African-American entertainers to enter mainstream American culture.
Free Public Programs
A series of free public programs will complement the installation. To celebrate the opening of the exhibition, Umberger, Hadar, independent writer and curator Tom Patterson, and Carroll Hynson, Jr., a D.C.-based radio personality and ’60s and ’70s music expert, will sit down with Mingering Mike to discuss the artist’s work during a “Roundtable Remix” panel discussion Friday, Feb. 27, at 6:30 p.m. Umberger will lead a gallery talk Tuesday, March 10, at 5:30 p.m., and the museum will host a “Supersonic Rewind” dance party featuring soul hits of the ’60’s and ’70’s that influenced the artist’s work Saturday, March 14, from 5 to 8 p.m. in the museum’s Kogod Courtyard. Conservator Kate Maynor will discuss conservation of the collection in a gallery talk Wednesday, April 15, at noon. For additional information about programs, the public may visit americanart.si.edu/calendar.
A slide show of selected artworks in the exhibition will be available on the exhibition webpage, americanart.si.edu/mingeringmike. Behind-the-scenes insights about the exhibition will be published on the museum’s blog, Eye Level, at eyelevel.si.edu. The public may also follow the museum for exhibition updates on Twitter by following @americanart and using #MingeringMike, Facebook at facebook.com/americanart, Pinterest at pinterest.com/americanartpin and Instagram at instagram.com/americanartmuseum, or by subscribing to the museum’s email list at americanart.si.edu/visit/enews.
“Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits” is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from the Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr. American Folk Art Fund.
About the Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Smithsonian American Art Museum celebrates the vision and creativity of Americans with artworks in all media spanning more than three centuries. Its National Historic Landmark building is located at Eighth and F streets N.W., above the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metrorail station. Museum hours are 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. Follow the museum on Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, Flickr, iTunes U and ArtBabble. Museum information (recorded): (202) 633-7970. Smithsonian Information: (202) 633-1000. Website: americanart.si.edu.