Friday, April 13, 2007

Outsider Soul

Mingering Mike

Mingering Mike a

Mingering Mike b

Mingering Mike c

Mingering Mike d

Mingering Mike e

Mingering Mike f

Mingering Mike g

Mingering Mike h

Mingering Mike i

Between 1968 and 1977 Mingering Mike produced more than 50 albums and a similar number of 45rpm singles on his own record labels. He performed for sellout audiences and wrote and starred in 9 films. This was the stuff of legends ... and fertile imaginations.

The real Mike, from Washington DC, did in fact record some songs at home with his cousins on a reel-to-reel player and even paid for some acetate pressings. His brother was the manager of a local music venue so Mike got to attend a fair number of shows that helped fuel his desire for a recording career. But that's about as far as it went. In lieu of a life of fame and fortune Mike redirected the enormous energy of his inner life into creating an imaginary career for his alter-ego, Mingering Mike.

He sketched, painted and wrote album covers and liner notes from scrap carboard, fastidiously added grooves to 'records' and made up record label names, song titles, tour diaries and included testimonial quotes from real and imagined supporters of Mingering Mike.

The obsession was also his escape during his years in hiding after going AWOL to avoid being sent to Vietnam. Some time after he resurfaced following the blanket amnesty offered by Jimmy Carter in 1977, Mike gave up his private pastime to get a real job and the Mingering Mike legacy of his youth found its way into storage.

Cue 2003 and the storage company changes hands and rather than give any leeway for late rental fees, Mike's possessions are auctioned off and the Mingering Mike collection ends up at a 2nd hand record shop in DC. An avid fringe collector, Dori Hadar, discovers the work and after intense discussion with acquaintances on the Soul Strut forums, interest from major media outlets is piqued and the real Mike is tracked down, interviewed and reintroduced to his imaginary past.

It's naive and unsophisticated certainly, and as individual pieces these wouldn't ordinarily have an artistic life beyond a suburban bedroom wall perhaps, but as a body of work the Mingering Mike collection is something of a testimony itself to all our creative inner lives and obsessions. I can relate to it as a kind of psychological quirk because it isn't pretentious or beyond the ability of most people and it's something like 'some things' I dreamt or half attempted, after a fashion, as a youngster myself.

'Mingering Mike - The Amazing Career of an Imaginary Soul Superstar' by Dori Hadar will be released by Princeton Architectural Press in a couple of weeks.

Incidentally, Mike - who has been careful to maintain his anonymity, although the book has early photographs of him - has been inspired by the recent interest in his erstwhile outsider art career and at the time the book was written had started constructing a portable record player from cardboard for his next gallery showing.

I was sent a copy of this book (without obligation). It's just under 200 pages, with a couple of essays and a description of the collection (re)discovery and subsequent meetings with Mike. It also has a large number of colour photographs of the Mingering Mike collection, from where the above images were scanned.


gl. said...

wow. i -love- hearing about people who make up their own little worlds.

Elatia Harris said...

Well, this stuff sure doesn't have the BibliO look, does it? Except for its being the result of coherent effort over time and a certain single-mindedness.

I think this post raises some interesting questions about the appeal of outsider art in an age of media-savvy artists who, supposedly, could not and would not encompass such a process as this work testifies to. That the illustrated saga of Mingering Mike details the imaginary accolades received by an imaginary, and very successful, entertainer is a beautiful irony -- an outsider longing to be an insider. I keep wondering if part of the growing appeal of outsider art is not its ingenuousness amongst so much that is calculated. If so, it might be salutary to look for the genuine, and know how to value it, in the work of artists who have mastered their materials.

pk said...

Elatia, I think the appeal of people like Darger and Dellschau (or even Coenensz) lie at least as much in the psychological elements: people spending so much time in their own worlds creating these personal legacies appeals to our sense of intrigue about human behaviour as much as it might tweak an appreciation of art.

I'm a fan (sometimes, and to an extent) because of the back stories rather than despite them. And I don't know that art produced on a computer with an eye for the market is necessarily devalued because it wasn't born from some innate drive to merely express oneself. I can still appreciate it in at least one dimension and it's, you know, genuine (whatever that might mean). Not necessarily deep, but that's ok too. I guess I'm just suggesting that there's adequate room for the whole gamut of artistic styles.

Outsider works get attention not so much because they are more genuine or fantastic in an artistic sense (often they are not) but because they are rare and quirky and have this intriguing depth due to their background.

Maybe the internet has helped spread the appeal/awareness - people are always on the look out for something different.

Elatia Harris said...

Henry Darger was a wizard at composition, and Richard Dadd could draw beautifully in his own strange way, like Martin Ramirez. The entirety of outsider art is huge, and you are right -- it's not possible to classify its appeal so broadly as I did above. But something is turning our attention to it beyond the craving for the different, which we could satisfy in countless ways that do not suggest a re-orientation to the very idea of what art to seriously consider.

Is it the story of the individuals concerned? How can we not be compelled by knowing what a marginal life Darger led, or awed by the decades of institutionalization that Dadd ("The Faery Feller's Master Stroke") and Ramirez broke through to be active as artists? Yet there are quite a few artists not considered outsider artists who lived marginal lives and were periodically institutionalized -- John Altoon, for just one. He had his demons, but he's ensconced in the history of mid-Century American painting.

Maybe your category of creating one's own world is the key one. It can't be about being an auto-didact; if that were so, Robert Ryman would be an outsider, and he's pretty deep inside these days. (I'll have to get more than passingly familiar with Dellschau and Coenensz.)

So if it is about creating a world, and the sense of intrigue that speaks to, then artists -- insiders or outsiders -- who can do this must have a world view. This is after all vision, and an artist needs that to have an artistic personality. Perhaps we are responding to vision -- so alluring and so rare. And the interesting distinction is not who is outside the mainstream -- perhaps, like Dadd, kept outside it for being a murderer -- but who can figure forth a vision.

I agree with you about art that may not knock the top off the genuineness scale (whatever that is indeed) often looking just great. Optical seduction is a very good thing, provided the seducer knows what he's doing. If he doesn't, he's likely to be more pander than seducer -- signaling to us as consumers without having to deliver. Much art that was never meant to be deep -- Sung Dynasty fan painting, for instance -- is so beautiful that we don't care, but sooner or later it occurs to us that anything that beautiful is at least deep enough for us to get lost in.

Genuineness is almost another discussion. It's a subjective word that relates to a subjective concept. What I probably mean by it is the difference between art and design -- if art is about expression and design is about hitting a target. But that leaves too much aside, and may appear to disparage design -- something I would never do.

EEEK! Looks like I'm writing War and Peace here... But yes, for propagating visual literacy, the Internet can't be beat. Isn't that why they came up with it?

Frioleiras said...

wonderful blog ...

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