Los Angeles

Christopher Michlig


If the photographs that illustrate Artforum’s reviews were still in black and white, readers could be forgiven for confusing Christopher Michlig’s recent solo debut at Jail with an exhibition of early-twentieth-century Russian Constructivism. The flat collages, with their starkly graphic compositions, were presented in four groups of five, either hung at eye level or dropped to the floor and leaning against the wall. They included, for example, a sequence of near-empty monochromes, and another set densely packed with black rectangles. Additionally, five freestanding sculptures were scattered throughout the gallery, extending the design of one wall work into three dimensions. Michlig adhered to a given template throughout, allowing it to strictly delimit the course of his compositional play. The same irregular grid-work structure is scrupulously repeated throughout the exhibition, but by flipping, inverting, and rotating its various parts, the artist achieved a dynamic, immersive effect that ultimately subsumed the gallery and everything in it.

Michlig’s wall works can be read as modernist city plans, the dark rectangular forms standing in for buildings, and the space between them for streets. When these shapes are translated into sculptural forms, the results remain tied to an urban vernacular, but now materialized into a range of autonomous structures suggestive of fruit stands, pavilions, turnstiles, and even that emblem of revolutionary Russia, the kiosk. Swiftly transitioning between graphic sign and material thing, a process of imprinting is gradually revealed, the workings of something like an architectonic DNA.

It is Michlig’s palette of hot pink, lime green, acid yellow, and sherbet orange that clues us in to the ultimate source for everything on view here, bathing the totality of it in the neon glow of Pop’s artificial paradise. For the past two years, the artist has focused his attention on those posters used to advertise local events in low-rent Southern California neighborhoods, typically just a few days before they happen. The posters’ aesthetics of urgency are entirely consistent with the brief time frame of their operation: Highlighting sturdy black fonts against Day-Glo hues, they are designed to be eye-catching, even viewed from a distance and while traveling at high speed. This garish, disposable pragmatism is also what draws these things into the orbit of Michlig’s art. Once they have outlasted their due date, he tears them down, takes them home, and begins the process of recycling.

There is a precedent for Michlig’s project in the work of Allen Ruppersberg and others, but Michlig’s approach is very much his own. Basically, he cuts apart the poster’s textual foreground and its background hue, always slightly overshooting the mark so as to carry over slivers of contextual information as a sort of ambient “noise.” Once they have been separated in this way, the elements of one poster and the next, and the next, and so on, may be transposed, making for a whole panoply of interstitial hybrids. Michlig varies the proportion of line to color in each work, but never breaks with the logic of the underlying format. Even when they are rendered as three-dimensional forms, his grid-work blocks remain stubbornly linked to what Marshall McLuhan once termed the “black teeth” of the printing press. If we approach our cities as texts to be read, it is probably because they were still designed in accordance with a technology of literacy. Michlig’s work pushes against the limits of this system, and often also breaks through.

Jan Tumlir