June 1, 2016

5/25/2016 – Politics of the Newcomer with Michael Garguilo

Artist: Michael Garguilo

Location: Mike’s home/studio


MG & SRS – Coffee, home fried potatoes, breakfast sausage, egg frittata, toast, orange juice

It’s tough getting connected in new places. There was a very good episode of This American Life that aired on Sunday, called “The Perils of Intimacy,” and the second act story was all about the struggles of two adult males trying to make friends in a new town. Relocating is difficult, especially once you get beyond the ready-made friend infrastructure of college. Artists tend to work somewhat outside the conventional work structure, and may not have the same opportunities for office camaraderie, such as it is. And Detroit, I will tell you as a transplant, is a place that is slow to embrace newcomers, for reasons that are legitimate and others that are not so legitimate.

It can be really challenging to make headway here – Detroit has a close-knit scene. People mostly know who people are, and there is a tendency to shy away from new faces in the crowd. Which is contradictory, because once you get to know Detroiters, they are the most heartfelt and sincere people in the country. That’s part of the reason, I think, there is a resistance to embracing new people; Detroit has had its heart broken 1,000 times by fly-by-night acquaintances. It is a place whose appeal is evident and inspires an immediate sense of possibility. Its reality is that things are difficult here and take a lot of time and patience. A healthy percentage of people who make some kind of overture toward Detroit end up abandoning it when things get tough. Longtime and native Detroiters have learned, through years of exposure to this kind of behavior, to reserve their enthusiasm for people who have shown some tenacity. Detroit may have intimacy issues, but it has come by them honestly.

But after visiting with Michael Garguilo at his home/studio right at the edge of Royal Oak, I found myself considering the double edge to the sword of standoffishness. Because Mike is a warm, funny, and thoughtful guy, and he’s making work that generates an interesting conversation. Some of his older paintings deal with politicians as subjects, drawing from imagery of arguments broken out in various political bodies, and they seem particularly prescient in light of our current election year antics.


Mike and I talked somewhat about the purpose of painting in this day and age of so many other, more naturalistic media. Obviously, the strength of painting does not lie in its capacity to capture an image with total fidelity, and to engage with painting is to engage with the creative medium that has arguably the longest history in human society. How do you bring something new to that conversation?

For Mike, it seems to be by way of the personal. His newest works are a series dealing with trash mounds, and this put me in mind of Scott Hocking‘s ongoing obsession with midden mounds and mound culture in general. Mike is very in control of his elements as a painter, and is blessed with the space to be able to tease out these ideas at all kinds of scale and permutation.


Mike sees these forms as indicative of our collective memory – a kind of shared personal history that is more honest than the curated legacies we consciously leave behind. His aesthetics weave the personal, taking color palettes from his grandmother’s fervent interior design principles, and the universal – to exist is to create waste. I would love to see Mike and Scott have a talk about their impressions of refuse.

But that kind of thing won’t happen without a little more engagement. When I think about the reasons Detroit might have for being leery of newcomers – and there are indeed very valid reasons – I also wonder, at what cost? Intimacy is hard. Vulnerability makes us feel precarious. It is so much easier to stay in the warm circle of reliable acquaintance we already have than to go through the arduous business of grappling for common ground with some total rando. BUT, in my teenage years, a wise friend of mine suggested that the definition of compassion was: at a party surrounded by all your friends, you see someone alone and lonely…and you go talk to them. Not because you need to. Because they need you to.

I try to practice compassion in this respect as much as possible. It can be taxing, because I am an introvert, and manage intimacy at a great cost than most – but on the bright side, sometimes nice and very interesting people will make me breakfast and talk about painting. You should try it, sometime. I have the feeling Mike will be around.


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