Michael McGregor Works at His Leisure

Checking in with the artist on the release of his latest project, "Room Service"

It’s quarter after three in the afternoon and I’ve just arrived at Michael McGregor’s studio, a paint splattered ADU behind the Spanish-style home in Highland Park where he lives with a friend. He’s preparing for the release of Room Service, a publication in collaboration with Paragon Books and Hashimoto Contemporary compiling over 100 of the artist’s playful drawings scribbled on hotel stationery collected from travels over the years. He offers me a glass of wine, which I politely decline citing the fact that I am “on the job,” but it’s a fitting opener for a conversation about the day to day work of an artist. As I settle into my chair, a white Barcelona-like lounger that’s been adorned with McGregor’s whimsical imagery, he inquires where I got my bag, a canvas tote from the central public market in Athens.

Michael McGregor: I also live in Athens. I just got back like two weeks ago. I have an apartment in Exarchia.

Jake Stavis: Do you eat at Seychelles?

MM: It was closed for like six months! And it only just opened back up - I flew back and just missed the reopening.

JS: Are you Greek?

MM: No, I started doing some stuff there for Kennedy Magazine like seven or eight years ago just really liked it. Not just Athens specifically. This woman I met who’s a food writer, she’s Greek Corfiot British –

JS: Anastasia Miari?

MM: Yeah! You know her?

JS: I love her work.

MM: While I was there this one time, she hit me up to buy a painting, and then her husband messaged me to say don’t sell it to her, he wanted to buy it for their anniversary. Initially I was like, I can’t do it, I’m not gonna make any work while I’m here, I’m in Hydra right now. He’s the captain of a boat and he was like I’m literally pulling into Hydra right now, I’ll come meet you. So all of this weird shit kept happening to me in Greece. I was about to finish reading The Colossus of Maroussi, and Anastasia was like, “does anyone want to rent my grandparents old Corfu apartment?” Like half of that book takes place in Corfu, so I was like, “gimme it!” I made The Greece Notebook while I was living there. I’ve been to Greek Easter at her yiayia’s house.

JS: I have her first book, Grand Dishes but I haven’t seen Yiayia yet.

MM: It’s good! She’s working on a new one now, it’s like, “the Med.”

JS: This bag is from the fish market in Athens. It’s the print of the butcher paper they use to wrap fish.

MM: I have this sign. It says “beware of crocodile.”

JS: Lots of crocodiles in Greece?

MM: I saw this in some little sign shop on Athina Street. The owner explained that like eight years ago there was one crocodile in Crete that some guy owned, basically a moneyed druglord with a thing for wild animals. He was terrorizing people, his name was Sifis. And for years they kept trying to catch him but they couldn’t! He was just like killing tons of goats. Eventually they had a really cold winter and he passed. But he was kind of like this weird liberation outlaw figure.

JS: There’s definitely something kinda mythical about it.

MM: They brought in animal rights groups and like alligator farms but no one could get him. It was kind of amazing. I love spending time in Greece, but I’m back and forth every three months or so for work and visa reasons. I just got an artist’s visa so I’m hoping I can spend more time there.

JS: Your new book is about “capturing and preserving small fleeting moments during travel.”

MM: It’s funny because there’s actually not that many moments in the book. It’s really objects that are highlighted and isolated… objects representative of moments.

JS: There’s a temporal quality to them.

MM: Yeah but sometimes it’s literally like something I saw – a friend’s purse, or McDonald’s fries we had walking home drunk at 3 in the morning.

JS: They’re all rendered on hotel stationery. How do you select the items? I know with Mickey’s show you had a drawing of mayo on stationery from the Ritz, so I was trying to think how that arose: Was mayo encountered in the Ritz? Is there a mayo quality to the Ritz?

MM: I was just thinking about being in the nicest place and wanting mayo with room service fries. Maybe you’d get some bougie thing but all you really want is Hellman’s. With ketchup, usually you get Heinz pretty much everywhere, and when you don’t, it feels kinda wrong. My grandfather was always a scotch drinker, and we had this 80th birthday party at this resort in the northeast. I was driving up from New York and my mom called and was like, “I need you to go to the liquor store… they don’t have Dewars.” I had to basically sneak it into this really nice place…

JS: There’s something about men of that era. My grandpa was a vodka drinker, he was all about Gordon’s.

MM: There was a devotional brand loyalty to certain things. You’re a Gilette Man, you’re a Ford man.

JS: Ketchup and mayo are funny examples too. Even now when so many chefs want to make things from scratch, it’s pretty hard to improve on Heinz Ketchup.

MM: I mean a tableside aioli? I’m not mad at it. I’m not really a ketchup person, but I see the Heinz force. It’s like Coca Cola. I can have a sip every six months or so and I like it. Two sips, it tastes great. Three sips, and I’m good, but there’s a reason like the entire world became addicted to this.

JS: Well there was coca leaf in it.

MM: There was that, but also – I don’t even know who the ketchup competitor is – but if you compare Coca Cola to Pepsi, which has changed its branding. Hellman’s has changed only a little. Grey Poupon is basically the same. They carry some sort of intergenerational qualities. Sometimes you can look at a brand’s logo and tell exactly when it was made, but with Coke, it’s hard to pinpoint.

JS: They’re iconic. It’s a stand-in for something. But also iconic in almost the religious sense.

MM: I got into a whole thing on Thanksgiving at a taverna in Hydra. The table was like me, a Scottish woman, a Greek woman, a Venezuelan woman, a Canadian guy, and two Ukrainian women. We were talking about what is an icon and who is an icon. And everyone’s frame of reference was different. And we were discussing the use of the word “icon” today.

JS: It’s a loaded term considering its history in Greece.

MM: But also in today’s TikTok/Gen-Z context. We were saying like… for example, the band The Misfits is not iconic, but The Misfits t-shirt is.

JS: It makes me think about posters that would be in a freshman dude’s dorm.

MM: John Belushi doing this [imitates swigging a bottle of Jack Daniels] is more iconic than John Belushi’s entire career, and that image therefore becomes emblematic of a million other things. But at the same time, if you haven’t been to school in the states, it doesn’t necessarily register. I’m thinking about the Statue of Liberty, Bob Marley, Che Guevara.

Michael McGregor at the Georgian Hotel in Santa Monica

JS: Let’s talk about your process a bit. How do you decide what to draw?

MM: I keep a little notepad with a list. Things get added and subtracted from the list before they’re made. Sometimes they don’t feel weighty enough. But other times it’s pretty quick. Like, Parisian pigeons. I took a picture, put it in the note, and the next day while I was sitting around I sketched.

JS: In reading about your work I’ve come across the term impression, which evokes impressionism and plein air painting. I’ve come across the term point and shoot. Both of these are something done in the moment, but what you’re alluding to is more removed. You take the photo or make the note to return to it - you see the tension I’m getting at?

MM: Completely, I live with it! The Greece Notebook was truly point and shoot, made in public, watching and recording - all very quickly because I don’t like drawing in public. I don’t like having pencils everywhere, I think it’s douchey. I like to work a bit surreptitiously so I don’t get caught. The Greeks look but don’t really care. The French will definitely look at what you’re doing which is at once kind of enticing and also like… what the fuck?

JS: I can’t imagine that you’d ever have an easel outside.

MM: No it’s just usually on a table, and oftentimes I’ll go into a place, especially in London or Paris, and draw in the middle of the day. It’ll be pretty empty. I just have a lot of time to kill. Maybe I’m meeting someone at like 4 and I just went to the Tate, I’ll just get something to drink and draw a bit, see what happens. Sometimes I like to think it’s a bit more conceptual, because I’ve always thought about viewing all of these hotel things as a collection - what would they look like if they were all in a row? What fits in and what doesn't? But there’s like certain things, and they’re all kind of in these paintings.

(Michael gestures to a wall of canvases behind me)

I started to think like, what are those objects? What do they look like together versus presented by themselves? There are certain things I notice a lot, it’s almost a language: Drinks, tickets, bar coasters, ephemera.

JS: There’s something very 19th century about your life.

MM: Like the 1800’s?

JS: I think so, have you never thought about this? There’s definitely some kind of flaneur quality.

MM: I like that ideology or way of being. A lot of the people I’m really influenced by have been tapped into that. If you ascribe to that kind of wanderlust, it means that you like the world and that you find it beautiful.

JS: Or at least you’re curious about it.

MM: At least. I still feel like I don’t know anything about the world, and that makes me more curious.

JS: I understand you formally embraced being an artist somewhat recently, like 2015?

MM: That was more like a devotion… or attempt.

JS: What were you doing before?

MM: I lived in New York and worked at a company called KickStarter, working with a lot of people who were making stuff. I was always kind of working in, around, and sometimes on things – I had a tape label, I was DJing, I was making music and putting out a journal. I had a show on Pitchfork TV doing mostly music stuff, but was definitely more in the covering/nurturing world than making shit.

JS: I ask because when we think about travel, we often make this distinction between business travel and leisure, and that categorization doesn’t really apply to your approach. Leisure is very much your work in some ways.

MM: If you want to be an artist you have to work really hard consistently… kind of all the time. But also, what’s the point of being an artist if you don’t have time for leisure? For getting inspiration or just kinda fucking off… You might as well take the office job. In some ways it’s the shittier end of the deal, in that you’re never “off.” I guess I don’t really travel so much as I post up. I actually hate to travel. I don’t like transit. If you really want to travel you have to surrender to transit. But I’ll go somewhere for like two or three months at a time. I’ll work pretty much constantly.

JS: Do you ever take true vacation in the sense of being checked out?

MM: Not really because even if I’m not making work, I’m gathering ideas and doing residual research. I’ll watch like 45 movies in a month and can justify that as work. But yeah I said I wasn’t going to do anything and then I made a book! I made two paintings. I went to a couple of my friends’ studios in Athens and was really itching to make paintings afterward. These are part of a show in New York in June - I finished like eight of them before I left and wanted some more time to put into the final eight when I got back. That one in the middle is new.

JS: Tell me about this show.

MM: It’s called Travel & Leisure. Well, right now it is - last night I was thinking about just calling it Last Night, which would change a lot of things. They look like you came into your kitchen in the morning - a lot of them are in here, the morning after, just stuff in the studio and collected ephemera from travel. I made this poster painting with the title Travel & Leisure.

JS: I see the Velvet Underground album, speaking of iconic images.

MM: Then I made this one.

(Michael reveals another painting depicting the very poster painting he’s been showing me)

JS: We’ve got layers.

MM: They’re all this kind of this whited out background with inclusions like metro tickets, Euros, dollars, a couple other things. Signing Andy Warhol’s fake name on a painting inside of a painting is kind of funny to me. It’s playing with pop iconography, especially some of the Brits like Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake, Tom Wesselman…

JS: I feel like we’re really talking about Travel & Leisure as a brand. This doesn’t evoke travel to me, except in the sense that travel costs money.

MM: Yeah, I was thinking about that last night. I want to make a bunch of still lifes. I started realizing all of the things that I’ve accumulated through travel. Or things that I had made drawings of. A bottle of Orangina, these Kronnenbergs… I wanted to get some more so I went down to Galco’s, you know that place on York?

JS: The soda shop?

MM: Yeah, it’s this old world drinks market. They have every bottle shape. Anyway, I thought about the name and I always liked what the name Travel & Leisure evoked. I don’t know what was in that magazine. I don’t even think it was really for me, but the mockup looked strong and alluring.

JS: In some ways the name speaks more than the content within it. If you pulled out one of their stories and gave it to someone with taste, I’m not sure they would say this represents the cutting edge of travel.

MM: But if you tell someone you’re in Travel & Leisure, they’d be like, “oh, great! Phenomenal!” I guess the paintings really are all leisure.

JS: Not to harp on the 19th century of it all, but it’s this moment when leisure emerges as a distinct category, and the ability to travel trickles down somewhat beyond the ultra wealthy… I’ve been talking to people about craft lately. And there’s this question of like, when your craft becomes your career, does that kill the joy in it? When this thing that was once perceived as leisure becomes how you make your living, your relationship to it changes.

MM: I guess it’s like, live to paint, paint to live. I try not to put too much pressure on myself - I know a lot of artists who are in their studios constantly, and they’re either trying to be really deep in the Art World, or someone’s perception of it. I didn’t go to art school and I see friends of mine who did and feel like they know too much - for me there’s a kind of naïveté, that there’s even the possibility of being an artist to pay my bills.

JS: And there’s a humor to it.

MM: I was living in New York, my girlfriend at the time worked for Gagosian, and all of the work you were seeing at like the Whitney in 2013 was super high minded, conceptual, minimalism, hyperreality - DIS Magazine type of shit - I like a lot of that stuff, but there’s a certain point where I just became completely immune to it. My work came out of that.

JS: Was it reactionary?

MM: A bit. I want something hand felt and not fabricated that doesn’t need a text. I wanted it to be analog and kind of rudimentary and I wanted to work within a genre that’s generally derided by contemporary critics: still life. It’s always been derided as kind of decorative and that kind of drew me to it. It was kind of a dirty word for my friends with MFAs in painting. Like in the worst case you become a painter in some seaside town, but I’m like, you know, that might be nice!

JS: You post up.

MM: I don’t like to have plans. And when you travel you have to have an itinerary.

JS: That’s true, but also hotels are expensive.

MM: Only in America.

JS: What do you look for in a hotel?

MM: It has to have room service. I look at the menu before I decide to stay there, because if I get there and it's like 10am and I’m hungover trying to make an order before 10:30, and then I realize that I don’t want anything but I’ve already gotten my hopes up about having room service, that jolt… I’ll be super pissed.

JS: What’s your go-to order?

MM: Usually it’s pretty much the same. For breakfast, a yogurt, some sort of pastry thing, an omelet. I like that Parisian style petit dejeuner.

JS: A little of everything.

MM: But I only really want a bite of the pastry and maybe I’ll touch the yogurt. And I might eat the omelet. I’ll order two cups of coffee. And if it’s at night I’ll get a burger for sure.

JS: Never a club sandwich?

MM: I don’t. I don’t know why because I like them. It’s always the thing that’s for like foreigners or gringos in a different country. Like the tourist menu in Rome will have one.

JS: I guess, but isn’t room service pretty gringo at its core?

MM: Totally.

JS: The room service menu is like basically country club fare. I suppose breakfast is more continental.

MM: Breakfast is the one to get, especially in France. But you can get room service at the Sunset Tower and it’s pretty good. I mean if I’m being completely honest, the room service order is almost always to draw, or to have as a reference for painting. So there’s a bit of a surprise of like… will there be a silver top? Is it gonna be on a tray or on a cart? What do I imagine it will look like? I get more excited about that than anything.

JS: I feel like the way hotels are trending now, a truly thoughtful room service spread is harder to come by.

MM: It’s not great. And the wine offerings are usually a little too trad. I don’t know, maybe I’m just being a prick wanting a Pinot Gris from the Jura, but I’ll order a burger and they’ll just have some Pinot Noir. I don’t want champagne. I’ll end up ordering it because it’s on the room service menu but I’m not really a champagne drinker.

JS: Do you eat in bed?

MM: Absolutely. I put the tray in bed. It’s risky, but I like the risk. I was talking to someone who works in hotels the other day and she was like, you don’t even want to know what people do in these rooms sometimes. But I kind of figured that, because to an extent, that’s how I act. I don’t try to be extra dirty, but I don’t try to be clean.

JS: On the one hand we want there to be a feeling of being in a second home, but on the other hand, we want to feel that distinction of being in a place that’s not your home, and doing things you wouldn’t do in your home. Hopefully not in a foul way.

MM: I was in Paris the first week of January and it was freezing. I got the flu and didn’t leave my hotel bed for like three days. I was just wearing my robe and Heat Tech, ordering tea. And it was honestly great. The bed was good. I ordered extra towels. But sometimes I’ll just leave the TV on, even when I leave.

JS: That’s chaotic.

MM: I don’t know why, I haven’t had a TV since I lived at home with my parents.

JS: What do you think about the growing number of hotels seeking to become lifestyle brands?

MM: I guess that’s what hotels always were. Or that’s what the allure and glamor is. With Sunset Tower for example, you can be anyone as long as you have $600. You can play out this fantasy, and you might run into someone. I was staying there for New Years once and I was about to catch the elevator, and these guys were like oh come in! It was Michel Gaubert and his husband - he was the music director for Karl Lagerfeld for years. They were so sweet, and it was just one of those moments where I was like starstruck to be staying on the same floor as these guys. Like he was DJing in Ibiza in the 1980s.

JS: There’s that weird feeling of being at a restaurant with a celebrity, but there’s another layer of intimacy like… they’re sleeping next door.

MM: People like fantasy, and going to a great hotel is like being in a movie. I grew up on Eloise. It was one of the books my sisters and I could agree on - Eloise and Madeline.

JS: Of course, Mr. Bemelmans.

MM: My love for Madeline led me to realizing that Ludwig Bemelmans had done all of these other things. I just read Hotel Splendide - it’s kind of a memoir, he has a couple. But his dad died and his mom sent him to live with his uncle who ran this hotel across the street from the cathedral in whatever, Austria. So he lived there and worked in the hotel and then came to America and worked as a bellboy. So he was really steeped in hotel life. But he was probably one of the more prevalent artists we had around the house as a kid.

JS: Would you ever want to do a Bemelmans-like project?

MM: Absolutely. I would love to, but I haven’t.

JS: It seems like an obvious next step. Where would you want to do it?

MM: What I really want to do is like a Cocteau-style interior project. A hotel? Sure. A private residence? Cool. And I’m trying to buy a place in Greece.

JS. You mentioned taking photos on your phone. What’s your relationship to your phone?

MM: I don’t give a fuck about my phone. I have like an iPhone 10 right now.

JS: Are you someone who has like 400 unread texts?

MM: Right now, yeah. I broke my phone recently - I can look at my phone and I can get Siri to give me Google Maps, but the screen is broken so it doesn't pick up my tracing. I’ve been without a phone for about three weeks and I love it. The only thing I like my phone for is Google maps and being able to take pictures. Looking back at my photo log, it’s like a bunch of dumb signs from Greece. Like a sign that just says “Remember Fashion.” Wow, so deep. Or a store on my street called “WTF: What the Food.” There’s a nail salon next to it called “I Nail You.” I like the phone for certain things but I mostly don’t like it, and I go on airplane mode a lot. I don’t have wifi at my Athens house… or a fridge. I guess it’s kind of like a hotel. It’s just a little bit smaller than a normal apartment but has everything you need. And a balcony.