FERNDALE, Michigan — Often placing his work along the periphery of an exhibition space, Michael E. Smith turns the boundaries between his work and its architectural setting into a porous membrane. Unsure of where one ends and the other begins, viewers both survey and scrutinize the room. Is there something I didn’t notice on the ceiling, on a shelf or in the passageway? The situation is akin to watching a thriller or horror film, where surprises are always lurking.
In his current exhibition at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery (April 25–June 7, 2014) in Ferndale, Michigan, Smith placed two helmet shells, as these nautilus-like seashells are commonly called, on the front desk near the large window facing onto the street. Inside each shell is a blue light, neither of which was on when I visited the exhibition. Initially, I thought they were souvenirs or mementoes, but they also seemed out of place in the pristine setting of the office area, with its neat desks and computers. Also by the front desk is a freestanding section of PVC pipe, which I didn’t notice when I walked into the nearly empty gallery, where I initially thought an exhibition was in the process of being either set up or deinstalled. The PVC is able to stand on its own because Smith has inserted two clarinets inside it. The instruments’ elaborate metal key work bulges out, raising the pipe’s surface in a rough set of bumps, reminding me of those sensationalist photographs of boa constrictors after they swallow a large animal.
Along with the PVC pipe, clarinets, helmet shells, and electric lights, Smith has included in this exhibition a used molded plastic chair; an exhaust pipe; computer magnets; a bird feeder; rice; a washing machine motor; a pair of prehistoric whale ear bone fossils; a bedraggled, inflated football; cotton batting; spoons; a Teflon coated frying pan with a hole in the bottom; lightning rod; an air hose; and a tee shirt. Smith does little or nothing to these materials. For one untitled assemblage, he attached the whale ear bone fossils to the sides of the scruffy football, turning it into a head resembling Sloth from the children’s movie The Goonies (1985) and its video game spin-off. You don’t need to make the association to be alarmed by this leathery skinned, pointed head with protruding, oversized ears. In another untitled piece the artist alternately stacked two black plastic plates and two bones, turning the combination into an unsavory serving dish for candies or pastries, leaving you to wonder who might be the guests at this buffet.
Smith’s aesthetic seems to hinge on taking something and doing one thing to it. His materials include the organic and inorganic, bones and plastic. He often inserts something inside a hollow tube, as when he fills a bird feeder with rice (which would be fatal to birds) or suspends four cut spoons in four slits incised into a bent section of PVC pipe, which, when viewed from one end, resemble a wagging uvula. Like the clarinets inside the PVC pipe, the rice evokes the possibility of lethal consumption, of something terminal stuck inside an esophagus, vein or intestine. At the same time, the sparseness of the installation, which hugs the periphery of the gallery’s spacious sky-lighted rooms and the fact that two out of the four pedestals, which form a tight group near one wall, have nothing on them, challenges the viewer’s desire for a satisfying aesthetic experience, to consume what has been made available.
While a number of younger artists share the aesthetic of taking an object and doing one thing to it, Smith seems to deliberately reject the most obvious pitfall of this method, which is the ironic, bad boy gesture. There is an elegiac tone to what he does, as well as what I would call an anti-literalist sensibility. He is not content to revel in shallowness nor to evoke Comte de Lautréaumont’s chance encounter of a sewing machine and umbrella on an operating table. Rather, he seems to find uncanny connections between disparate things. The pairing of the organic and inorganic shares something with Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered teacup, saucer and spoon in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
By using rice, a bird feeder, a frying pan with a large hole drilled through its bottom, and PVC pipe, Smith connects consumption and waste, which Marcel Duchamp brought to the forefront when he reoriented a porcelain urinal and titled it “Fountain” (1917). While many artists have taken their cues from Duchamp, most are content with making an ironic comment on consumption, while ignoring its connection to the unavoidable production of waste by both the body and society. We live in a world of hunger and wasted food, which the maximizing of profits — our current regime — ignores.
Although technically not part of the exhibition, I also want to call attention to Smith’s paintings made of wooden bars, plastic, polyester, rubber, T-shirts, ink, and enamel, which are installed in the viewing room near the desk. While looking at them it occurred to me that they could have been paintings made by an artist-scavenger living in a garbage dump. In a world where excess is flaunted and celebrated, Smith underscores the poverty of our lives. Clarinets stuck inside a pipe, the music that cannot be played.
Michael E. Smith continues at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery (700 Livernois Street, Ferndale, Michigan) through June 7.