In the film Chinatown, Roman Polanski (playing “man with a knife”) slices the nose of Jack Nicholson’s character, Jake, requiring the detective to work with a white bandage covering the center of his face. Later, when someone asks him if it hurts, he answers, “Only when I breathe.”

Michael E. Smith, “Birds,” 2011. Urethane foam. 181/2 × 22 × 22˝. Courtesy Susanne Hilberry Gallery
Michael E. Smith, “Birds,” 2011. Urethane foam. 181/2 × 22 × 22˝. Courtesy Susanne Hilberry Gallery

The susceptible protagonist, wearing a reminder of his sadistically inflicted injury, adds a droll, surreal quality to the story. True to the classic, strong minded hero, pain strengthens rather than diminishes Jake’s drive. A similar sensibility runs through the work of Michael E. Smith, whose pieces reference schisms, danger, weirdness, getaways, humor, and non sequiturs to scrutinize things nasty, wounded, and tragic. The artist messes with demons but they do not keep him down.

Smith is interested in the ways we treat the world and one another; ways in which we navigate physical and mental habitats. He uses receptacles that contain or catch the things we consume, construct, and dump: a duffle bag, satellite dish, gutters, a milk carton. His materials are, for the most part, artificial and can consist of tape, urethane foam, carpet, vinyl, and Velcro. The only natural elements in this show—leather and straw—appear in two different sculptures: the duffel bag in “Duck” and the two elongated swaths of straw wrapped in milky white plastic, featured in “Untitled.” Given Smith’s frequent wordplays and animal references, one can read the leather as a life form and the straw as the food or bedding that sustains it.

The 15 pieces in the gallery, all made in 2011, are arranged sparsely and strategically, as if they are pieces on a game board or stage set, poised for the exit or arrival of a character. Movement is suggested; action is suspended. Only three of the works are titled— “Duck,” “Birds,” and “Worms”—function equally as nouns and verbs, referencing the animal as well as the movement each one makes (respectively: dodge, swoop, writhe).

“Duck” an altered leather duffle bag with rings of tape fixed to it, is drop dead gorgeous. The piece hangs on the gallery front door so that visitors must brush against it when entering or exiting the building. It is cumbersome enough to prevent a quick entrance or escape. “Worms” is a gray, apparently unadorned satellite dish set on the floor. A light Smith places on the ceiling casts a cadaverous hue, especially visible at night. When you overturn the dish (in the same way upending a rock in the woods reveals slugs, bugs, and worms) a hidden universe is suggested. White foam bursts with a wriggling mosaic of red, blue, and yellow, and a fleshy toned streak plays off the overhead light. “Birds,” a spiky sculpture made of four oblong pieces of rainbow-dyed urethane foam, reads as a condensed cluster, perhaps the murderous flocks of Hitchcock’s The Birds finally together in one place.

Each piece in this powerfully lyrical show unlocks a chain of associations. One example is the way in which Smith’s sculpture, “Birds,” and the Hitchcock film examine our strange relationship with animals. We own, feed, sleep with, pet, eat, and shoot them; we fill their environment with toxins; name sports teams after them; wear them on clothing; portray them in tokens and trinkets. Is the vicious behavior in The Birds a force of nature or retaliation for our inconsistent, arguably sadomasochistic treatment of these airborne creatures?

The first time I saw Smith’s work, a collaboration with artist Kate Levant in this gallery in 2007, I went home and re-read Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, whose spare language and stage set require serious viewer engagement in order to grasp the play’s deft blend of vulnerability, aggression, fortitude, and humor. It is the same with Smith’s current show. He configures the gallery into a series of life and death cycles, staging them in a cryptic state of pause, asking viewers to bring their own ideas and histories to their assessment. Like Beckett, Smith does not offer simple judgments about things being positive or negative but views the whole mix as a continuum. As Beckett puts it, “Birth was the death of him.”


Lynn Crawford


JUNE 2011

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