Michael E. Smith

Chris Sharp

June 28, 2011
Susanne Hilberry Gallery, Detroit
May 7–June 18, 2011

Michael E. Smith’s first solo exhibition at this gallery is bit of a surprise. Known for his deployment of disfigured domestic and urban products, car manufacturing materials, and generally toxic plastics, the Detroit born-and-based artist has partially shed the intensely saturnine pall that normally hangs over his portentous arrangements for a somewhat brighter and more playful mood. However, to claim that playfulness is new to what he does might be misleading. Indeed, what’s not playful about grilling a plastic and rubber covered canvas? Or, say, saturating pieces of clothing in polyester resin and occasionally sawing them in half? And to say that the sense of doom that normally lurks within his disfigured objects has been entirely drained away from them, like blood, would be no less misleading.

For this exhibition, Smith has punctuated Detroit’s venerable Susanne Hilberry Gallery—which is actually not in Detroit, but a suburb thereof, Ferndale, less than a mile away from the city’s limits—with a selection of some sixteen odd sculptures, works on canvas, and a light intervention. But were you to walk into Hilberry’s sleek and airy space, you would most likely be impressed by its sense of sprawling emptiness. Aside from a sculptural intervention in the door (Duck, all works 2011) and a damaged crystal ball enveloped in a melted, black plastic bag on the floor, the only thing that occupies the expansive partition wall is a small, white foam-encrusted segment of carpet. The austere drama of this intervention is drolly tempered by the appearance of a section of a banged-up roof gutter (Untitled) which peaks out from an alcove at the back of the space. Along the interior of the gutter are (seemingly) onanistic splotches of a dried white fluid, as if this damaged component were the object of a particularly perverse architectural fetish, an eccentric fertility ritual or a reflection on the fetishization of Detroit itself—or even a combination of all of the above?

On the other side of the wall, three floor sculptures sit next to one another like puzzling equivalences, Untitled, Birds, and Worms. Given their equidistant proximity, the temptation is strong to puzzle these pieces out like a rebus, but yielding to it would produce little more, one suspects, than frustration. Their interest lies not so much in their symbolic character, but, like most of Smith’s work, in the unconventional materials of which they are composed (a satellite dish, bone-like foam shards, ­a plastic disk), their evocative potency, and their ability to namelessly haunt.

Aside from three small works on canvas to the left of the entrance—hack jobs elaborately sutured with variously colored poured plastics—the only other piece in the room is a light intervention. Smith has modified a section of the overhead lighting as such that a section of the wall gradually grows pink at twilight. Like the bright red apples he scattered among the grass in the gallery’s backyard on the night of the opening (one of which I encountered a friend casually eating), it feels like he wanted to give something back to the darkness, some dim fleshy hope of regeneration. All of which here colors Smith’s general aesthetic of exhaustion with a rare but appreciably ambiguous feeling of fecundity.


Chris Sharp is a writer and curator who lives between Mexico City and Los Angeles. He is the cofounder of Lulu, Mexico City, LA MAISON DE RENDEZ-VOUS, Brussels, and Feuilleton, Los Angeles.

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June 28, 2011

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