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Michael E. Smith’s sculptures are bound to production and consumption

The exhibition by Michael E. Smith at Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, navigates the readymade objects to shed light on the fundamentals of life, death and decay.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Jun 14, 2023

To find the skin of a duck attached to the back of a chair in the middle of a gallery space, to face the basketballs seated on the stairs, to watch a plastic suspended by the iron chain—a combination of these encounters, made possible by the sculptor Michael E Smith, makes for an uncommon experience under the roof of a gallery. In the capitalist-driven market, the abundant visibility of the objects is omnipresent. The lopsided struggle between overproduction and decadence opens a window to the world populated by objects. When the everyday material and items are removed from their utilitarian environment to the controlled environment of a gallery, it sheds a light onto the mechanism of economic production and consumption.

The exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, with multifaceted representations of objects and materials serves as a site of exploration for the American artist. Smith primarily sources his materials from the contemporary global cycle of production, consumption, and waste. These materials are everyday items that have been used and discarded but retain their presence. They maintain their raw characteristics even when incorporated into finished sculptures. Smith incorporates various objects such as clothing, furniture, toys, tools, household items, and industrial objects, alongside organic matter and food. Towards this end, he delves into their invention, colour, shape, function, value, history, potential, and the human experiences intertwined with them.

Untitled 2023, Chair, ducks | Michael E. Smith | STIRworld
Untitled, 2023, Chair, ducks Image: Courtesy of Henry Moore Institute

In an interview with STIR, Laurence Sillars, Head of the Henry Moore Institute, talks about the invincible presence of decadence, never far away from the beauty of the designed object, in the sculptural art of Smith. "There is a formal perfection to a lot of Smith’s work, not only in the objects themselves—the black squares of DVD players or the clean sphere of basketballs, for example—but also in their arrangement within the gallery," says Sillars. When the art sculptures are installed in pairs, and the rhythms and spaces of his exhibitions are akin to the art abstract paintings, the viewer could “zoom out and read them as a whole." The state of disrepair and dilapidation is pinned to his materials; they are things that are not necessarily broken but have reached the end of their useful lives. They carry with them traces of their history—ghosts of the lives that once connected with them.

Untitled 2023, Bottle, plastic, chain | Michael E. Smith | STIRworld
Untitled, 2023, Bottle, plastic, chain Image: Courtesy of Henry Moore Institute

Smith's sculptures are an embodiment of authenticity, they eschew the presence of frivolous ambiguity, which does not go missing in the physical installation within the space of galleries. The ancillary elements—table, floor, door, or other found objects—are imperative to the making of the sculptures. Smith extensively researches his chosen materials, delving into their associative histories, utilitarian value, and physical properties. With the mind of an engineer, he rightly pushes the potential of the material to explore the limits of preservation.

During his creative process, the sculptural artist fills notebooks with keywords, akin to a lyricist. He draws inspiration from genres like hip hop, blues, and free jazz improvisation. The influence of music can be seen in his working methods, including considerations of space, rhythm, economical use of resources, and the final structure and form of the sculpture. Music prompts an emotional response and guides his work. While writing plays a critical role in his process, words of evadable importance make the title reduced to Untitled. Sillars informs, "Hip hop has always been a driving force for him, so too has the blues and the improvisational wanderings of free jazz, emblematic of a spontaneous, creative process. Alongside this note making, music cues an emotional register in his work and the responses it solicits.” This process of making resonates with the long history of songwriters only being able to write in moments of melancholy.

Untitled, 2023, Snapshot of Video 2:07 | Michael E. Smith | STIRworld
Untitled, 2023, Snapshot of a video Image: Courtesy of Henry Moore Institute

Instead of focusing on titles, Smith's sculptures are defined by their “revelatory” material. It is an on-site experiential space that lets these materials coalesce into complete sculptures. He strategically “juxtaposes different sketches" to create a critical dialogue with the space of the gallery. The exhibition space becomes an integral component, bearing its traces of use, imperfections, lighting, history, and systems, which become part of the sculpture. Smith removes signage, functional clutter, exhibition labels, and wall texts, or alters lighting to heighten the atmospheric quality of the place. Smith's object-making exercise engages in dialogues with art history in terms of assemblage, conceptualism, and minimalism that lends an institutional critique. However, these serve as departure points for a distinct ambience of the gallery. In doing so these installations reflect upon the issues of the global economic, environmental and political unrest, labour market dynamics and human population. To mention, the cycles and pairs carry metaphorical meanings, which comment on the fundamentals of life, death, and decay. Moreover, as the sculptures consume a physical space and time, they carry an archaeological connotation. To fully appreciate his work, viewers must surrender their own space and time to activate a sense of observation and initiate a search for meaning. Smith’s art is one full of detail, texture, trace, atmosphere, memory and space. It takes time to look at it and to see it—its qualities defy so much of the way information is presented to us today. For Sillars, a significant takeaway is the act of looking and tuning into all the subtleties of his sculpture. Once you are there, his work takes you on a deep journey through the fundamentals of life.

Portrait of Laurence Sillars, Head of Henry Moore Institute | Michael E. Smith | STIRworld
Laurence Sillars, Head of Henry Moore Institute Image: Courtesy of Henry Moore Institute
Michael E Smith at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, 2023 Video: Courtesy of Henry Moore Institute

The exhibition by Michael E. Smith is on view at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, until June 18, 2023.

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