Critics’ Picks

View of “Michael E. Smith,” 2018.

View of “Michael E. Smith,” 2018.


Michael E. Smith

What Pipeline
3525 W. Vernor Hwy
September 28–November 10, 2018

For his first exhibition at Detroit’s What Pipeline, Michael E. Smith explores themes of mortality and consumption with elegant economy. The show comprises two works (both Untitled, 2018): a camcorder with a small potato stuck in its lens, resting on the floor of the gallery’s main space, and a sea turtle skull seated on a scuffed white plastic lawn chair, stationed in the small back room.

This interplay between the organic and the synthetic speaks to the relationships between humans and things. In both artworks, the organic object impedes the synthetic, domestic object’s utility. If the former is a double for the human user, it is an impaired user: the potato is constrained by technology; the skull foreshadows the body’s terminus.

A leveling between man, animal, and object seeps into every aspect of the show. More broadly, in their materiality and installation, these works capture the sense of desolation that characterizes the surrounding city, Smith’s hometown. This psychological weight can distract from the artist’s formal sensitivity. The sparsity of the show draws attention to the artist’s decision to use only natural lighting, which creates a sense of quiet intimacy. The dry humor of the skull and chair, placed alongside the gallery’s existing seating, suggests a New Yorker cartoon awaiting its caption, yet the graceful lines of the artwork counteract any potential kitsch.

Visceral and undeniably human, these sculptural situations leave behind ripples of allusions and, ultimately, remind us of our ends.