View of “Michael E. Smith,” 2014. From left: untitled, 2014; untitled, 2014.

View of “Michael E. Smith,” 2014. From left: untitled, 2014; untitled, 2014.

Michael E. Smith

Susanne Hilberry Gallery

View of “Michael E. Smith,” 2014. From left: untitled, 2014; untitled, 2014.

Detroit-born Michael E. Smith’s familiarity with the Susanne Hilberry Gallery (he has been featured in six shows at the venue) no doubt contributed to the sophisticated visual harmony between a series of his near-monochromatic rectilinear artworks and the architecture of this former sales office, built in 1954. In a slender installation that demonstrated the artist’s affinity for simple geometry, a series of thirteen sculptures—largely composed of weathered or worn domestic objects and building materials, but also fossils and bones—and paintings hewn from fabric, vinyl, plastic, and resin served in part as the artist’s response to the legacy of local Cass Corridor artists who in the late 1960s dabbled in the paradigms of geometric abstraction and assemblage. In the junk aesthetic of Michigan-based sculptors Robert Sestok, Gordon Newton, or Michael Luchs, the themes of nature and industry manifested through procedural acts of violence and destruction. By means of physical exertion and power tools, these artists melted, pierced, and marred obdurate, raw materials associated with the auto industry and combined them to produce hybrid sculptures. The surfaces of Smith’s pseudo-organic assemblages are likewise marked, but by many ambiguous forces. His objects have been burned, scratched, scraped, and torn—by the artist or by other hands or elements.

Smith’s installation resurrected early avant-gardes, such as the room-spanning and diagrammatic compositions of De Stijl or Constructivist Proun rooms, which leveled media through an immersive Gesamtkunstwerk strategy. Noticeably, however, Smith’s spatializations were intuitive rather than measured. Against a wall, a charred Teflon pan (whose bottom featured a circular hole that exposed the white wall behind it) was mounted on a lighting rod, which narrows to a sharp tip where it touched the floor (all works untitled, 2014). Nearby was a low-mounted brown air hose pulled taut to form a horizontal bar; a white PVC pipe containing two clarinets stood upright by the entrance. Together the works reiterated the rote art-historical opposition of verticality (the uprightness of privileged vision) and horizontality (the baseness of natural ground). But the effect here was novel rather than familiar. In fact, these metaphors seemed to extend to Smith’s assemblages themselves, wherein the designed commodity meets the crudeness of nonmanufactured objects.

Ultimately, the exhibition’s conceptual stakes seemed to regard the impact of touch on mass-produced commodities—a notion that points to a contemporary reconfiguration of the readymade. In what Joshua Simon has termed the “unreadymade”—“The Unreadymade” is also the title of a 2010 exhibition curated by Simon, in which Smith took part—objects “give an object’s account of what it means to be in the world.” Unreadymades are not simply objects nominated by artists as artworks, Simon argues, but are rather objects displayed in order to draw out the “network of intimacies” in which commodities participate. According to Simon, unreadymades demonstrate what is inherent to the commodity: the ways in which “we eat, drink, wear, sit on, sleep in, [or] touch [them].” While Smith’s sculptures did evince these types of engagements, with a series of anthropomorphic associations introduced by the sporadic insertions of whale ear-bone fossils (attached, in one case, to a leathery football as ears), ostrich bones, and tropical shells throughout the exhibition, the artist seemed to render the found objects sentient themselves—perhaps a cheeky nod to Simon’s notion of the commodity as subject. In contrast to most critical opinions of Smith’s work, this installation did not cast Detroit in a traumatic, debris-littered, or postapocalyptic gloom. Rather, the exhibition posed questions about how humanity might flourish within and survive beyond the postindustrial age in cities such as Detroit, however catastrophic that era has been. Ruins and debris—like commodities—tell stories, and when reclaimed by the artist, they might help us reevaluate our relationship to them.

Nadja Rottner