Wisecracker Art

Michael Smith corrupts the gallery's white walls with digs, jests and jibes

In the secular world, the space of the art gallery constitutes hallowed ground. Its white walls beckon those willfully wayward members of the flock who by habit choose to while away their Sundays at the mall rather than before the pulpit. On Friday night you'll find them at the opening soirée, so many shepherd's lost sheep lingering before the chardonnay trough, musing over the good, bad and the lovely as they see and are seen. The staying power of the gallery lingers on, because its pristine space defers all action and thought to the art on display and the whiteness signals that you have entered a site of artistic rumination.

This is the case despite the decade-long antics of Conceptual artists who so actively sought to dismantle the sacred entrapments of the gallery's white cube. It was the 1970s, the epoch of disco, pre-AIDS sex and the subtle but certain rise of American Empire. Activism had given way to the joke, and the gallery had become the set for pranks against art, or pranks asart. While for most art lovers today the space of the gallery is taken for granted, going largely unnoticed as but a stage for a night's gathering, it was for artists-cum-pranksters of the 1970s the backbone of the institution known as "Art." Its secular sacredness and holy white walls represented the spine that had to be broken. Cracked and shattered it would be--not so much by the heavy weight of art's object, but, in a peculiar turn of events, by the increasing dematerialization of that very object. Depriving "Art" of its object-ness would make for the gallery a conundrum of sorts. Without art to buy, sell and collect, what would be the mission of the gallery? What would be the reason for being of "Art"? Ultimately the pranksters succeeded, not so much in breaking the backbone of "Art" but in breathing fresh life into its aging body, giving rise to the immaculate purchasable, or the art concept that could be bought, sold and collected, as well as a new subcategory and "ism"--institutional-critique art and Conceptualism.

While the videos, photographs and installations by Michael Smith now showing at the Dunn and Brown Contemporary might gracefully fit into the realm of institutional-critique art, the artist resists such categorization. In similar fashion, when asked in what medium he works, the artist replies rather circuitously "various media. I work with what I need." Yet Smith hasn't always been so evasive and nonspecific. Trained as a painter, Smith moved away from painting after arriving at a seeming point of no return, what one might call degree-zero painting. As he explains it, "I began as an abstract painter. My work became increasingly reductive to the point that it ceased to exist."

Michael Smith's "Class Portraits, 1999-2003"
Michael Smith's "Class Portraits, 1999-2003"

With the art's object having dematerialized at the tip of his brush, Smith turned to his own performing body as a vehicle for creating art, becoming a veritable jack-of-all-trades hard-driven by the forces of comedy and the burlesque. His influences come from both the art world proper and the greater world of performance and stand-up, ranging from the performance artist Vito Acconci and photographer William Wegman to the French filmmaker Jacques Tati, comedian and actor Buster Keaton and absurdist writer Samuel Beckett. This wonderfully perverse array of forebears makes for a potent play of the transgressive and humorous in Smith's own work.

Though not attempting to collapse or critique the gallery space, two of Smith's videos, "Famous Quotes From Art History" (2001-'03) and "How to Curate Your Own Group Exhibition" (1996), subtly renounce other cornerstones of art as an institution. Whether intentional or not, these short videos come across as parodies of art history--in particular French art history--and the coupled acts of artistic self-promotion and curating. Installed in the corner of the gallery, "Famous Quotes From Art History" is a pithy loop showing Smith reciting a quote in French about the painting "La Danse" by Henri Matisse. The loop runs as part of an overall installation that mimics a middle-class interior. One sits comfortably in an armchair, feet resting on a cozy rug with a framed poster of "La Danse" hanging on the gallery wall, while the loop of Smith runs on a television sitting on a faux-lacquer cabinet. After Smith matter-of-factly recites the quote in French with a terrible accent, he reclines in an oversized La-Z-Boy chair.

In "How to Curate Your Own Group Exhibition" Smith assumes a sense of feigned optimism as he goes through a five-step program teaching an artist how to put together her own show and, in so doing, become famous. Smith's performance is separated into a number of quick vignettes in which he walks the would-be artist through a formula of self-promotion that ironically smacks of a get-rich-quick scheme. Above all ironic, the video is more infomercial than how-to, with Smith emphasizing the "coming role of the information superhighway" (the piece was made in 1996) as promoted and propounded by the sham business consortium "ITEA." The ironic and jaunty critique of both videos looks beyond the physical confines of the art gallery to point a laughing finger at art more universally understood--as both a business and a belief system.

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