Wisecracker Art

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

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 as art. 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."


Videos, Photographs and Installations by Michael Smith

are on display through July 10 at Dunn and Brown Contemporary, 214-521-4322.

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.

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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.

Outside of the purely ironic, Smith's life as an art professor serves as another, perhaps more directly autobiographical theme running through some of the work showing at Dunn and Brown. At first, "Class Portraits" (1999-'03) might seem to be an homage to the long tradition of portraiture, as they bring to mind some of Rembrandt's portraits of guilds from the 17th century. Far from such convention, the 13 portraits of individual classes Smith has taught are, when standing alone, a record of his overall success as a teacher. These images let on not only that teaching pays the bills of a once-struggling artist, but that it is also something rewarding. Such straightforward sincerity doesn't last long for Smith, however, as art without irony may very well be inconceivable to him.

The many happy faces of these portraits stand in ironic contrast to the framed class evaluation from a student hanging on the adjacent wall. Written by an anonymous Texas student in handwriting with bubble-dotted I's , the evaluation censures Smith for "wasting" his or her "time and money" by randomly criticizing the students in the class. Smith explains that the evaluation came from a design class that he taught for which he was neither trained nor prepared. Far from exonerating or redeeming him, the evaluation is a joke that Smith plays on himself. Next to the happy-happy faces of his many other students past, the anger of the evaluation stands as an ironic foil to the pretense of any such cheerfulness.

If you're having trouble getting your mind around just how all of this constitutes "art," perhaps Smith's description of himself as a "post-studio" artist will be of some help. In so titling himself, Smith has not only described the process of his work in terms of its essential unconventionality, that making "art" doesn't always necessitate his being in the studio, but also that the act of "making" itself has undergone drastic changes. For Smith, the materials of invention are more temporal than spatial, with performance being a prominent vehicle of self-expression. His palette is his body. Instead of paint, the event and experience are his media. At times self-deprecating and at other times mock-heroic, Smith's body is the foil of his own mind. The work makes for an artistic economy of slapstick and the absurd. But more important, it makes for an art driven by ideas rather than just form. It is art that makes you laugh out loud then walk away resolutely uncertain about what art is--and what it ever was.

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