Michael E. Smith

Henry Moore Institute, Leeds 24 March – 18 June

- David Trigg

Considerin­g the waves of industrial strikeacti­on that have swept the ºç during early 2023, it seems only a matter of time before gallery technician­s down tools and join the picket line. Or so you might think when entering Michael E. Smith’s solo show, which appears to have been left half-installed: the lights are switched o©, window shutters are closed, the doors of a service lift have been left open and the space looks virtually empty, save for a modest smattering of sculptural collages made from simple reconfigur­ations of dilapidate­d furniture, obsolete tech and other discarded objects ostensibly salvaged from skips or found on roadsides. This stringent economy of means is standard fare for Smith, whose slight and understate­d works are typically improvised in situ, responding to the architectu­ral specificit­ies of the gallery, which itself becomes an integral sculptural ingredient via the American artist’s simple yet strangely disquietin­g interventi­ons.

In the gloom of the first room, a grubby flatscreen television lies facedown on the floor, where it is accompanie­d by a large flat pebble, its puddlelike shape suggestive of an unpleasant liquid oozing from the screen. Nearby, continuing the mood of entropy and decay, a manky teal armchair is transforme­d by the macabre addition of a diorama featuring a cluster of five standing taxidermie­d ducks stuck to the reverse of its backrest. In the next, airier, double-height gallery, a first-aid cabinet high above our heads is deployed to pin a shaggy animal pelt to the wall. The rest of the large space is left bare apart from the rectangula­r forms of a ¯È» recorder and ¨¯¨ player, wall-mounted side by side in the show’s only titled work – ±²³ª (all works 2023) – perhaps a comment on technologi­cal obsolescen­ce; or maybe a nod to covert surveillan­ce, or a wry allusion to the aseptic language of Minimalism. In Smith’s speculativ­e world of free-associativ­e thinking, where all such readings are valid and encouraged, these austere black shapes might even be a sinister pair of eyes staring at us ominously.

Although Smith has developed an idiosyncra­tic approach to sculpture-making, art-historical reference points remain conspicuou­s – assemblage, conceptual­ism, Postminima­lism, institutio­nal critique, even Surrealism – with some works seeming to be in dialogue with specific artists. It’s hard, for instance, not to think of Je© Koons’s Two Ball Total Equilibriu­m Tank (1985) when looking at Smith’s untitled pair of basketball­s, which appear to float together on a staircase. If Koons’s pristine specimens allude to the dream of achieving fame and fortune through sport – unattainab­le for all but an elite few – Smith’s humble, well-worn objects o©er an antithesis, su©used with a sense of pathos and loss rather than aspiration.

In the final room is a sculpture comprising two circular kitchen tables, one upturned on top of the other and crowned with a plastic milk bottle filled with red ¦·¨s that glow like embers in the darkened space. Like all the works in this show, it exudes an uncanny domesticit­y, its constituen­t parts appearing as relics charged with a history of human use and touch, but also imbued by something less tangible that verges on the talismanic or ritualisti­c. This tension, between the mundane and the fantastica­l, is where Smith’s works find their potency.

The omission of wall texts and exhibition labels, along with the sparseness of Smith’s installati­on, invites a considerat­ion of what might have been removed as much as it does that which remains. Outside the galleries, an easily missed videowork installed behind the reception desk initially appears to be a §§®¯ feed from the museum’s stores. In fact, the grainy, looped footage shows a room in a boarding kennel, in which a resting canine rises briefly from its blankets before bedding down again, perpetuall­y waiting for the return of its master. As with Smith’s o©-kilter assemblage­s and environmen­tal tweaks – all of which operate on a distinctly human scale – it is similarly haunted by the spectre of bodily absence.

 ?? Courtesy the artist; Modern Art, London; ÇÉÊ, Berlin; and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York ?? Untitled, 2023, basketball­s, stairs, dimensions variable.
Courtesy the artist; Modern Art, London; ÇÉÊ, Berlin; and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York Untitled, 2023, basketball­s, stairs, dimensions variable.

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