I wish I could be at home for this, instead I’m in this shitty college town, the place I grew up. I’d had this intent to sit at the bar across from my house where I’d heard a rumor two days prior that a man was shot, this is in the old days, the seventies, when it used to be a pool hall. Ya, shot dead and the next day, a guy named John makes a shady deal with the owner and buys the bar for 80 grand, literally, and by literally I mean figuratively, sweeping the prostitutes and dealers off of his corners. And now they are replaced lovingly by Terry, the mentally challenged man, formerly 300 pounds, now 255 pounds, who dances and shouts from dawn to dusk everyday.
Supposedly Johns mother hooked on the same corner, and in a delightful twist, he ended up buying the pool hall and running a successful bar. And despite all of the shitty things he did to people, all of his fucked up sexual deviances and emotional frustration, the place still stands today, and I was gonna sit in there and drink my heart away, but nope, I’m here, coincidentally in my parents garage, drinking in the dark by myself. Someone told me a while back that writing is a trace, maybe of thought or of emotion, or maybe of both. I can’t remember. But people go back and forth on their statements all the time, and I suppose I’m in that position now, of being uneasy because the things I attempt to talk about are obviously contentious and debatable and naive and occasionally fucked up.
I buried my grandpa today. I stared at his corpse for a good hour with eyes so bloodshot that everyone was sure I was stoned. And as I looked at him someone told me a story about how he’d given my great-grandmother a tomato plant and how she’d planted it and didn’t ever get any tomatoes out of it, but came to find instead, as it grew rapidly, that he’d actually given her a marijuana plant which ended up spreading its babies all through the yard beside her trailer. He was a plumber and confessed on his deathbed, as he gasped for air from the golfball-of-a-tumor in his throat, that he’d worked at a silica plant as the head engineer for several years. And I’m telling myself that there’s only one go at this, that I’ve only got about an hour before I start shaking off, like my fathers hands in the chapel today, his brain melting bit by bit.
But that said, I’m gonna make this real quick: using Michael E. Smith’s recent show at Hilberry as a test case, Ima try to better understand how artists mediate power, or better yet, to better understand the ability of the art world - or the world as a whole - to completely screw over artists; to consider how Smith has gone around this system and how he has influenced and inspired others either through a retention of information or a lack of aesthetic crutches. And I hope to also outline the concern which keeps me going back to his work and to the experience of the current show, to ask how the system of artist/gallery/viewer broaches the topic of trust, better put as a suspension of disbelief, in order to arrive at something unconsidered or alternatively yet-unknown, a varied and silent narrative.
When I say I buried him today I’m being melodramatic, this is an example of an expressionistic narrative. The service happened, and being a mason, my grandpas whole crew of old men in aprons came and performed all of these odd rituals at the burial site. The site itself looked like some sort of operating room, where, beside the eight-lane highway, the grass and dirt had been unearthed and then covered with astro-turf like blue operation cloth over a wound on a hospital table. It was covered by a tent that had been hit by some sort of car at one point and leaned on in a way that made me suspicious it wouldn’t all come crashing down on top of the lot of us. The preacher had few words, before being scuttled off, intimidated by the aproned gang of masons, and another man, who looked particularly elfin began reciting sacred scriptures from memory to the funeral group.
‘How does Smiths work function?’, I ask myself as I tear up watching the elfin man, with white gloves and white apron talk about my grandfather. And I think about the 60s, or my understanding of the 60s, when artists wrote as a result of critics not being complicit with their aspirations, and how the critics almost leveraged a power of verbal articulation against the artists (who supposedly were only artists because they made physical works, or rather, physically made works). In retaliation, artists formed their own manifestos and began to approach art making as a thought process, removed from their hand. That was a select few in 60s Soho though, and I write with the perspective of current-day Detroit, which is anything but an art mecca. Right now there are no art critics, or at least they are just starting to bloom in a few different groups, which is really great, but also its the beginning of something, or at least the next iteration of something before we all leave and it builds itself up again. And I wonder briefly, how would an artist write about art? I’d like to think of this writing as it deals with the idea of autonomous objects: objects capable of eliciting a similar response to viewers despite their context of being shown (if this actually exists); and the reflexive object, to which the work continually receives new meanings from its context; and the quality of a work to be inherently interesting, the desire or emotional leveling an object can immediately bring to a viewer.
“This is so fucking stupid”, I think to myself. I keep trying to crack all of the beer bottles out of my parents refrigerator beside me, in the garage, with a drywall tool. The refrigerator makes a humming noise which I find comforting. The idea of interesting-ness is historical, and Judd received unwarranted criticism from an intimidated Fried a while ago, and I use this word now because I’ve only got another hour to write this.
As far as interesting-ness goes, I would say that the pipe piece from the show, unless you were under 59 inches tall, was really interesting, or ‘initially compelling’; as compelling as a set of bic pens melted and mashed together, and the thought of an artist molding these otherwise unrelated materials together as a language is fascinating. But I also believe that it is one of the few objects conveying the essence of the artist despite whatever location it is placed in. On the other hand, there were other pieces from the show, both interesting and uninteresting that held such a potential as to be extremely reflexive.
In sharing a studio, Corrie Baldauf once mentioned how she knew a viewer wasn’t processing the work when they asked her, “how much time did this take you?” Her drawings are quite intricate but also with something behind them that is even more important than any intricacy could suggest. It is the crutch of time that gets standard viewers off. They can easily find assurance in a work’s value because it looks like it took a long time to make. Though the viewer might not have any concept of what it means to live like the artist, they can equate time with monetary value and gauge a sense of how strong the artists individual work is. There are other similarly dreaded questions, ‘How much does this cost?’ or ‘how much did it cost to make?’. In Smith’s work, I’m guessing that one of these trips might be when someone asks him, ‘how does this work physically hang on the walls?’
One of the works that moved me was a pipe hose hung laterally on the middle wall, at knee level. The gallery’s natural lighting hit the pipe hose in such a way that from afar, it looked like a black line, and upon approaching, the object gained color and volume, at first to appear as a copper pipe and then to be transformed instantly into a piece of rubber that hung rigid and level. And I think of the elfin man placing spruce on the grey casket. As he stood in front of me I noticed a Daffy Duck neck tie hung squarely in-between his buttoned jacket, up-showing the old Baptist preacher’s eloquent three minute sermon for a long diatribe of tradition, and out of the corner of my eye, I become aware, as the man’s memory slips, of another miniature man bedecked in white gloves and a giant book hanging from his suited shoulders like a waitress at a topless bar selling cigarettes. As the foremost elf slips in words, the other, following the long text, briefly mutters a lead before the former’s mouth once again rattles like a motor, phrase after phrase.
Smith’s pipe-hose in particular, answers the question of how the artist’s work functions: the object which is placed before me is of a particular, commonly understood value, of which we objectify and often pass off, and in looking at it in an abstract way, we forget that origin for a greater abstraction of the world, an abstraction that is thought-provoking and not-yet-understood. This piece answers a need for an experience, to which I no longer ask the question of ‘Why?’ The choice of a pipe hose is compelling and a question best left in the air. As I view it, I stumble ten feet back again and realize that this work is quite simply a drawing, a line (segment) and in this context the gallery functions as eloquently as the preacher, providing the perfect frame, the parergon, that which is almost unnoticed and serves solely to support the work.
In this condition, such an experience has given influence for the potential of everyday objects to hold greater value. I wonder briefly about Smith’s influence on younger artists, but also of the influence he must have received while in school. Friends suggest that artists like David Hammons or those such as Gedi Sibony with minimal conceptualist approaches might be contributing to his process of art-making. And I consider this narrative: in a city with such incredible waste and abandonment, it is the artist’s inclination to reveal to a public the possibility within these everyday materials and experiences. This is ubiquitous in the arts but somehow, in Smith’s instance, there was a narrative that developed which based itself successfully around everyday-Detroit dereliction.
As I pause in front of the pipe hose, a family walks into the gallery: an older black woman and her two daughters who both looked 17. The gallerist is in the back and they mistake my hobo-beard and tattered rain jacket (my wanna-be-dereliction) as validated and ask me,’This is a gallery, right? Where’s the art?” One of the girls, sadly is shorter than 59 inches and cannot see the clarinets inside the pipe and so her mother has to tell her they are there, which is somehow helpful. [Just now the fridge noise has stopped and I take a moments pause from my beer-sipping (theres only about 10 more in that fridge to drink so I better pace myself) I hear the silence of the air around me, which is to say, I hear lots of bugs and a highway and animals inside the garage walls. ] But that little girl, who said she was in college at Wayne state, must for a moment guess at what the pipe might hold before her mother tells her what is inside. And this is somehow tasteful.
My grandfather’s funeral was anything but tasteful. And by this I mean, we had an open coffin. There were no guesses, he was splayed out in front of me, as I cried my eyes out with an Aunt I just met, informing me about his affiliation with moonshine during prohibition, and pointing me to a tree lined with bubblegum (my grandfather always gave people a type of bubblegum, everyone, that was more similar to a sugar cube than gum, and its flavor lasted for all of ten seconds, and was really really good for those ten seconds but then it stuck to your teeth and you were left for the next 30 minutes to question why you put such a thing in your mouth). He looked fairly good as far as the open coffin went, but I say it’s tasteless because it is always going to show a deflated shell of someone you knew and loved. He was a round old man, and incredibly warm but lost a lot of weight in his final three weeks. But it is almost like a work at a museum in which the original context the work was shown is instead completely lost, and as a struggle to reach people, one is left with a paragraph about the work that is supposed to inform you of what you would feel if you were to actually spend the time and hard work to understand the experience that made the curator respond in the first place.
Pretty soon the Romeo Club (Retired Old Men Eating Out, my grandfather went to McDonalds every morning with them) came up, several older men, saying their prayers to the shell and I began to cry again because I realized that the group were like the two dogs in ‘Where a red fern grows’, and the pathetic quality of life in feeling like we are individuals with fate decided by our un-predetermined actions. “We are all in it together,” I think for a minute, optimistically . . .
And this is all a narrative, which is to say, I am an emotionally unstable person. Two days ago, my mother sent me a text at two in the morning to say that my grandfather had passed and I awoke from a bad dream at around six, finding the text and weeping on the street corner beside my house to avoid waking my girlfriend. I’d watched the sun rise for a moment and thought of him in silence. As I did this a man came up to me, with my bloodshot eyes streaming, saying, “Hey, can I ask you a question?” and I cautioned him away, and flailed to signal, ‘now is not the time!’ but he reiterated and in my flailing, he implored, “Hey, you can’t just tell me to go away, this is important.” And so I stopped flailing and continued crying for a moment before he asked, “Do you have a cigarette?” And I thought briefly about how good it would feel to put his head to the pavement and stomp it all to bits before my boots became so bloody that I could make an art exhibit out of them and people could collect them as an artifact, in awe of my emotional output. They’re a tattered white right now, but one could imagine the beautiful hue they’d take on in the morning light beside John’s Bar.
Smith’s works display a similar violence. Maybe the artist did a lot of drugs1; maybe he had violent parents, maybe he was down and out in a city with no hope. In that way the city became an emblem within his work: of crushed pride, the post-apocalyptic. When I came to Detroit four years ago, the city seemed to be positioned in a phase of revival rooted in this premise; Juxtapose was working with Powerhouse, Matthew Barney was making a film here; the city was a wasteland paradise to which an individual could carve out a life of their own.
My own narrative of Smith’s work started with a show David Flaugher did at North End Studios in 2010 in which the artist, along with Travis Galloway, convinced Flaugher’s father to ‘perform’ the action of building a bench in front of the show-goers and in the process, everyone waited for the final product, themselves becoming part of the performance. In this moment, I met Flaugher, Smith and James Dozier, happily incorporated into the piece by sitting on a chair seamlessly constructed by the artist (Flaugher) as a ready-made object. This action represents a certain spinning that I return to again and again in the works being made around me:
“It is a recognition that is triggered by the object but is somehow not about the object. And, as a moment, it does not concern the time in which the object itself exists or in which the viewer experiences or understands it. That is, the moment does not resemble the linear passage of time from the seeing of the object to the cognition of its meaning. Instead of that kind of arc, the shape of this moment has much more the character of a circle- the cyclical form of a quandary.“2
I feel in these moments, of watching the viewer looking at the object and the object then opening with the introduction of other bodies presence, a spinning to which I then address my own body from afar and realize that I am uplifted momentarily in the way I would feel if I were going on a long run, a cathartic response that momentarily purges my emotions and I can begin to think abstractly about the world around me and how it might be reconsidered. And within this moment I realize the anxiety of possibility, that any object could be laden with potential, but I am unable to accept it briefly for the necessity to objectify, and only when I have the time to fully consider it do I begin to dislocate myself from the everyday grind. And I think briefly in this consideration to the questions viewers ask at openings and find to my delight, as the gallerist wraps so many Shapiros in the back, that the older black woman and her two daughters ask, “Are the walls a part of the art?” And this, perhaps the most important question, openly addresses the best reaction possible: to understand that Smith’s work at its most powerful is capable of making us perceive our immediate surroundings as laden with a potential for so much meaning and previously unconsidered possibilities.
In this ambiguity, I begin to understand the political approach Smith inherits through the influence of David Hammons, one of which is for the reduction of (as a cockroach crawls across the floor) art to a purity of essence, whatever an essence might be in its elusiveness. This essence is arrived at by a denial of the crutches of tradition: of time (the amount of time a piece would visibly show), of material (the known cost of a material or its size), shock, academia, taste, etc. These are all used to pacify a viewer into feeling good about the monetary value of an object while avoiding the greater necessity of thought or the artist’s interest. And through this the artist contributed to a commentary on the power of artists as a whole, as they often are considered the pee-ons* of the world3, making no money in order to follow what they feel passionately about. In this respect he helped turn the tables and reiterates the necessity of experience by denying a written statement, requiring the viewer to consider the object placed before them.
I am indebted to the artist for showing that, though I make little to no money and am often attempted as a pee-on, I can use this moment to borrow from the artist’s oeuvre, the process of which I believe he makes a thousand objects in his garage and then arrives at a selected sight to enact a brief improvisation, and then submitting the arrived conclusion to viewers: I am writing all of this in a short, two hour period in which I drink as many beers as I can from my parents’ refrigerator in their dark garage between the hours of twelve and two in the morning on the day of my grandfather’s funeral. And being five bottles deep, I must pee for a second . . . .
The work of Smith functions through a lack of information. Typically we have an artist statement to mitigate any yet unknown issues within the work, but with Smith’s work we are forced to look at something that doesn’t tell us about the artist, at least not outright. We begin to create our own mirror, as the viewer would gain a better portrait of themselves. I look at the plates stacked atop bones, and think of the time three years ago when I got into a fight with my brother after my grandmother’s funeral and ran 27 miles to my grandfather’s house. I’d almost made the distance, but unfortunately the hot summer days in the South, and stingy gas attendants forced me to go into shock at the 26th mile. My father found me staring at a tree by the side of the road and I subsequently turned green before my mourning family, grandpa included. I threw up in his bathtub and was then driven to the hospital. Sitting on the hospital bed and the time leading up to my hospitalization, I’d had an incredible feeling of lock-jaw and it’s something I subjectively relate to these dry black plates and bones, of a quietly violent marking on them, though wiped clean atop the bones that support them. I have no idea of the artist’s thought or origin with the piece, but I recognize that such an intention is secondary to a viewer’s subjective experience and that such a narrative develops only out of ambiguity.
While Smith’s objects provoke subjective experiences on the part of the viewer, one cannot deny the materials underlying expression as well: the works function to conjure a preconceived expressive narrative. It is interesting to consider then the works of Marcel Duchamp and Donald Judd for their attempt to neglect expression. Psychoanalysts, with art historians at their side, probably loved picking apart Duchamp for his works connotations to gender and sexuality; Judd was all-American with his steel-fabrication and auto-body paint, What would Smith’s be? And why wouldn’t it be announced? Surely Duchamp and Judd ran into confrontation when explaining their works. Revealing this narrative verbally to another viewer only leads to an explanation and a seeming intent on the part of the artist. Previously the narrative had the character of the post-industrial/post-apocaplyptic, and now it leads to something more. Still it contains a feeling of violence and humor. One could explain this to the viewer when they view the artist’s work but what would be the outcome?
I still wonder about the various parts in the show, the functions that aren’t yet revealing themselves: why two canvases with differernt cloths but similar shapes, the motor on the side of one pedestal and the two out of four pedestals which aren’t being used? And the over-arching question: Is this work worth questioning? Am I willing to trust the institution and the artist, of glowing backgrounds, to deliver something that I cannot yet grasp? At what point is a work good? At what point is a work not good? When are viewers pushed away because of an artist or gallery’s shortcomings, as opposed to the viewers own ignorance? Can some contemporary art be seen as a divider for groups of people, those who get it and those who don’t?
I came across this commentary of Tom Friedman’s 1000 hours of staring, of which the debated work is of a blank sheet of paper. The artist claimed to have stared at the sheet for 1000 hours. The work and its given debate on the blog present a divisive art. There is no way of knowing whether the artist actually carried out the action. It initially compels the viewer to trust that the artist actually stared like an idiot at this piece of paper for such a long time. Instead, this trust in time, when considered for long enough, becomes superfluous for the greater quality ‘of possiblity’. Because of this work as a mere claiming or gesture of what could be considered art, the work becomes comically substantial, and through that substance, it becomes relevant to show a public that might not initially understand. When I read about other viewers becoming angry at the piece, I feel better than how I did initially because it is a warranted spelling-out of ignorances. Instead of the trust of time to convey substance, the viewer is forced to rely upon the trust of relevance, from the gallery that supports the work. This is admittedly harder, and therefore more tasteful. The same trust required for Friedman would have been necessary for the object of my grandfather’s gray casket had it been closed. But my Aunt thought a funeral with an open casket would be more effective. The same debate that exists with Friedman’s 1000 hours exists as well for Smith in two forms, on Ann Gordon’s blog from eight years ago.
Friedman and Smith are two very different artists, both with varying works of multiple functions, but in this instance, Smith’s pipe hose provides a very similar experience. It is a rare thing to be moved by art and this piece has its effect along with one or two others in the show. However, my complaint with this current show is no different from the shit-givers in the 1000 hrs. commentary. Though some works are potent, I wait for others in suspended disbelief and worry that the context in which they are shown is extolling an accessibility to every piece when some might be without substance. Perhaps it is with this that a greater context must be considered by the viewer. In talking with Rebecca Mazzei, she comments in a blog post about the artists work:
. . . experimental jazz has taught me that a nice balance exists in the zone of improvisation that is within a composed structure. . . . If you give yourself a solid structure and some time to generate ideas, you can feel free to improvise within that zone and chances are you are skilled enough that it will give rise at least to one moment of greatness. The difference is that in music its easier to improvise because it’s durational and each moment gives rise to something new, whereas visual artists are so hemmed in by the static nature of the object.
As an audience-member, I used to be so incredibly embarassed for improvising musicians whenever I was at a concert, because I found 35 of the 40 minutes were spent watching two people struggle awkwardly to connect. But then I learned to appreciate those 35 minutes almost evenmore -- or I guess at least equal to -- the other five minutes of pure unadulterated spiritual, creative contact. I appreciate the musicians' bravery, for one thing, but also I appreciate that they are affording me the opportunity to undo my own assumption that "good" art always must be a complete thought, a finished work, or somehow resolved . . .
Part of me assumes that when I don’t have a meaningful experience with an art-object, there is nothing compelling within it, and I am left to the closed-minded and failed question, ‘Why did the artist place this here?’. But it is within this notion of improvisation that I begin to find a pleasure in the aesthetic choice of having two out of four pedestals totally rid of works, and believing for a minute that this question of its validity is a product of pure happenstance. And while this is one way to look at it, I also consider the other works that have so inspired me, are just one facet of the greater whole.4
I have a new question as well, and while it is undoubtedly loaded, I also believe this to convey the greater messaianic quality of the artist: “What is Smith’s work about?” I can find no trace in which the artist addresses this question at length (a written paragraph) in his own words despite the many glorifying or otherwise neutral articles written about his work by others. I wonder, is this the same question Steve McGee posed to Smith in his video interview, a point-blank question of what exactly we are being shown? A work can be made and a statement can be made, and the two could function in a new way together, but never should a statement as an explanation suffice for a work, it can only retract. The way Smith appears to explain these experiences to others is inspiring (check at 4:35). An artist and their work don’t gain anything (power) from making explanatory statements ABOUT the work. Smith’s best works in this sense, function as reflexive objects, hopefully for future generations to re-contextualize over and over again.
And as I sit in my parents garage, staggering at this point, I consider my grandpa’s casket one more time. Had it been closed, I still would have thought of him, probably in a better way, and I could have gathered an image of him that was even better than the one with the golf-ball in his throat. It is this trust that I initially like about Michael E. Smith’s work, an ambiguity that similarly keeps it isolated from a broader public embrace. As the short black girl tries to peer over the pipe on the tips of her toes to see clarinets, I think of Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise5,1916 or Fountain, 1917, and their residual mysteries, or Robert Morris’ Box with the sound of its own making, 1961, and others in-between and to follow who recognize that contemporary art, with its distension from an art based around an overt showing of physical craft, otherwise equated in hours or monetary value, is somehow more impressing and tasteful and timeless. And I consider my grandpa’s wake shortly before the pall-bearers filed into the funeral home, of watching my marine uncle slip some bubble gum into the casket under my grandpa’s sleeve and my mother rebuking him and I, with bloodshot eyes cry even more, staring at the empty shell.
1 This conclusion is based from previous works in which the artist has alluded to his personal history with substance abuse, through projects like the one mentioned on Flagler Memorial Island, or the titles of some works such as ‘Dope Dog’ in which a dog is videoed flinching in its sleep, for objects within the work, of bent spoons or depictions of massive joints.
Rosalind Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press 1977: p. 72, paragraph 1
My girlfriend has warned me that the correct word here is actually ‘peon’ but I’m going to roll with it as this new spelling seems to work just as well.
“. . . we are compelled to follow the circle. This is neither a makeshift or a defect. To enter upon the path is the strength of thought, to continue on it is the feast of thought, assuming thinking is a craft. Not only is the main step from work to art a circle like the step from art to work, but every separate step that we attempt circles this circle.” (Heidegger, Martin. Poetry,Language, Thought. Translation by Albert Hofstadter. New York, New York: Harper & Row,
Publishers. 1971: p. 18, paragraph 3).
“For this piece, made on Easter Day 1916, Duchamp set a ball of nautical twine between two brass plates. He then asked his friend and patron Walter Arensberg to place an unknown object inside before he clamped the Readymade shut with four long screws. The title alludes to the rattling sound the hidden object makes when shaken. Duchamp requested that Arensberg never tell him what the secret thing was, preferring to remain blissfully ignorant of his work's ‘content.’“(Ann Temkin, Susan Rosenberg, and Michael Taylor, with Rachel Arauz. Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Philadelphia Museum of Art. 2000: p. 48).