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Issue 236

The Unsettling Assemblages of Michael E. Smith

At the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, the artist’s readymade sculptures prompt a strange empathy between viewer and object

BY Lisette May Monroe in Reviews , UK Reviews | 17 APR 23

At once slapstick yet threatening, Michael E. Smith’s eponymous exhibition of new works at Henry Moore Institute comprises one video and seven sculptures that incorporate elements of everyday and unusual found materials. The artist’s mannered compositions prompt a strange empathy between viewer and object, while their considered placement both responds to and activates the gallery’s architecture.

Michael E. Smith, Untitled, 2021, chests of drawers, 112 × 332 × 50 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Modern Art, London and Henry Moore Institute, Leeds

Smith’s profoundly intuitive process is sensitive to the interplay between the elements he carefully selects. For example, in Untitled (all works 2023), an old flat-screen television lies face down, all its vents on view, an arrow-shaped rock pointing to its corner, the tips almost touching. The quasi-intimate positioning of both objects engenders in the viewer a feeling akin to embarrassment. For Smith, the gallery is a place of becoming: the elements of his sculptures arrive from his studio as incomplete drafts – things full of potential that he has collected over the years. In the studio, he dedicates time to discovering the history of each object, examining its material and sociological qualities. Yet, it isn’t until the pieces arrive in the gallery that he completes them as autonomous sculptures. Directed by the environment, Smith’s works contain a frankness that anchors them firmly in the quotidian.

Pairs of objects prevail in the exhibition. In the first space, a well-worn armchair with its cushions removed has a tableau of taxidermy ducks affixed to its back (Untitled). The work is awkward and off-balance: the ducks, which cannot be seen from the front, hide like they are playing a children’s party game. Smith rescues mostly defunct or well-worn objects, pointing to what he describes in the show’s accompanying text as the late-capitalist cycle of ‘production-consumption-depletion’. In BUGS, a DVD player and a VCR hang on the vast gallery wall. Here, Smith flips these once-familiar, now-obsolete household objects and points them outwards – the watched becoming the watcher.

Michael E. Smith, Untitled, 2023, chair, ducks. Courtesy: the artist, Modern Art, London and Henry Moore Institute, Leeds

Elsewhere, two tables from Smith’s home are stacked on top of each other: their surfaces, where family meals were once eaten, now pressed together (Untitled). The upper table is inverted, its leg rising in the air; on top sits an empty, upturned carton containing small lights. The tables’ undersides and edges reveal the grubby marks from hours of gathering and daily goings-on. In Smith’s hands, the family home becomes a spectral presence. Besides this work, the gallery’s goods lift, usually closed for exhibitions, is open – as if gesturing to the tables with a ‘Ta-dah!’

The artist’s ongoing conversation with art history is apparent, blunt even, with clear nods to minimalism and the reactivation of found objects à la Marcel Duchamp. However, he also toys with the subtle yet forceful institutional conventions by removing any signage from the galleries. Here, the Henry Moore Institute becomes a house of the artist’s imagination, its burly framework bent to his narrative. In turn, by restricting the light in places, opening the lift doors and eschewing signage, Smith ensures his works assert a quiet but very deliberate dominance.

Michael E. Smith, Untitled, 2023, tables, milk jug, LEDs. Courtesy: the artist, Modern Art, London and Henry Moore Institute, Leeds

Outside the main galleries near the entrance, a video of a dog in a kennel plays on a flat-screen television (Untitled). Lying in wait but rarely moving, the animal’s presence suggests protection. Like an exhibition guardian, the dog seems to ensure the safety of the artworks: disparate elements that arrived as component parts and now contain multitudes by the sleight of Smith’s hand.

Michael E. Smiths exhibition is on view at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, until 18 June

Main image: Michael E. Smith, Untitled, 2023, basketballs, stairs. Courtesy: the artist, Modern Art, London and Henry Moore Institute, Leeds

Lisette May Monroe is an artist and writer based in Glasgow, UK. She is the co-founder of Rosie’s Disobedient Press, an artist-led publisher that focuses on writing from marginalized perspectives.