Michael E. Smith

Michael Benevento, Los Angeles, USA

Slashing the back wall of a dark room at Michael Benevento is the shape of what used to be called ‘the number sign’. If you whip out your smartphone to take a flash photo for your Instagram feed, or simply to use its torch function to view the work better, the relief jumps into soft-core clarity; the hashtag form appears sculpted from something like bloody stool. Smith has a rare ability to do a lot with a little: attracting and repulsing viewers by dimming rooms and adding garish fluorescents; cutting off the gallery’s circulation by blocking the hall with a glass-topped patio table overturned on a shellacked blowfish; or, right at the entrance, opening a door onto a grungy, carpeted lobby, where one of his signature assemblages sits – a hacked-up bicycle frame resting on a disposable nappy (all works Untitled, 2017). The scrap bike is upsetting enough; the scrap room is something else entirely. 

Michael E. Smith, Untitled, 2017, installation view, Michael Benevento, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and Michael Benevento, Los Angeles

Michael E. Smith, Untitled, 2017, installation view, Michael Benevento, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and Michael Benevento, Los Angeles

Michael E. Smith, Untitled, 2017, installation view, Michael Benevento, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and Michael Benevento, Los Angeles

The work here follows a pared-down, punk version of Jasper Johns’s formula: one thing plus another thing equals art. Smith strives to induce the greatest revulsion from the smallest gesture, and sleazing up a white cube’s back end proves to be an efficient method. The skylight of another room is obscured by a fleece blanket patterned with leaping Super Marios. By day, the gallery takes on a pale-blue cast; it could almost be cosy, except that those cut-rate blankets evoke both 64-bit teenage escapism and the soiled
bedding of the homeless, camped just two blocks east of the gallery. On the floor beneath the skylight are two vinyl, 3D models, printed from CAT scans of dogs with brain tumours. It’s hard to miss the joke – the combine is a little too Dr Seussian to be surrealist – but Smith’s pun is only one dry indignity. For the other: one of the heads rests on a nappy.

Michael E. Smith, Untitled, 2017, vinyl rendering of canine CAT scans and diaper, installation view, Michael Benevento, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and Michael Benevento, Los Angeles

Michael E. Smith, Untitled, 2017, vinyl rendering of canine CAT scans and diaper, installation view, Michael Benevento, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and Michael Benevento, Los Angeles

Michael E. Smith, Untitled, 2017, vinyl rendering of canine CAT scans and diaper, installation view, Michael Benevento, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and Michael Benevento, Los Angeles

The white, skull-like sculptures have the appearance both of inanimate objects and actual corpses; indeed, they index the deaths of real dogs. But the prints do not distinguish between the scan’s info and noise: their masses incorporate skin, fur, brain and tumour alike; meaningless, globular artefacts bleed out like tailings from a cast. The morbid sensation they transmit, in galleries lit like horror-film hospitals, carries over to the readymades. In a corner across from the heads, another overturned patio table rests on a
blowfish; legs up, it seems dead.

Michael E. Smith, Fish Oil, 2017, fish, table, installation view, Michael Benevento, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and Michael Benevento, Los Angeles

Michael E. Smith, Fish Oil, 2017, fish, table, installation view, Michael Benevento, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and Michael Benevento, Los Angeles

Michael E. Smith, Fish Oil, 2017, fish, table, installation view, Michael Benevento, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and Michael Benevento, Los Angeles

In his reduction of Johns’s equation, Smith manages to shove a caesura between thing and thing, so that the art is more than the sum of its parts. For another work, Smith has scooted all the gallery’s office computers onto one of two desks and bracketed the remaining one with raccoon paws: two on each end, like quotation marks. Running the length of the workable desk, as well as coiled on a nail in the bathroom, are thin plastic tubes stuffed with dead bees, which – in case you’ve been distracted by other tragedies – are quietly heading towards extinction. A photograph can’t quite capture the sculptures’ dead and dying looks. On the show’s opening night, a bucket of deflated white balloons sat in the gallery’s asphalt backyard. Visitors could blow them up and set them free; bobbing around the car park like stray cats, their round, pale forms served as a reminder of those CAT-scanned dogs. It was a celebration, but with an expiration date: we’ve all seen what happens to balloons in the sun.

Main image: Michael E. Smith, Untitled (detail), 2017, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Michael Benevento, Los Angeles

Travis Diehl is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and is a recipient of the Creative Capital / Warhol Foundation Art Writers Grant. 

Most Read

Remembering the pioneering composer, visionary thinker, multimedia artist and techno-utopian, who died in May
Jennifer Piejko's guide to the best current shows in LA
Ei Arakawa work stolen from Skulptur Projekte Münster; Richard Mosse arrested; three men charged over counterfeit...
Joyce Pensato, Landscape Mickey, 2017. Courtesy: Lisson Gallery, London
Lisson Gallery, London, UK
Coinciding with Refugee Week, and her film Hear Her Singing screening at the Southbank Centre, the artist shares some...
Gilda Williams visits the first edition of the ARoS Triennial in Aarhus, Denmark
The Haitian Revolution as a lesson in corporate leadership and meeting the 'prophet of the Anthropocene': what to read...
Creative Time launches series of protest flags; photographer Khadija Saye reported as a victim of London's Grenfell...
A recent retrospective at the Museo Ettore Fico in Turin establishes the overlooked importance of a ‘total artist’
The third edition of the London performance festival makes the case for collective action in an age of political...
A past winner of the Frieze Writer’s Prize, Zoe Pilger on the books and experiences that have influenced her as a writer
A guide to the best projects included in Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017
For the first in a series of our editors’ initial impressions from documenta 14 Kassel, Pablo Larios on the Neue...
Art sees itself as facing a crisis of legitimation – can this account for claims to 'authenticity' being made in shows...

An interview with the late artist on the unique classification system he devised to organize his books
The independent curator on 25 years in the arts

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2017

frieze magazine

May 2017

frieze magazine

June – August 2017