Not to get too existential about it, but we’re all losers in the end. Michael Smith has simply turned this sad but true condition into a lifetime pursuit, and raised it to an art form. For more than three decades, this 50-year-old performance artist-cum-conceptual comedian has specialized in presenting casual setups, strewn with stuff, that add up to intricate narratives of failure. A consummate explorer of the land of the loser, Smith has given this realm detail, life, and logic, while limning a fine line between reality and satire. Master of a genre that has been called installation verité—a category that lately includes Jason Dodge, Tracey Emin, and Mark Dion—Smith is honorary mascot of the infinitely oddball aesthetic of off.
Everything about his current exhibition—his third collaboration with the wily producer-director (and former Fillmore East light show impresario) Joshua White—is brilliantly, cringingly off. If English were German, the pair’s sensibility could be summed up in a long compound word meaning the amusement, aversion, and embarrassment experienced in response to the inept, deluded good intentions of others. The best word we have may be qualmishness. Whatever it’s called, these crafty sad sacks have perfect pitch when it comes to this unnameable quality. Everything about Smith and White’s latest exhibition—from its ungainly title, “The QuinQuag Arts and Wellness Centre,” to its gaudy announcement, complete with clashing typefaces and seedy dotcom sponsors—brings us closer to the farthest shores of failure.
Walking into Burgin’s small space is like entering a morality warp. Smugness and love intermingle. Insignificance fills the air. Everything is shoddy and hapless. It’s the visual equivalent of listening to a radio call-in show about sex. You get the feeling that no matter how unpolished you are, whoever put this together is worse. Yet your heart goes out to them. Four dowdy display panels line one wall. Each sports an array of old photographs, maps, and mementos. Pictured are artsy types, people painting, communal meals, ramshackle studios, and a kiln. Everyone in the pictures is a little frumpy. Text panels and captions convey an intricate backstory—the fictional history of QuinQuag, a Catskills artists’ colony founded in 1950 by Isabelle Nash, the wife of a well-off Buffalo dental supplies manufacturer. The colony has fallen on hard times since its founder’s recent death.
On the far wall, in front of a portrait of President Kennedy, an imitation JFK rocking chair revolves on a turntable. According to legend, QuinQuag “might have” made the original rocker bought by Jackie for Jack. This fateful happenstance created a windfall for the colony. But after the assassination, the colony nearly went broke, and its marketing of a “Halston Rocker” flopped. Another wall is covered with dozens of sprightly but homely ceramic tiles—some with peace signs or cardinals, others with festive abstract patterns or landscapes. All are supposedly for sale, and look like the work of—for want of a better term—failed artists.
In the corner, a sad architectural model, cobbled together from children’s building blocks, has structures labeled “Tram Station,” “Pepsi Holistic Healing Centre,” and “Solar Power Centre.” Next to this pitiable thing, a monitor plays a videotape. Ostensibly made by a French TV show called Millennium Visions, this mock documentary describes the efforts of “Mike” (the amiable Mr. Smith, playing an “entrepreneur” who made his money in the stock photo business) to save QuinQuag after his fiancée, a much younger performance artist-movement therapist, discovered the remnants of the colony on his property. Ever ambitious, our hero—who has previously adopted the personae of failed variety-show host, melancholy proprietor of a fallout shelter-snack bar, and most memorably, the luckless founder of a now defunct disco lighting-effects outlet—sets out to “wed science, wellness, and art under one umbrella.” The glazed tiles—which have been made by QuinQuagians—are one of Mike’s fundraising ideas. As Oscar Wilde said, “Ambition is the last refuge of the failure.”
In Mike, Smith combines the stone face of Keaton, the sweetness of Chaplin, and the cloying mildness of Albert Brooks. With his compact stature and ill-fitting, out-of-style clothes, he’s a great, understated physical comic and a master of deadpan delivery. Nobody’s better at creating schmoes. Yet for all his foibles, his Mike is always hopeful, ever the softy. As he says, “I look out on the horizon and I see the future.” In his news release he predicts “executive retreats, media training sessions, and A-list launch parties.”
Although their installation is ungainly and unvisual, Smith and White create a real tension between the fact and fear of failure. We see this cast of also-rans reminiscing about how Robert Motherwell once painted a tile in the ceramics studio, or the afternoon Louise Nevelson used the wood shop. Smith and White hit close to home, which makes the piece that much more poignant. The subject of the failed artist is one that’s never far from most of our minds, and in all likelihood, many of our futures. In that sense this installation is a black comedy: small, jaunty, and skit-like, yet foreboding and barbed. Smith and White give credence to the great critic Max Beerbohm’s canny observation that “sometimes failure is more interesting than success.”