Forever Young: Studio Art Professor Michael Smith explores themes of youth and aging in recent works

Wednesday, October 18, 2017
A group of senior citizens and artist Michael Smith pose in front of a tattoo parlor art installation

Visitors to the art exhibition Skulptur Projekte Münster this summer had an unusual opportunity—to leave the event with an artist’s work permanently tattooed on their body. And if that visitor was over 65? They got a discount.

When he was invited to participate in the project, Studio Art Professor Michael Smith decided to set up a working tattoo parlor that offered discounted rates for senior citizens.

Though he is trained as a painter, Smith now works mostly in performance art and transmedia. His work usually features at least one of the two personas that he’s honed over several decades: Mike, a sweet, naïve Everyman character always searching for the American Dream, but always a beat behind the latest trend or fad, and Baby Ikki, an easily distractible adult-sized toddler with a bonnet and five-o-clock shadow who wanders through places like Burning Man or museums.

While Smith’s work has always explored themes of youth, in the past few years, he’s delved more deeply into themes dealing with aging. His 2015 work Excuse Me!?!...I’m looking for the “Fountain of Youth” explored the parallel searches of Mike and Baby Ikki for the elixir of youth in a journey chronicled as a ballet dance odyssey. The work drew much positive critical attention at its run at the Greene Naftali Gallery in New York and in a livestreamed performance at the Tate Modern in London.

An installation still from Michael Smith's work

Smith had been thinking about tattoos as a concept as part of the “Fountain of Youth” piece, and when he was invited to create a site-specific work at Skulptur Projekte Münster, he decided to explore that theme further. Smith was one of only 35 artists invited to participate in the prestigious art exhibition, which happens every 10 years.

When Smith traveled to Münster for a site visit, he found the city to be very livable and noticed that it had both a thriving community of seniors and a youthful culture, thanks to the nearby university. He decided to create a tattoo parlor, Not Quite Under_Ground, open to everyone, but with an ad campaign targeting senior citizens. He partnered with a local tattoo parlor and Münster tattoo artists and worked with Jesse Cline (M.F.A., Design, 2016) to design the logo, print materials and flash sample book, and with Bill Haddad of Blue House Design in Austin to figure out the layout and design of the physical space for the shop. In addition to reaching out to previous Sculpture Project Münster participants and his excellent network of artist friends to contribute tattoo designs, Smith also created some of his own for the catalog. Designs range from abstract to conceptual, from humorous to downright naughty.

His persona Mike makes an appearance through a travelogue/ promotional video for the shop, which follows Mike and a group of seniors as they tour the city and then visit the shop to get tattoos. Mike opts for a to-do list tattoo. Naturally—in line with his persona—he puts it in a location that makes it hard to remember to do the things on the list: his bum.

“The project’s biggest takeaway is how he turns adolescence and youthful folly into an adult subject. That’s something Michael’s done—not just in this piece—but in work over the last decade,” said Jack Risley, Meredith and Cornelia Long Chair of the Department of Art and Art History. “His work has changed a lot over the years, but it is absolutely consistent.”

Risley visited the work in June and points out that the festival has a history of highlighting artists that define their time—Donald Judd, Richard Serra and Bruce Nauman in 1977, Andrea Zittel in 1987 and Jorge Pardo in 1997 to name a few.

“Michael is an artist with a body of work that spans decades, and now a big part of his project is about reconciling his age with youthful foibles,” said Risley. “The question that so many artists have is how to grow old as an artist and still remain relevant—especially as someone who’s created a persona so identified with youth. To me, that’s the truly compelling part of his work.”

A selection of tattoos available at Michael Smith's art installation

Smith began teaching at UT in 1999 and joined the Studio Art faculty full time in 2001, though he continues to split time between Austin and New York.

Ryan Hawk, who just finished his M.F.A. in Studio Art this past spring, came to UT in large part for the opportunity to study with Smith. In his undergraduate work at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, Hawk found the performance art area of his program to be very austere and formal.

“I saw Michael as the opposite for that—the kind of lineage that he set for himself in the history of performance seemed to be directly at odds with my formal training,” said Hawk. “I was constantly renegotiating my own relationship with the medium of performance art and wanting to operate more in the terrain of video and film. His practice was inspiration for me to do that because it’s something that mirrors his pathway.”

Hawk points out that performance art seldom intersects with the more traditional art world and that Smith is a rare example of an artist who works in both spheres. Smith served as the chair of Hawk’s thesis committee, and Hawk worked as a teaching assistant in multiple classes that Smith taught, including a performance art class for undergraduates last spring.

“We had a special dynamic,” said Hawk. “With him and his classes, and the kind of work that he represents in his own practice and my own more formal training from undergrad— that combined was super effective. I feel like we were a dream team in some regards.”

The students in the class clicked so much that more than half of them went on to form a performance art collective outside of the class

“As art students look to artists as role models, Mike’s work is especially meaningful,” said Risley. “There’s an aspect of being engaged with a community that anticipates the social and relational tilt of contemporary practice. But there’s also his interest in narrative and persona—those are all things that have resonance with our students.”

Photo credits: Top: Michael Smith, Not Quite Under_Ground © Skulptur Projekte 2017. Middle: Michael Smith. Excuse Me!?!...I’m Looking for the ‘Fountain of Youth’ (2015). Production Still. Photo by Michael P. Garza. Bottom: Michael Smith, Not Quite Under_Ground © Skulptur Projekte 2017.

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