Mike Smith: Drawings: Simple, Obscure and Obtuse
2007, Regency Art Press
The striking thing about Mike Smith’s book, Drawings: Simple, Obscure and Obtuse, is how the work within it is undiagnosable. Not coincidentally, this feature also makes this particular collection of drawings exceptionally difficult to write about. I hesitate even to call the aforementioned work a “book,” as the meandering, sometimes indiscernible writing maneuvers between journal pages, architectural drawings, board-game models and rough storyboards. Smith blurs these categories while also complicating ideas of artistic consistency and credible authorship. The narrative voice in Drawings sometimes reveals “Mike,” an everyman whose world is populated by split-levels and humdrum undergarments. Other times Smith reveals more of himself, an artist stripped of his bumbling alter ego, scribbling shit down on his way to the pantry.
Complicating things even further is the fact that Mike is the obliviously uncool star of Smith’s videos, the work for which he is best known. Most of the drawings in Drawings appear incomplete as they allude to future performances, which may more fully realize ideas. But their incompleteness speaks much more to an audience interested in the construction of Mike and his various stage sets as well as in Mike’s exploits told by any reliable or believable narrator. One of my favorite examples of pants-dropping in Drawings is Smith’s acknowledgement that the shades of brown watercolor he used in a balloon-trading board game were “mixed from many, many years of colors taken from my watercolor case.” This statement and others like it reinforce the fluidity of Smith’s thought between performer and creator.
Really, the book is simply about the artist Mike Smith, who is actually quite complicated. Or maybe it’s about discovering Mike Smith by exposing the “Making Mike” process. Or maybe, as Mike Smith himself claims, it’s about chronicling the “struggle to inject order into his hermetic and quotidian world.”
Along these lines, one of the luxuries of reading Drawings is the recurrence of certain symbols employed by Smith: water coolers, pants, underwear, plateaus, balloons, disco balls, credit cards, aprons. The accumulation of these things is much like Mike’s daily life of accumulating arbitrary objects as he traverses his plateau-ridden Americana. I found myself weary after reading Drawings because attempting to unpack Smith’s winking 1950s semiotics is tiring. But then, I really do think that the unveiling of a common monotony might be the point.