Mickey Smith

New York

Mickey Smith: That Woman (2010): Images courtesy the artist and Invisible Exports, New York.Mickey Smith: That Woman (2010): Images courtesy the artist and Invisible Exports, New York.

By Bill Clarke

Mickey Smith
Invisible Exports
Oct. 29 – Dec. 5, 2010

In previous bodies of work, the Minnesota- and New York-based Smith has used books as the subject of her photographs. For the series Volume: Collocations (2009), she photographed the spines of bound volumes of magazines such as Life and Time. The wear and tear on the spines of these tomes seems appropriate for books labelled ‘time’ or ‘life’, but there is also a poignancy to these images. Although these periodicals have seen better days, Smith reproduces them at a large scale; they tower over viewers, reminding us that once words are printed on a page, they carry with them a certain authority.

Mickey Smith: Believe You Me (2010): installation view.Mickey Smith: Believe You Me (2010): installation view.At least, that is our assumption, and the notion that books convey an air of authority and authenticity to those surrounded by them is examined in this exhibition, Believe You Me. In three series of found or appropriated images, Smith examines how books have been used to convey human ambition and aspirations. Among the images taken from the Internet is Reading List for America, which pictures Osama bin Laden – the top of his head cropped off along the upper edge of the photograph – standing before tall shelves of elaborately bound, encyclopedic-looking volumes. That Woman pictures former U.S. President Bill Clinton during his “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” press conference; the shelf of blue books behind him conveying a sense of credibility that, in the end, proved untrue, while an image of the top of Donald Rumsfeld’s head framed by a wall of books tells a similar story. In a less politically charged screen-grab, a googly-eyed Cookie Monster hosts an episode of Monsterpiece Theatre on Sesame Street, sitting in a comfy chair surrounded by a library of old books. A second suite of re-photographed vintage portraits – mom, dad and the kids, or happy couples, posing before painted backdrops of bookshelves – speak to middle-class dreams of upward mobility.

To view these images, visitors to the gallery had to step up onto a platform of books built in the middle of the gallery floor. By doing so, we are prompted to think about our changing relationship to books. As we stand on these books, which turn out to be bound copies of legal journals, we realize that although the content of these books is meant to promote fairness and social order, we are, literally, walking all over the law.

The final series of images in the back of the gallery were found by the artist in the New York Public Library’s picture collection, and feature cultural luminaries such as Helen Keller, Martin Luther King, Sylvia Plath and Albert Einstein in staged portraits before walls of books. Here, there seems to be a subtle exchange of power between these figures and the shelves of books in the backgrounds. One wonders if shelves lined with e-readers will have the same effect in the future.