Artists are not known to consider retirement as an option; just look at Ellsworth Kelly, at 92, or Alex Katz, at 88, or Carmen Herrera at 100. So it’s initially disconcerting to see the 64-year-old video and performance artist Michael Smith musing on the advent of his AARP years, in his exhibition “Excuse Me!?!...I’m Looking for the ‘Fountain of Youth’” at Greene Naftali.
The show, Smith's first at this gallery, reminds you that he is still making performance and media art that's as witty and incisive as his television-based works of the 1970s and '80s (which have received significant attention from museums lately, including a place of honor in the Whitney's "Rituals of Rented Island" show). It revolves around a three-act video that stars Smith’s signature character, the “Everyman” known simply as “Mike,” who is everything artists are generally not: mild-mannered, conformist, modest in his ambitions.
In his latest incarnation, "Mike" is also hopelessly maladroit: a graying middle-manager type in khakis who finds himself performing with a company of dancers, all fleet, baby-faced apprentices from the Ballet Austin. (In one memorable sequence, he stumbles through a sea of yoga mats as his nimble cohorts show off their downward dogs.)
In another component of the exhibition—a mock-chivalric installation with short looped videos accompanied by heraldic flags and a tapestry—Smith plays an over-the-hill knight errant whose very ordinary quest seems to consist of looking in his pockets for his keys, glasses, and earbuds. The only “fountain” in sight is a glass vessel that looks suspiciously like an office water cooler.
Smith’s humor, often directed at particular scenes as in his 2009 satire of Burning Man at SculptureCenter, here feels more zeitgeisty. He speaks to a larger cultural narrative of youth-envy exploited to humorous effect; consider Noah Baumbach’s recent film When We Were Young, about a middle-aged couple desperately imitating a millennial one, and the current TV Land sitcom “Younger,” in which a 40-year-old single mom re-entering the workplace tries to pass for 26.
And, of course, he evokes a more persistent bias in the commercial art world, which has long overlooked talented mid-career artists in its pursuit of the next hot MFA graduate. (This point may be obvious, but it’s difficult to overstate it in a speculative market.)
One might also see the “Fountain of Youth” works as the flip side of Smith’s satire of the infantilizing “Burning Man” festival, A Voyage of Growth and Discovery. Made in collaboration with Mike Kelley, this installation and film starred Smith’s other alter ego, the overgrown “Baby Ikki” (who has a very funny cameo in the video at Greene Naftali). Put together, the two bodies of work put forth Smith's age-inappropriate antics as a case of culture skewing younger, not just the artist getting older.