Sears Class Portraits (1999-ongoing)
1999 - ongoing
North America, American
Medium and Support:
Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the generosity of the Charina Endowment Fund, 2019
Michael Smith has taught in the Studio Art program at The University of Texas at Austin since 1999. In his best-known works, Smith assumes the role of his performance persona “Mike,” a wide-eyed, and somewhat inept everyman figure. Curator Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, who organized a major show of Smith’s work at the Blanton in 2007, has described the character “Mike” as “a kind of ever-hopeful Candide, adrift in a world of rapid technological advances that he seems incapable of fully comprehending, and stymied by the depersonalization and isolation that have accompanied late twentieth-century life. Ironic in its sharp personification of failure, its also stop-you-in-your-tracks hilarious and poignant, too.”
Smith’s "Sears Class Portraits" blur the line between Smith, the professor and artist, and the theatrical persona of “Mike.” The artist has stated that he tries “to deal with clichés through Mike,” and for this series he adopts the timeworn vocabulary of the class portrait. The portraits are an ongoing project, begun at UT Austin in 1999. Each semester, Smith takes his class to a portrait studio to have a group photo taken. “I ask them to wear their Sunday’s best; however, if this is too difficult for them to manage, they are welcome to wear their normal everyday attire.” Students smile, while Smith adopts the facial expression of “Mike”: his closed mouth is upturned in a half smile and his eyebrows are raised in what appears to be a mood of both pride and comical self-resignation.
The "Sears Class Portraits" series currently comprises seventy such photographs, showing hundreds of college-aged students with Smith positioned “Where’s Waldo”-like among them, against stock portrait studio backdrops. Photographic technology visibly advances, backgrounds vary, and Smith continues to grow older, but the students stay the same age. The work underscores the realities of aging and the passage of time, both in the transition from analog to digital photography and the changes in retail that have put many companies out of business over the past decades: following the recent widespread closure of Sears stores, Smith moved on to Picture People, until they closed. He currently takes his students to J.C. Penney for their class portraits.