In Detroit, the refuse of a broken world often finds refuge in art. For many years, artist Nelson Smith has resisted this Motor City search-and-rescue mission, preferring instead to paint images of such conventional items as toasters, coffee pots and pencils. But recently, bits and pieces of “Detroitus” have made their way into his new work, and it’s gotten all the better for it. Throwing Voices, his show of paintings and drawings currently at Birmingham’s District Arts Gallery, presents Smith in top form, demonstrating that he’s one of the city’s important artists.

Smith judiciously chooses and uses his castoffs, and they resonate in his work because they’re incorporated into the trompe l’oeil illustrations and enigmatic narratives that have been part of his toolbox since the beginning of his career, more than two decades ago. For example, in “Internal Combustion,” thin strips of white wood, louvered like Venetian blinds, are attached to the upper right edge of the painting, and a small wooden ball rolls free in a track set in at the bottom. From left to right, the artwork contains impeccably executed imagery of a toothbrush, a sideways tree stump (with its root system), some text and a man’s fedora, which is positioned above a teacup. Underneath is a ghost-image of an engine diagram. The text tells the story of a man “standing in the middle of a busy highway with his heart in flames.” The root system, the engine and the heart all convert or channel energy, whether it’s natural or manmade (and of a more allegorical variety).

These three icons also represent the different values of art, which is at once a physical thing, a cultural artifact and a meaningful symbol. The ball in this painting — like all art in general — represents potential energy. Unforeseen circumstances, such as a draft of wind or the touch of someone’s hand, could set it into motion. But such actions, just like viewers’ interpretations, are outside of Smith’s control.

In this exhibit, a series of small graphite drawings reveal the artist working with simple concepts and experimenting with iconography that is more fully developed in the paintings. “Germ of an Idea” shows two forms that are full of possibility — an acorn representing an oak tree and a football representing the game, its rules and its players. Smith calls these illustrations “Self-Titled Drawings.” Obviously, they didn’t title themselves — this is Smith toying with the idea that art is shrouded in mystery, and like magic, could be conjured out of thin air rather than by his hand.

He plays such games throughout the show, and even with the exhibit title, Throwing Voices, which is named after the ventriloquist’s trick. Smith presents art as if it’s a parlor game; he’s an entertainer rather than the mystic most artists are romantically made out to be. (It’s no accident that besides being one of Detroit’s premier painters, Smith is one of the city’s most influential performance artists).

Ever since his youthful critiques of suburban banality (my favorite Nelson Smith line is from a 1980s performance: “Sculptured carpeting makes me nervous,” set to an electric egg beater and power drill sound track), Smith has pulled back the curtain in the contemporary art world while creating an air of mystery of his own. It may not be magic in the metaphysical sense, but it’s fitting enough enchantment for these postmodern times.


Runs through Jan. 7 at District Arts Gallery, 955 S. Eton St., Birmingham; 248-258-9300.

Vince Carducci writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to

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