PRINT December 1976

Alexis Smith: The Narrative Act

ALEXIS SMITH RANSACKS PUBLISHED TEXTS as boldly as Jonson is said (by Dryden) to have invaded the Ancients. The spare and elegant wall pieces that Smith has been constructing since 1973 combine her literary loot with a piquant range of found images and objects. The blend is fresh—neither illustration nor adaptation, but a personal hybrid indifferent to the boundaries between art and literature, and brazen enough to combine the two.

Smith’s story-collages grow out of the conceptualist ambience; they retain a lean conceptualist look and the conceptualist’s self-conscious, sometimes ironic mood. But their motivating energy is different. For Smith, the narrative is a springboard to thematic statement and sensuous experience, not a substitute for pictorial ideas. Her works link borrowed stories and visual imagery in an oblique, tropelike balance, a difficult equation that, at its best, can provide the viewer with an epiphanic glow. Collaborating in the space of her panels, image and narrative modify each other and excite in each other the possibility of new synesthetic meanings.

Smith’s plexiglas-encased sequences of pastel letter-size paper, with their neatly typed texts and their terse images precisely fixed to the page, have the chaste appearance of entomological specimens on display. Yet this prim format, complemented by open spaces and cool color harmonies, permits the artist to touch easily on themes that, if familiar to romantic literature, are not usually at home in the visual arts, and that in another, less stringent, context might seem grandiose.

Her wall pieces allude to the isolation of the artist, the irreconcilable conflict (for women) between love and art, the world of dreams versus the dream that is reality, the role of magic and mystery in the universe, and—almost everywhere in her work—the inevitable drama of destiny. Portents and prophecies frame her narratives. Old catastrophes encroach. Conclusions are often tragic. And, not surprisingly, myths are recurrent motifs, appearing in such works as Orpheus: 3 Movies (1974), B-Movie, or Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1975), and Atalanta and the Golden Apples (1976). Even when the role of fate is minor in the original source—in, for example, the recently completed Temple of the Golden Pavilion (an ambitious, 24-panel work based on the Yukio Mishima novel)—Smith discovers submerged references to the theme and gives it a personal emphasis and prominence not found in the Urtext.

At first glance, Smith’s pale wall pieces appear insistently innocent of complex motives, and she herself prefers to adopt the faux-naif pose of the artist as medium—a mere narrator of other people’s tales, a story-teller, a “person for passing on information.” Smith explains her work as a means of conveying her own delectation in reading—the “visual trips” she takes with a book, the associations a text arouses, the personal meanings a particular narrative holds for her own life. She also talks warmly about the pleasures of reading aloud and being read to, and, in a private performance this past summer in Los Angeles, in fact assumed the guise of “Scheherazade the Storyteller.”

The setting was an installation-environment arranged to suggest Eastern sumptuousness (candlelight, Persian rugs, bubbling fountain, hashish, pillows, etc.) and the performance consisted of Smith, appropriately costumed, reading aloud from the Arabian Nights to a small audience on five consecutive August evenings. A group of important new wall pieces (Smith calls them “tales of mystery and enchantment”) are specifically linked by the artist to this performance; it is, however, some indication of the actual complexities of Smith’s artistic persona that, of the four works in question, three (The Aleph, The South, and A Tale of Two Dreamers) take their point of departure not from the Arabian Nights tales themselves, but from intricate stories by the well-known Argentinian fictionist, Jorge Luis Borges, who himself alludes to the Thousand and One Nights (and its various editions) with notable frequency.

Smith’s treatment of purloined texts varies greatly from work to work, but it is usually less straightforward than she would have us believe. She has reduced full-length novels to the size of the short-short; she has combined scripts from several movies to form a single narrative; she has mixed excerpts from different stories by the same author; she has composed her own pastiches from various versions of mythological tales; and she has constructed quasi-original texts out of film publicity releases. She often embraces her literary plunder as if, like color, it were the natural raw material of art, and does not hesitate to make drastic excisions, to add new introductions, to alter the sequence of events, or to discover new conclusions. In short, though she may borrow literature, she makes it her own. What she chooses to retain of the source and the nature of her cuts reveals clearly Smith’s own pictorial and thematic interests.

Thus, though it is possible to view her just-completed work, The Aleph, as a testimonial to the “plurality” of the original text (its capacity, that is, to encompass multiple meanings), Smith’s “reading” of the Borges story is a ruthless condensation that offers not merely a new meaning but is indeed a new text. The heart of the original is a first-person account by an unreliable narrator named Borges of his ineffable (but described) experience in viewing the Aleph—a mirrorlike, spherical point in space that mysteriously and simultaneously reflects all aspects of the universe. In the original labyrinthine story, the protagonist’s magical and moving vision is ringed by layers of irony and contradiction: there is Borges’ account of his ambiguous love for Beatriz Viterbo, his hate-envy relationship with Carlos Argentino Daneri, the poet-owner of the Aleph, his satire of Carlos’ poetry, his mock-scholarly “proof” of the existence of a real Aleph, and, finally, his disingenuous claim that Carlos Argentino’s Aleph is false.

Smith’s wall piece, a subtle work in 20 panels on blue letter-size sheets of paper, eliminates in its text the entire ironic superstructure of the original, retaining only a suggestion of hostility between the now unexceptionable’ Borges and the Aleph-owner, Carlos Argentino. She concentrates instead on the miraculous vision itself, devoting most of her “pages” to detailing and expanding (by virtue of the open space of the page surrounding each now isolated particular) Borges’ vision of the Aleph. Here, as elsewhere in her work, she succeeds in italicizing a romantic, magical, and theatrical quality in her version of the text, in providing a backdrop of mystery and large emotions against which her special breed of diminutive, tart imagery can work best. Typically, in each wall piece Smith establishes patterns of similar or related images, patterns that both unify the work and create an accelerating narrative rhythm. The Aleph, for example, has a splendid leitmotif of maps; they appear in six different guises—each allusive, each somehow surprising, each narratively and pictorially apt. One map, a polar coordinate chart, occupies a full panel unaccompanied by any text. It immediately follows the protagonist’s account of his ability to see all things from “every angle of the universe”; within Smith’s ordinarily miniaturist world, this notebook-size page has the impact of large scale. When, at the end of the piece, Borges is calmed by forgetfulness, Smith’s midget polar map is a perfect symbol for the hero’s shrunken awareness.

Smith’s cunning, found images or objects are often (as in the miniature map) a winsome type of understatement. Such visual materials as, for instance, a straight pin with a tiny spherical head for the all-inclusive points of the Aleph, two delicate cross-sections of a conch shell for the “teeming sea,” and, throughout the work as demotic emblems of infinity, a variety of repeating circles in the form of doilies, round playing cards, polar maps, and circular pin-holders, play against the urgent emotions of the text to provide the ironic counterpoint now verbally missing in the text. Yet in Smith’s version the irony is gentle, a wry flavor rather than a sting, and magic is the message.

The ironic effect of some of Smith’s imagery by no means delimits the character of her visual materials (some of her imagery is decidedly romantic and expansive), but irony by understatement is the quality that grows most obviously out of her earliest non-narrative work in which the artist frequently appealed to the viewer’s perception of visual or verbal dissonances. Smith, who is 27 years old, a native of Los Angeles, and a graduate of the art department at UC Irvine, began her career as a conceptualist and a maker of books. From 1970 to 1973 she composed elaborately decorated folders filled with sparsely treated, unbound pages. Some of her books contained deadpan fragmentary texts or phrases in conjunction with pictorial matter, while others relied for their intended wit on a series of related visual images. Smith’s book idiom was more whimsical than serious and, like the drawings she still executes, much given to verbal or visual puns.

Thus far there have been two crucial steps in the evolution of Smith’s art: one was the decision three years ago to move her “pages” to the wall and to present them as a conceptuallike collage sequence of images and “information”; second, and most important, was her realization in 1974 that she might use not only borrowed prose excerpts but entire narrative fictions as the structural basis of her work. Early wall pieces such as Charlie Chan and The Einstein Piece (both of 1973) were expositional, offering the material for a proposition or a thesis, rather than the elements of a fiction. Odd bits of found prose and sardonic or surrealist images punctuate these works; the texts are fragmentary and include, among other material, notations on bizarre psychological or scientific experiments, ironic observations on the relationship between madness and art, oblique comments on the role of the artist in society, and examinations of the relationship between movies and dreams.

A transitional piece between Smith’s early work and the later narrative-collages, Orpheus: 3 Movies, drew its text from the scripts of three different films, Orphée, The Fugitive Kind, and Black Orpheus. But the real “break-through” to her current style came, according to the artist, in 1975 with a work based on the libretto of Madame Butterfly. Other wall pieces that year borrowed their narrative underpinnings from films (e.g. Masculine Feminine, and The Red Shoes) and from such literary works as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and Hesse’s Magister Ludi.

The success of Smith’s undertaking hinges on her ability to establish a delicate balance of text and image—that is, on her sensitive divisions of the (altered) narrative into usable and contiguous lexias (to borrow Roland Barthes’ convenient term) and her percipient choice of images capable of fusing with, playing against, and sensuously expanding the text without visually overwhelming it. The predominantly cool, unruffled tone of Smith’s work suggests the special attentiveness of the artist to harmonious color and to the task of balancing the weight of the text against the immediacy of her visual materials.

Even more complex and intriguing is the ideational structure of the bond created between lexia and image. Smith’s practice is varied; it ranges from her use of images or objects that function centripetally, remaining extremely close to the words of the text and giving no more than sensuous particularity to a key term or phrase, to those images that are much less literal, that act centrifugally, expanding outward from the narrative by surprising associative leaps, complementing and extending the text by metaphoric processes that find their parallels in the structure of figurative language.

At one end of the scale, for example, there is the seventh panel of The South, in which the text reveals that the protagonist, Dahlmann, who is in the hospital with septicemia, has had his head shaved. Smith’s visual counterpart, an actual swirl of reddish hair, is a metonymic detail with sensuous impact, ornamental value, and a coloristic compositional interest; but it neither startles nor expands outward from the text very far.

In the same work, however, the lexia of an immediately subsequent panel describes the patient’s post-operative sense of personal disgust—his nausea, his physical desuetude, the hate he feels for his “identity, his bodily necessities, his humiliation, the beard which bristled upon his face”; the attached rusty razor blade may of course be seen literally as an illustration of Dahlmann’s unused implement, but in context the object seems full of broader implications; it becomes a succinct metaphor for bodily decay, for the inexorable passage of time, for the rust and deterioration of the man himself.

Certain of Smith’s objects are puns on words of the text; others function wittily as if they were half of a verbal simile. A stale piece of bread in the ninth panel of Atalanta and the Golden Apples, for example, is the visual equivalent of Hippomenes’ dry throat. A feather, in the same work, is an emblem for the light tread of the racing couple, a simile that in the text would have been verbally trite; pictorially, however, it is charming.

Smith also knows how to use her images as haunting narrative echoes and for shocking dramatic effect. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, for instance, concludes with a textless blue page containing only broken fragments of brown glass. The metaphor is borrowed from the narrative itself; earlier in the text, the protagonist’s incoherent life has been compared to the pieces of a broken beer bottle. At that point, the addition of even the tiniest splinters of actual glass would have seemed heavy-handed. It is an instance of Smith’s characteristic pictorial tact that her visual equivalent of the textual metaphor should be employed instead at the end, where it not only substitutes for a verbal description of the burning of the golden temple, but at the same time reverberates with meaning as an allusion to the broken life of the arsonist-protagonist.

Smith’s format is both intimate and spacious. It is roomy enough to absorb literature into art, and intimate enough to permit her free use of the type of ambiguous self-references that are characteristic of her favored author, Borges. Theoreticians from Alberti to Reynolds urged artists to warm their imaginations with literature. If Smith’s art takes that advice seriously, if she behaves as if Lessing had never lived and ut pictura poesis were still the reigning doctrine, she also combines that humanism with a contemporary self-implicating irony. Her illuminated narratives may masquerade as romantic innocents; their self-conscious stance, however, is what identifies them as a very knowing brand of post-conceptual romance.