Los Angeles

Alexis Smith

UC Santa Barbara Art Galleries

For those familiar with Alexis Smith’s recent narrative-collage pieces (her Madame Butterfly, one of the better inclusions of the “Visual/Verbal” show at UC Santa Barbara, had previously been exhibited in last year’s Whitney Biennial), her environment title—Rapido—aroused pleasant expectations of a richly allusive experience replete with savory references, no doubt, to some or many of those romantic, tragic, or, at the very least, mysterious train rides of fiction and film: perhaps to that fast-moving Warsaw train hurtling toward St. Petersburg one prerevolutionary November morning with Prince Myshkin aboard, or to the comfy second-class car of the schnellzug rushing Franz from his provincial home in Lina to aunt and uncle Dreyer in Berlin, or (now with ironic overtones to the title) to the slow-moving local luggage train at Obiralovka that abruptly and tragically ends Anna Arkadyevna’s life. Smith, however, did nothing of the sort. Instead, given free use of the entire main gallery—a healthy-sized though dully lit room with (one now noticed) a rather scruffy floor—she left it almost as she found it.

Initially, in fact, one perceived only the peculiar whirring sound, like the mechanical trill of a distant egg-beater; then one saw it—the tiny train, a paltry three cars plus locomotive, wending its skimpy way on a narrow “N” gauge track along the extreme perimeter of the gallery, following the ins and outs of the wall, entering the two “tunnels” formed by rubber overpasses at the gallery entrances, circumnavigating the 190-foot distance in two minutes and five seconds, continuing regularly with only brief intermissions and without end in sight, but also, unfortunately, without much interest. The intent of the artist, according to a flyer issued by the gallery, was “to act on the viewer’s relative perceptions of scale, distance, time and space by using a world in miniature to suggest-the real world at great distance.” For this viewer, at least, the major shortcoming of Smith’s environment was that during the course of the “six scale miles” supposedly represented by the perimeter of the gallery, one never could imagine it any greater than the 190 feet of its actual distance.

Alexis Smith, however, is an artist who, on other occasions, makes extraordinarily fertile use of what Gaston Bachelard has called “the dynamic virtues of the miniature.” Recently on exhibit among a group of drawings by different hands in the tiny upstairs section of the Broxton Gallery was another one of her narrative-collage wall pieces, a 1975 work entitled B Movie. Like Madame Butterfly and The Red Shoes (parts of which were reproduced in the LAICA Journal #7), this work takes as its core an already extant narrative. The source, as well as an ironic “B-movie” context, is made immediately explicit by a prefatory TV Guide blurb: “ ‘Pandora and the Flying Dutchman’ English 1951. James Mason must wander the earth until he finds a woman who would sacrifice her life for him. Flawed but with eerie fascination. (2 hrs)”

Smith’s procedure is to denude Albert Lewin’s film story of its movie stars and its excesses (though not its romance), substituting instead a lean sequence of events presented on a series of pale green episodic panels; each “page” is succinct and near-poetic in its brief segment of prose, spare and synecdochically concise in its visual-collage accompaniment. A bit of cigar band, for example, becomes a visual trope for character; next time the viewer will know the man by his sign. A stenciled date, unadorned, suffices to establish both era and mood. Primarily, however, collage elements are used as elegant counterpoints—elliptic verbal messages or images providing visual cues to expand the story’s frame of reference.

In place of melodrama, Smith offers the diachronic amplitude of allusions, a bold array of reference made all the richer by her parsimonious means. For instance, with two short unidentified lines—“Hui! falsche Lieb’, falsche Treu’!/Auf, in See! ohne Rast, ohne Ruh!”—neatly inscribed on deep blue green paper and fixed on the pale green ground, the artist manages to evoke not only the ocean swell of Wagnerian opera (the couplet is the conclusion of Senta’s ballad from The Flying Dutchman), but also to recall Wagner’s source, the medieval legend of the doomed mariner. Elsewhere Pandora’s life in art, a curriculum vitae as long as Western culture, is made vivid through reproduction of Neoclassical sculpture, a work portraying in cool Canova-like form (though probably it is by the 19th-century Englishman, Harry Bates) the woman whom the gods endowed with all their gifts. Nor does Smith neglect origins: Hesiod’s cosmogony and his misogynous myth of Pandora are marshaled in brief by a printed excerpt chronicling the children of Kronos.

The foregoing comments may suggest that Alexis Smith’s work is more a labor of criticism than the product of an “original” visual talent. Actually, it is both, and this combination, though surely a requisite minimum for successful conceptual or verbal art, is more rare than one may suppose. One caveat: Smith’s choices of core-story have thus far been blatantly romantic. No doubt such narratives serve her thematic purposes at present. In B Movie the tough Attic simplicity of her style and an acerbic perfume of irony permit such a choice almost without danger of sentimentality. It occurs to me, however, that the narrative-collage method itself may have an even larger and potentially stronger future elsewhere, perhaps in the visual/ verbal realm of disjunctive narrative and sugarless subject matter, a combination more in keeping with contemporary post-Romanticism and our current faith in the saving fragment.

Nancy Marmer