Los Angeles

Alexis Smith

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

A friend of mine has a term for the continuing spate, in art, of miniature sculpture (particularly little houses), born-again tacky decor, “bad” figuration, videotaped dog acts, verbal/visual one-liners, rhinestone paintings, all the varieties of post-Conceptual, post-everything cuddliness and whimsy. He calls it Cutism. This implies that the stuff is all a lollipop plague, and I don’t agree, but you don’t have to agree with a good, bitchy crack to find it useful in sorting out your responses. You can start testing for work that fits the letter but eludes the mean spirit of the designation: Are the dandyish jokes of Ed Ruscha, for instance, Cutist? They are cute: hyper-self-conscious, confected drolleries. But they also (also?) embody an attitude toward experience, Los Angeles division, that seems fairly compelling. I don’t think it’s too much to say that they are about how to maintain spiritual poise in a spirit-imperiling clime: by accepting the full force of the place, then diverting it, judo-fashion. They have a tough, wise, survivor irony that ought to be stirring to all the America-afflicted—to, that is, all sentient Americans.

Another artist very much of and about Los Angeles, and an apparent Cutist of the first water, is Alexis Smith, who by her very appropriation of the name of a halcyon movie star (confusingly enough, one now enjoying a Broadway comeback) declares her allegiance to the Western dream of self-invention. Smith’s recent works are also appropriations, of scenes from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and of wisecracks from Raymond Chandler. These are typed on construction paper—the Mann in sequential panels, the Chandler individually—to which are added collage elements that relate brightly and usually none-too-subtly to something in the words. Thus Chandler’s famous introduction of his sacred monster Moose Maloy—“He looked as unobtrusive as a tarantula on a slice of angel food”—is decorated with a rubber spider, and an old postcard of a crate of California oranges illustrates this bitter little profundity: “I gave the front door the heavy shoulder. This was foolish. About the only part of a California house you can’t put your foot through is the front door.”— Most of Smith’s liftings from Chandler concern sex, the source, for that writer, of more authentic fear and violence than all the gunmen and crooked cops: “She smoothed her hair with that quick gesture, like a bird preening itself. Ten thousand years of practice behind it.” (Two bobby pins.)

\Chandler remains the poet of Los Angeles, and his appeal to Smith is not surprising; but Thomas Mann? The four passages of The Magic Mountain she illustrates—the hero Hans Castorp’s first experiences of the cinema and a gramophone, and his obsessive observations of a sunset and a pocket watch—are marvelous writing, but exactly what they mean to Smith cannot even be guessed. The one-point humor of her collage embellishments is uninformative. One is left, then, with the fact of a literary text, a very good one, presented with evident approval and enthusiasm.

In effect, Smith’s new work is about the sheer phenomenon of having literary taste—and wanting to share it. On Halloween Night she gave well-attended readings of the séance scene from The Magic Mountain, backed up by jack-o’-lanterns carved with faces in imitation of German Expressionist paintings (images roughly contemporary to the book). The impulse here seems generous and even brave. (You have to live in Los Angeles for a while to experience how eccentric, not to say bizarre, a serious concern for literature can feel in a big city.) But there is something sadly hermetic, too, about the work, which speaks more of the loneliness of its excitements than of their pleasure. The collages are invitations to what turns out to be a pretty frustrating party. You like the hostess, but she does all the talking.

Peter Schjeldahl