New York

Alexis Smith

Holly Solomon Gallery

When you walk into Alexis Smith’s rendition of what these United States are all about, or were about between the wars, you enter through an arch in a white picket fence. Silhouettes of houses, and trees, either cut-outs or painted directly on the wall, are presented with pithy excerpts from Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust. All of the pictures and the text are about American middle-class desires and illusions, as embodied in images from a mythic past. On the rear wall, there is a looming silhouette of an ocean liner from the days when men were men, and a perfectly charming grey-and-black silhouette of the car in which Isadora Duncan took her final spin, along with texts alluding to sobering social realities, taken from John Dos Passos’ The Big Money. On the adjoining wall, there are silhouettes of telephone poles, and even a real bale of hay to hurdle. The many details make it necessary for the viewer to spend some time contemplating their cinematic flow.

This is like a carnival, but it’s one that only at first feels warm and comfortable, at which there don’t seem to be any bad rides (despite the memory of Isadora). While Jon Borofsky’s recent installation at the Paula Cooper Gallery had a messy, post-carnival look, Smith’s piece evokes the placid order of a well-run church social. But the text excerpts that Smith presents are about anguish and disillusionment.

The more you read, and the more you place words and pictures together, the more incongruous the juxtapositions become. Smith’s meticulous execution of her images is inviting, but also manipulative and ironic. It’s difficult to do justice visually to the frenzied lives of the characters created by Dos Passos or West; Smith, to her credit, doesn’t try to reproduce that frenzy.

Among her collages of innocent-looking doilies, buttons and cardboard-framed pictures, a character from Day of the Locust confesses to a friend that without fame she will surely die; and Dos Passos’ ode to Isadora’s tragic death becomes more poignant when we focus on the silhouette of the grey-and-black car, or the false houses, or the top of the cheery ocean liner or the clean telephone poles—because they describe the dangerous innocence of the ’20s. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Smith shows in her work a love/hate relationship with that era. The execution of her images, and her choice of texts, show its hollowness and fragility, but not without paying homage to its seductiveness.

Joan Casademont