Los Angeles

Alexis Smith

Rosamund Felsen Gallery and Margo Leavin Gallery

Alexis Smith’s appropriations of texts come from popular literature ranging from Thomas Bulfinch’s Mythology to Raymond Chandler novels and pulp romances. They are illustrated by images appropriated from popular art—movie stills, plastic trinkets, wallpaper, jewelry, tarot cards, coins, magazine ads, Chinese firecrackers, and so on. Through the accretions of time, repetition, and haphazard consensus, cultural truths solidify into cliches; Smith’s collages attempt to liquefy, then vaporize these edifices without letting go of the truths calcified within.

Her problem in the past has been to find a formal structure for her art. Her original format—found objects attached to sheets of paper with the narrative typed across the bottom—seemed as ephemeral as the detritus from which it was fashioned. By contrast, the presentation of these sheets, encased edge-to-edge in long Plexiglas boxes, resulted in grating overtones of amateur cultural anthropology.

Slowly the popular imagery within Smith’s work began to appear in the form of murals on which the verbal and visual narratives were hung. These flat, theatrical stage sets on which the collages performed finally exploded into full-blown, walk-in environments: found objects, images, narratives, and murals were splayed across walls and heaped on the floor in Smith’s 1981 installation, Cathay, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Each transformation of format brought less awkwardness and more accessibility than the one before, but Smith still seemed intent on avoiding any overtones of “art” in favor of amateur theatrics or hobbyist anthropology. It was as if she felt her interest in popular clichés had to retain a trashy form. Her two simultaneous gallery exhibitions, however, unveil a significantly different attitude. Gone are the Plexiglas boxes, typed narratives, and environments/collages. In their place are traditional, individually framed, finely crafted collages—art with a capital “A.” The narrative texts—all sign-painter perfect—in the futuristic “Satan’s Satellites” and the nostalgic “Christmas Eve, 1943” interweave Western romances and war, detective, and science fiction novels; the collages themselves, each in fabricated frames (except for three pieces done directly on the wall) whose styles play off both text and imagery, retain Smith’s familiar repertoire of found objects, from swizzle sticks and package labels to hubcaps and paint-by-number paintings. She appropriates from every art imaginable—high art, popular art, industrial art, commercial art, nonvisual art, vernacular art—and from cultural sources as diverse as European, Oriental, Anglo, Chicano, Afro-American, and Indian.

Smith’s chosen juxtapositions trigger a peculiar metastasis. A curved Moderne white-lacquer frame, for example, which is oddly suggestive of a 1930s-style refrigerator, holds a Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon-type movie still of uniformed space cadets wielding ray guns; affixed to that is a magazine ad for an Admiral refrigerator with plastic vegetables glued on. The resulting layering collapses the identity of each element: the space soldier is an admiral, which is a refrigerator, which is a frame, which is a futuristic period piece from the past, which is the imagery of a ’30s sci-fi movie still, which is a space soldier.

Like the narratives and images in this and other works in her dual exhibition, Smith has at last appropriated the very format of her own art; her meaningfully framed collages of ordinary objects return to the formal structure of Picasso’s Still Life with Caned Chair, 1912. The calcified, formal structures of art itself, Smith proposes, are simply cliches which are ripe for retrieval.

Christopher Knight