Los Angeles

Alexis Smith

Margo Leavin Gallery

Alexis Smith’s new series of collages is collectively titled “Jane,” 1985, and consists of juxtaposed fragments from the memories and myths associated with famous Janes of film and literature. As usual, Smith’s source is mass-media and pop-culture imagery from the late ’40s and ’50s: maps to movie stars’ homes, key rings and costume jewelry, old newspaper clippings, painted neckties, and pieces of fabric. The fragments are then tied together loosely by a text —isolated phrases and sentences which allude to, but refuse to embody, a wider narrative.

Smith’s strategy is to accentuate the paradoxes of collage itself, to stress the instability of the overall pictorial construct, by making obvious the artificial juxtapositions of the collaged fragments and the often banal clichés of the source materials. By allowing the identity of the collaged elements to remain ambiguous (are they cultural stereotypes, fantasies, or symbols?), Smith encourages a reevaluation of received information. As each piece becomes reintegrated into a self-contained whole, it incites in the viewer a mental oscillation between past fragments and present statement, a discourse on cultural encoding, and a pluralistic approach to the language presentation. In effect, Smith is tracking down tracks, reducing intrinsic meaning to metaphor disclosed by context.

The Jane motif itself is actually a very arbitrary cement for the series. Such Janes as Russell, Mansfield, Bowles, Greer, Austen, and Eyre share space with such comic book icons as Tarzan and Jane, Dick and Jane, and Calamity Jane. Yet perhaps the real common denominator is Jane Doe, simultaneously everywoman and no woman. Perhaps she has been Smith’s role model since childhood, the symbol of every independent woman striving for identity and a future. In this sense, Jane is a reflection of absence, a metaphor for what might be. As a result, many of Smith’s works merely allude to their subject, without actually naming or picturing her, or they conceal her face with bric-a-brac.

Ultimately, however, it is Smith’s artifice that creates each Jane’s identity and celebrity, splicing and grafting significance onto an otherwise “plain Jane,” so that contrived context creates legend while true identity remains concealed.

Smith expresses this lack of true identity in her subjects in a piece depicting Tarzan and Jane as a pair of rifle-range targets. Both figures are dark silhouettes, but only Tarzan, draped in a leopard’s skin, is given a distinct “personality”; he is described as a mighty white man who protects Jane from a charging lion. Jane is anonymous, unnamed, her identity forged only by her being saved by Tarzan, her sexuality defined by a couple of bull’s-eye targets (breasts) and a snakelike form wrapped around her (perhaps a reference to Eve). Jane is thus a passive “target,” entrapped in the coils of a patriarchal system. The irony here, of course, is that all the fragments that compose Smith’s collages are also contextless objects, floating signifiers that only she, the artist, can imbue with meaning. Smith herself is that Jane Doe who gels together memories and dreams by means of representational artifice, acting as both subject and object, shadow and reality.

Colin Gardner