Alexis Smith: Private Lives and Public Affairs
“A girl with brains ought to do something else with them besides think.” ~Title of an Alexis Smith piece, 1983
through April 1
Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, Malibu
By Lawrence Gipe
While firmly rooted in California conceptualism and modernist traditions like assemblage, Alexis Smith’s work exists as a genre unto itself. The aesthetic decisions involved in the construction of her tableaux and installations seem strongly personal and her sly feminist asides distinguish her from a traditionally masculine pack (Baldessari, Ruppersberg, et al). In an art world a little too cozy with obscurantism, Smith’s work has always maintained a refreshing accessibility. Her use of sentimental imagery and humor seduces the viewer. She reels you in – then delivers her punch.
Twenty-three small pieces, and her collaboration with poet Amy Gerstler called “Past Lives”, are gathered together in “Alexis Smith: Private Lives and Public Affairs” in the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University. It’s a modestly scaled but impactful snapshot of Smith’s work curated by Michael Zakian. Nostalgia plays a sophisticated role here – and Smith’s work is an exploration of that slippery emotion’s capacity for resonance on multiple levels. Nostalgia’s usefulness as a critical device is developed in her work in a way that feels like second nature.
Smith employs images that have the potential to act on the viewer (of a certain age) through direct, remembered nostalgia. [Author’s Sidebar: “Direct nostalgia”, in my definition, is responsible for the way I felt looking at her piece I’m Your Angel (2009). The main element is a Yoko Ono 45-rpm record of the same title – a disc I used to own. I’m Your Angel conjured my freshman-year university soundtrack of Lennon-Ono’s joyous reemergence on the “Double Fantasy” album. Inevitably, Lennon’s assassination also reared its head. Although a less-desired result, this final memory is closer to nostalgia’s original meaning as a melancholy malady.]
Smith also engages indirect or mediated nostalgia, the kind that doesn’t spring from one’s actual memory, but belongs instead to the bottomless image pool of history that comforts us with its charming reflection of simpler days. She covers a lot of nostalgic territory, and – in an exhibition with this breadth– one can appreciate the range of her interrogation of 20th century visual culture. When Smith portrays the feminine it is often through the gauze of carefully calibrated romanticism. She is consistent in her attraction to pictures from the Golden Age of Hollywood, mid-century advertising, even the Victorian-era – sourced from a vast lexicon of “constructed womanhood” that was exclusively construed by men. Specifically, the visages that jump out at her – as she forages through antique stores and thrifts looking for material – reflect the male desire frameworks of their respective historical contexts. Smith’s pictorial plan usually includes a loaded image with an accompanying line of text. These quotes or expressions metaphorically and physically hover above the main subject as the foreground of her shadowboxes.
“We want to buy the right stuff, but we don’t necessarily know what it is,“ laments the text in Modernism (1980); Smith floats this above a scene of a stylish Mad Man-era woman reclining before a gallery wall filled with art. The dilemma for this female character is superficially amusing, but also indicative of Smith’s suspicious view of consumerist society – and perhaps a reflection of her own upbringing. Her father was born in 1906 and had grown up in rural Utah; he lived through World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. “He told me,” said Smith in an interview, ”the whole story of the century through his own experiences, because he was a big talker.” She gleaned a certain narrative from these childhood conversations, a “kind of mythology that’s peculiarly American and outside standard history.”
Smith’s own early years (when she was “Patti Anne Smith”) were spent near the grounds of a mental institution California, providing an element of surrealism to her background. Although herself a product of the 60’s, her work and content emerges from earlier eras – times when the veneer of practicality and stolid American values rubbed up silently against the grain of real life.
The exhibition’s centerpiece, Past Lives (1989), inhabits the main gallery (and benefits especially from the balcony vista available to viewers). This alliance between visual and literary poetics combines a sprawling armada of children’s chairs in a simulated classroom, along with chalkboards, clocks and Amy Gerstler’s wall text. The latter is more of a list, an insinuating, third-person roster of observations (“Can’t sit still.” “Hates her name.” “Refuses to bathe.”); they are subtle-to-harsh indictments that adults make about children, teachers make about students, or authority in general sees fit to impose on a weaker, subjected body. This commentary provides a background text to Smith’s collection of miniature seats, which she arranges in a non-hierarchical way – it’s a big sea of chairs, and upon entering, an inviting and charming scene to experience. But, like Smith’s autonomous work, it’s a charm offensive that has critical undertones that sink in quickly. Although almost 30 years old since its first appearance, Past Lives seems more relevant than ever, as our post-Parkland society deals with prospect of the school classroom being a site as much for learning as for tragedy.