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ART REVIEW : California Mural Takes Chill Off Brooklyn--but Take Another Look

December 24, 1987|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Alexis Smith has brought sun-drenched Southern California to wintry New York in her latest work, at the Brooklyn Museum. Temporarily installed (to Jan. 11) in the museum's Grand Lobby, the enormous (20x60 feet) mural hits visitors right between the frozen eyeballs with a scene resembling a label from a giant orange crate.

Tidy rows of orange trees follow a roller-coaster course over hills in a toylike environment that might have been envisioned by Grant Wood. It's a 1930s-vintage Iowan's fantasy of California as the promised land: fertile, peaceful, exotic and clean. Wealth is sanctified because it comes from the earth and there is plenty for everyone.

Any dreamer can see that the people who inhabit idyllic villages snuggled behind the groves enjoy a life both cozy and grand; their sense of well-being is buffered by acres and acres of nature's bounty. Surely this is paradise.

Yes, but it's "The Same Old Paradise," according to the title of the painting, and it does not always live up to its image. For one thing, the road trailing off into the distance turns into a snake, coiling and lashing out at the spirit of wanderlust. For another, eight collage panels inset along the lower border offer disorienting souvenirs of automobile travel in America (a plaid shirt, a Levi's jacket, a license plate, a fan belt, an ad for Royal Crown Cola) along with text plucked from a restless young man's dreams.

"I was rushing through the world without a chance to see it," warns one panel. "A fast car, a coast to reach, a woman at the end of the road," enthuses another. If these lines sound familiar, that's because they were extracted from "On the Road," Jack Kerouac's tale of a cross-country binge.

As abruptly as the Los Angeles-based Smith has introduced a summery West Coast scene to frigid New York, she has enlisted Kerouac to challenge the notion of agrarian paradise, a concept that feeds her continuing fascination with American myths. The painting gets its name from the book's narrator, Sal Paradise; its nostalgic, disenchanted tone from the residue of the Beat Generation.

Heading West in July of 1947, Paradise intoned: "Somewhere along the line I knew there'd be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me." This seductive idea enchanted thousands of disconnected youths, dying to live for the moment, burn up the road between them and their parents and just have a blast. The book, published in 1955, once was perceived as a violent declaration of the generation gap, but it simply updated themes of youthful rebellion, the desire to wander and the romance with the American frontier. Re-read 30 years after its creation, "On the Road" comes off as a period piece steeped in macho raunchiness and--of all things--innocence.

Now that we are a nation of sophisticated youth, the once scandalous Kerouac seems a fairly healthy guy. His characters' banter may offend feminists, but Sal and his gang now strike us more as vulnerable rascals than hard-driving-and-drinking brutes. Their steamy adventures have been diluted by the callowness of a new age.

Smith taps into this hindsight of a classic, bringing to it her fondness for pulp novels and kitsch. She has often used writer Raymond Chandler as a source; now she moves up to Kerouac but still reveals him as a thing of the past. The orange groves in her painting are quaint, obviously human-made images of nature that emulate antiquated advertising art. The sweetness of the scene is cut by the ominous snake--and by knowledge of such contemporary plagues as overdevelopment, smog and acid rain.

This may be as close as Smith has ever come to being a moralist, though her gleanings from popular culture often have a critical edge. The lesson of lost innocence in "The Same Old Paradise" is largely left to viewers' interpretations, but it sharpens the bite of her work.

Smith was invited to paint "The Same Old Paradise" as part of a program administered by Charlotta Kotik, the Brooklyn Museum's curator of contemporary art. Artists such as Daniel Buren and Jenny Holzer, whose three-month-long installations will follow Smith's, are asked to design and create works specifically for the lobby. Though the museum itself does not fund the program, according to Smith, her expenses were offset by a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

With the help of Los Angeles artists Richard Sedivy and Lucia Vinograd, Smith painted the immense canvas last August in the scenic shop of UCLA's theater arts department. The actual painting followed months of planning to develop the theme and deal with technical challenges.

Smith said the idea for the work was inspired by Los Angeles' produce market and her ongoing interest in themes of America's "Manifest Destiny" and California's reputation as a Garden of Eden. She has been working on collages related to Kerouac's writing for two years and will show some of them in March at Margo Leavin Gallery in West Hollywood.

Brooklyn's exhibition of "The Same Old Paradise" is the public debut of Smith's encounter with Kerouac. But now the immense painting needs a permanent home--a museum or corporate lobby large enough to accommodate a panoramic view of a troubled promised land.

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