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ART : Sizing Up Alexis Smith : The artist balances 'the minute and the humongous' in her intimate collages and large-scale public works

January 06, 1991|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is a Times art writer.

"I get a huge kick out of what I do. I like doing it. I like it when it's finished, and that's carried me through the years," said artist Alexis Smith during an interview in her Venice studio.

What's this? A happy artist? Yes, but not a complacent one. The fun of Smith's art-making cannot be entirely cracked up to amusing subject matter. It's also a product of her roll-with-the-punches temperament and hard-won self-confidence.

"I went through a catharsis when I was about 35, and I decided that it's just as well to assume you are good because you will never know during your lifetime. It takes such a load off to assume you are good and just put one foot forward," she said.

The 41-year-old artist has been putting one foot in front of the other--with uncommon grace, wit and daring--since she graduated from UC Irvine in 1970. She quickly gained critical acclaim for delicate narrative collages that had viewers pressing their noses to her work to see feathery details and to read literary passages. Expanding into large public works in 1981, she has subsequently delighted in balancing "the minute and the humongous"--as she terms the two aspects of her art.

Smith has been in the public eye for nearly two decades, but her following has been firmly grounded in Los Angeles. "I always thought of myself as a big frog in a little pond," she said.

Not any more. The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York has scheduled a retrospective exhibition of her work on Sept. 27-Dec. 1, an honor that puts Smith in a league with the nation's most highly revered artists. (The show will travel, but the itinerary has not been completed, according to the museum's press office.) Last month, her smiling face lit up the cover of Artnews, a highly visible New York magazine. Now represented in New York by dealer Josh Baer, she has received favorable press in the Big Apple.

Meanwhile, in Southern California Smith's star shines brighter than ever. Two major public projects are in process: an outdoor "Snake Path" on the UC San Diego campus and floors for a major addition to the Los Angeles Convention Center. A pair of exhibitions of her work open coincidentally on Saturday. One, "Alexis Smith: Public Works," at UC San Diego's Mandeville Gallery (through Feb. 24), is a 10-year survey of her large public projects, documented by photographs, drawings and models. The other, "20th-Century Collage," includes her new work in a historical group show at the Margo Leavin Gallery in West Hollywood (through Feb. 16).

Her narrative art--based on popular culture--has been surprisingly consistent, despite vast leaps of scale. "I think my work hangs together. It usually revolves around a sub-text of some sort--a quote or a myth, something recognizable from our culture," she said.

"The form almost always alludes to something everyday, something found, whether it's picked up off the street or bought at a swap meet. I collect everywhere I go, and I like to work with everyday life forms as opposed to high-art forms. Also, there is often an emotional poignancy to my work. It's uncynical. It's very of-the-world," she continued.

Long established as a leader among artists who combine the visual with the verbal, Smith has based collages on Raymond Chandler mysteries, famous women named Jane and the opera "Madame Butterfly." A large installation made in 1981 for Otis Art Institute (now Otis/Parsons) was inspired by "Porgy and Bess." Jack Kerouac's novel, "On the Road," provided the literary seed for "The Same Old Paradise," a 60-foot mural displayed in 1987-88 at the Brooklyn Museum.

Large or small, her work "leaves a lot of room for interpretation," Smith said. "It's not propaganda. There's no prescribed way of looking at it. I'm not judging society in any way. I want people to zero in on a complex truth that involves reconciling opposites."

Her literary bent suggests that her work always starts with text, but that isn't the case. "I work in all different ways. For the 'On the Road' pieces, I free associated with the text," she said. But she is often inspired by objects, images or little piles of junk that accumulate in her studio.

What can't be disputed is that Smith has an active imagination and a penchant for fantasy, as well as enormous energy and determination. Naturally attractive, she tops off a wiry, athletic build with warm brown eyes and loosely curled hair. Her direct manner has the equivocal edge of an artist who gets to the point through poetic metaphors.

And she isn't opposed to taking liberties with facts that are presented to her. Born Patricia Ann Smith, she changed her first name when she was a teen-ager. Alexis had a nice ring to it, and when she heard of a movie star by the same name, "It was Kismet," she said. The daughter of a psychiatrist, she grew up around a mental hospital in Norwalk, but that experience seems to have had no clear impact on a healthy body of work that spins fantasies from popular culture.

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