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COVER STORY : A Cut Above : Alexis Smith has expanded collage to monumental proportions, mixing pop culture images with snippets of fiction

March 22, 1992|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA | Hunter Drohojowska is chair, department of liberal arts and sciences, Otis/Parsons School of Art and Design. and

Having a retrospective is like being janitor to your own statue.

That's the initial impression conveyed by artist Alexis Smith who, at age 42, is having a major museum retrospective opening next Sunday at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. It was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the first retrospective of an L.A.-based artist to be arranged by the Whitney since the 1975 show of Robert Irwin. It is a victorious moment.

"It's so much work," moans Smith. "I get up every morning at 5 a.m. and come home feeling like someone's pummeled me with a rubber hammer all day."

So much for a leisurely life in the arts.

For three weeks before the opening, she has practically been living at the downtown museum to install 19 years of art. Smith has added three monumental installations and additional individual works since the MOCA space is two galleries and then some larger than that of the Whitney. On a recent afternoon, she stands in a cavernous white room, arms akimbo, gently giving orders to four assistants. Slim as a young girl in her jeans and sweat shirt, her hair a tousle of golden curls, like Shirley Temple in "The Little Colonel," Smith lets escape a self-deprecating chuckle and acknowledges the theatricality of the moment. "It's like 'Hey, kids, let's put on a play.' I was that way as a kid and I'm that way as an adult," she admits.

Smith's primary contribution as an artist is in broadening and strengthening the medium of collage, the art of cut and paste. Invented by Picasso and developed by the Cubists, Surrealists and Dadaists of the early 20th Century, collage was a way of incorporating elements of the real world, especially the mass media of newspapers, advertisements and photography, into the realm of fine art. Popular culture as manifested in collage has come to be an increasingly relevant topic for contemporary artists.

Smith has expanded the medium to monumental, sometimes architectural proportions. Rather than emphasizing a disorienting style, wherein unrelated items are juxtaposed, she has developed a point-counterpoint method of mixing images from popular culture with discrete, or castoff, objects and quotations from primarily fictional sources, such as novels, movie scripts or song lyrics. Series of collages are unified by a period and topic and in the last decade, Smith has systematically explored the American psyche and culture in the 1920s through the 1950s, ensuring her position as one of the most significant artists working today.

In the first gallery, with its pyramid skylight, two young men are painting a mural of giant black piano keys for a 1981 piece about the Gershwin musical "Porgy and Bess," originally conceived for the gallery of Otis/Parsons School of Art and Design and later purchased by MOCA Curator Paul Schimmel when he was at the Newport Harbor Art Museum. The title is "The Promised Land" and, with its tragic theme of dashed expectations, it sets the tone for Smith's art of the last decade.

The rear wall of the last gallery is being painted by Richard Sedivy, an artist who has worked with Smith for so many years that they joke about starting a retirement pension. He is re-creating a 1987 mural of orange groves and mountains, the imaginary Eden of Southern California with a winding road that metamorphoses into a giant snake of temptation: "Same Old Paradise." A giant collage at the base of the painting combines the flotsam and jetsam of the highway with quotes from Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." Although the book was the bible of the Beat Generation, Kerouac captured the spiritual yearning of an entire nation, of Americans moving ever westward in the hope of a better life. Smith, long fascinated with this theme, borrowed classic Kerouac, such as: "I suddenly saw the whole country as an oyster for us to open, and the pearl was there, the pearl was there!"

The timeless themes of quest and faith, failure and redemption, hope and disappointment, travel and destiny, recur throughout Smith's work of the 1980s. Yet it can be difficult to read these deeper issues since they are presented in the form of collage, incorporating the stuff of popular culture such as Hollywood memorabilia, tourist paraphernalia, pinups, brochures, advertisements and found objects of bygone eras.

"I don't think that I'm specifically interested in Southern California, but I'm a product of it," Smith says in the exhibition catalogue. "The place in my work is not so much here but everywhere."

Smith deigns to entertain. Snippets of fiction provide the pieces with a voice and a sense of time and place, so the work is both droll and bittersweet. She rejects the common label of "nostalgic."

"It's not about yearning for the past when life was better but seeing where we come from and what forces have made us what we are today," she explains.

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