Alexis Smith, "Washed Up," 2013 mixed media 13 x 16.5 inches (Courtesy of the artist and…)
Alexis Smith has been doing the same thing for 40 years: pasting items she finds in thrift stores and at yard sales into scrappy collages that paint a portrait of America as a place where much has gone wrong but all is not lost.
With the patience of a saint and a work ethic that’s nothing if not old-school, the 64-year-old artist has gotten really good at what she does: stir wistful sentimentality and barbed discontent into a cocktail whose tastiness makes its kick all the more dangerous.
At Craig Krull Gallery, Smith’s newest works are among the best she has made. Leaner and sharper and stripped to the basics, none suffers fools, seeks easy answers or includes inessentials. Yet each is as accessible as a pop song, its tried-and-true hooks transforming clichés into intimate riffs.
Titled “Second Nature,” Smith’s bittersweet exhibition demonstrates that wisdom and innocence are not opposed, as they are in the biblical story of the Garden of Eden. The American landscape that takes shape in her scrapbook-style pictures is at once hellish and heavenly — a paradise for souls who prefer the reality of DIY epiphanies to the spoon-fed illusions packaged for effortless consumption.
Most of Smith’s works consists of three elements. She typically begins with a landscape painted by an amateur, sometimes from a paint-by-number kit. The subjects are often romantic: sailing ships, pine forests, tropical islands, desert sunsets, bridges, barns and busy city streets.
To these standard scenes Smith attaches a small item or two: a ruler, swizzle stick, straw hat, crushed beer can, key chain, doorbell button, shipping label, sheet music or copper scrub pad. All do double-duty as compositional elements and detours for your imagination, which Smith sets in motion. The old frames she selects for her collages tie everything together, tightening loose ends without smoothing over rough edges.
Quotes from Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, printed on the gallery walls, add another lens through which to read Smith’s multipurpose works. Americana never looked better, more worldly and introspective than ever.
Craig Krull Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, Santa Monica, (310) 828-6410, through May 25. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.craigkrullgallery.com