Degree of Difficulty by Alexis Smith

Alexis Smith’s American Way

A review of Alexis Smith's Museum of Contemporary of San Diego retrospective show.

Los Angeles artist Alexis Smith, on show in her first retrospective in three decades at the Museum of Contemporary of San Diego, excels at feeling. She suffers most acutely the feeling of giving yourself over. It’s one thing, Smith intimates, to give yourself over to a good thing — “like a patient etherized upon a table” — and allow a pretty view or a nice show to fill the senses. It’s another thing, though, to sink into destiny and circumstance when there is something monstrous pushing up against that feeling of abiding calm. That is the feeling of industry: embracing and falling into something exhilarating with knowledge of but no regard for attendant risk. About the imposing skyscrapers that loom above Shanghai, poet Sally Wen Mao asks “why does the light in the night / promise so much?” Smith captures the same feeling in her work, and, blessedly, makes it glamorous.

Take, for example, her Red Carpet. Below a gorgeous, blown-up photograph of a sunset, Smith lays a black, red, and orange serape that fills a whole room. If not for the bed on which it all sits, the viewer would be tempted to trust fall into Smith’s desert great beyond. Above the work, Smith adds the aphorism: “Heaven for weather. Hell for company,” presumably referring to the American West that is her life’s fascination. It’s a simple tension that jump starts the rest of the retrospective. There is something beautiful about the West to which Smith calls us — the sunsets, the textile art, the vastness of it all — but there may also be something terrible mixed in — maybe loneliness or malice. 

Smith has extensively digested her visual and rhetorical environment over the years, which allows her to conjure the exact flickers in the viewer’s mind that make them so willing to sink into destiny and circumstance. The below text appears above a matte black background with white dots, just like a starry night sky, interspersed with glittery cut-outs of planets, flowers, and butterflies: 

I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights. Fifteen stories high, solid marble. There’s a boy who really made something out of nothing. 

The text appears to be from a 1949 detective novel by Raymond Chandler called The Little Sister in which cynical PI Philip Marlowe investigates a blackmail scheme against a Hollywood movie star.. Smith, I’m sure, had to be driven by the same internal conflict between the glamor of film and the drudgery of even being proximate to the making of it. The colored lights can fool you, Smith reminds us before inviting you into the black. 

This becomes the dance of the whole show. Warning issued by Smith, welcoming gesture by Smith. The only response is to give yourself to the glorious monstrousness of every subject she takes on – materialism, the film industry, femininity, etc. In Isadora, Smith tells the story via borrowed text of a broke female artist moving to the French Riviera to write her memoirs and take advantage of men. Above the typesetting that tells it, Smith gathers found materials like a dried-up seahorse, a black-and-white photo, and a Transatlantique hand baggage tag. She places each within two doric columns–imbuing with a sense of Greek tragedy and destiny the story of a young woman all too eager to live out the rest of her long life in debauchery. “If she got any cash, she threw a party or gave it away…” is the text lying beneath a final set of the columns, this time with both columns in ruins. The whole work, too, lies onstrips of corrugated cardboard painted to show mountains (dunes?) and stars and waves. They’re magical; as of this writing the Museum is selling a $100 silk scarf based on the work.

Another collage is framed in the type of speckled metal you would expect to see on a car dashboard. Above magazine photos of Grease-like men and women in tender embrace, Smith lays jumper cables that connect and create electrical currents between the couples. “Youth seeking thrills and finding them…THE WRONG KIND” the magazine underneath admonishes. If we were so worried back then, the viewer comes to ask, about youth giving in to temptation, and if everything is so quiet and so fine now in the sterile art gallery in which I stand, why not give ourselves over to the superficiality of it all in hopes of discovering something more along the way? Don’t forget Nietzsche’s view on the topic: 

“O those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance, to believe in forms, tones, words, the whole Olympus of appearance. Those Greeks were superficial – out of profundity.”

In another piece, Smith affixes an Indiana license plate, presumably of someone hell-bent on making it to LA who never did actually make it (or make it), to a painting of a dry brush desert framed in a beautiful wooden frame straight out of a western. “WASTELAND” the work is captioned. Beneath the glamor on show, beneath the “balmy golden California Christmas” that Smith rhapsodizes in other work, there is clearly a more sinister, lonelier element lurking beneath it all. 

At bottom, then, there might be little more worth redeeming than glamor itself. She quotes Whitman’s Leaves of Grass at length in a characteristic mixed-media collage: “I bring what you much need yet always have , / Not money, amours, dress, eating, erudition…” Next to it, the curator has placed two cartoonish portraits of 19th century aristocrats holding their (anachronistic) AmEx cards. They look content, and the woman looks especially captivating in a flowing Sunday dress. It assuredly was not Smith’s decision to place the works so close to each other, but the contradiction seems to reveal a deep ambivalence about materialism within her oeuvre. Do we really have to go the way of Whitman and offer nothing but value itself to one another? Can’t we embrace all the little trinkets and tchotchkes Smith has assembled and the shinyAmExes that made it all?“He drove like a fiend and never rested” we see printed above a blown-up gas tank dial that’s nearly on empty. Good or bad, this is Alexis Smith’s American Way, and she beckons you to it all with her whole heart. “‘Dance on, red shoes,’ the Angel said in a voice like thunder. ‘Carry this vain and foolish child to the ends of the earth!’” That quote, and a little bit of red glitter, is the first frame that will catch your eye at the retrospective.