Past Lives is the aptly named collaboration between artist Alexis Smith and poet Amy Gerstler. The 1989 installation based on an elementary school classroom features a large blackboard with cursive sentences scrolled in chalk. Each phrase, composed by Gerstler, is a possible summary of a child’s future life and each could seem credible or dubious: “Came to literature late.” Or “His journey towards anarchy was a long one.”
Alexis Smith and Amy Gerstler, Past Lives, 1989, mixed media installation, courtesy of the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery. Photograph by Alan Shaffer.
Dozens of small chairs that Smith had collected for years from swap meets and yard sales stand around the large room, each manifesting a distinct personality: rockers, canvas deck chairs, leather tub chairs, chairs made of wicker, wood and painted metal. A penmanship chart of the alphabet is posted near the ceiling and walls are partially painted institutional green. Like the blackboard, there are additional poetic wall texts by Gerstler that question and query.
That installation is the substantial anchor of a small survey at the Weisman Museum at Pepperdine University. Private Lives and Public Affairs is on view through April 1. Selected by director Michael Zakian, it highlights significant themes from 40 years of work. It should be a revelation to those unfamiliar with her work and a reminder to others of the artist’s early accomplishments and her continued relevance.
Alexis Smith, Tight Rope, 1980, mixed media collage, collection of the artist. Photograph by Alan Shaffer.
Past Lives debuted at the Santa Monica Museum of Art’s first location on Main Street. To be sure, it is a work of art about mnemonic methodology, about the controlling and conditioning aspects of elementary education.
When last shown at Honor Fraser Gallery in 2013, one wondered if such work could be comprehended in our digital, post-millenium society where penmanship is rarely taught and one longs for questions as simple as those of 30 years ago.
Alexis Smith, A Girl With Brains Ought To..., 1983, Mixed media collage, 23 x 22 x 1 in. Photo by Brian Forrest, courtesy of Honor Fraser Gallery
Yet, Smith’s entire enterprise has been about the ways in which history is transmitted and received, the random decisions that deem some aspects of culture popular, others elite, and how those designations intersect with one another. These issues are germaine to discussions today.
When Alexis Smith, the artist, appropriated the name of Alexis Smith, the movie star, at the age of 17, she set her work on a trajectory of examining the formation of identity. A Southern California native whose career developed in the post-conceptual 1970s, Smith is known for her adriot adaptation of vernacular culture that, even then, looked back to a fading ideals of previous glory. The Los Angeles of orange groves, movie premieres, tough guys and sultry dames had already given way to the post-war era of lower expectations. Smith’s collages, installations and ambitious public art projects repeatedly examined the roles assigned in advertising or movies, especially the roles of women. An artist sensible to the uses of language and narrative, Smith easily included references to well-known heroines throughout history, especially in the classics of English literature.
Alexis Smith, I Married a Monster from Outer Space, 1982, Mixed media collage, 19 x 16 x 2 in.Photo by Brian Forrest, courtesy of Honor Fraser Gallery
This exhibition clarifies her conceptual consistency within the variety of her work. The earliest pieces in this show are typewritten phrases decorated with tiny bits of collage and framed in plexiglas boxes. They are very much in keeping with the emphasis on content over form that drove information age art of the 1970s. But Smith quickly got a handle on her own vocabulary, her droll, double-edged quotations that ricochet off the adjacent imagery. Found and custom-made frames dramatize the impact and pave the way for her architecturally-scaled installations, temporary or permanent, including the vast terrazzo floor of the L.A. Convention Center.
She has long been dexterous in using scale to grab our attention and making us focus on the smaller details. For example, a tiny green Girl’s Scouts badge of a palette and brushes — awarded for accomplishment — centers a dramatic black and ivory geometric painting housed in an art moderne-style frame. Smith regularly incorporates phrases from novels and movies, whether Jane Austin or Raymond Chandler or Anita Loos. On this piece, the words are silkscreened directly onto the Plexiglas surface and reflected as shadows on the painted surface: “A girl with brains ought to do something else with them besides think.”
Alexis Smith, High Society, 2013, mixed media collage, courtesy of the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery. Photograph by Alan Shaffer.
In today’s era of unnuanced language, such a quip may not be understood with its original satiric undertone. Thankfully, Smith was never an artist to slug it out with viewers by demanding a singular, incensed or politicized position. One of her many strengths, quite apparent in this show, is her wonderous ability to elicit multiple readings out of her modestly scaled, often quite simple collages and assemblages. As she herself has said, “These things create the ether of meaning that people share, though they are not conscious of it. That fascinates me, and that is what I make art out of.” For more information, go to pepperdine.edu/museum.
Alexis Smith, Daily Planet, 1986, Mixed media collage, Panel 1: 28 1/8 x 52 1/4 in., Panel 2: 28 1/8 X 51 1/8 in. Photo by Brian Forrest, courtesy of Honor Fraser Gallery