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Take as an example, your name here (1975), her self-built director’s chair with “Alexis Smith” printed on it. The viewer is left with the dilemma of who the name refers to: the artist or the actress from the 1940s? She also reflects Smith’s ongoing inquiry into how she defines herself (she changed her name from Patti Smith to Alexis Smith while she was at UC Irvine’s nascent radical art department in the mid-1960s). ).
Smith became a formidable force in the SoCal contemporary art world. Spanning themes from literature, film, and pop culture, her collages are infused with the symbolism of the American Dream. This dream is on display in a major new exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, featuring a selection of 50 of her earliest artist books, intimate collages, recent wall paintings, and room-sized installations. Called “The American Way,” it is the first retrospective of the iconic artist in 30 years.
As Smith has said, “I think artists are people who face their own quirks and try to turn them into something positive. I can be a little silly, but I make it workable.”
The threads that bind this show together are Smith’s inventive use of iconography from historical works and pop culture; her creative compilations of found materials, including childhood scrapbooks of his; and her self-confidence, allowing her to transcend traditional artistic boundaries.
Smith is visually familiar Men rarely make advances to girls who wear glasses. (1985) features a large portrait of Marilyn Monroe wearing cat-eye sunglasses, with each lens containing a photo of soccer players. The subliminal message is that men, not women, are the objects of desire.
Smith’s deeper motivations, described in the accompanying catalog by curator Anthony Graham, are “self-invention and reinvention, whether through questions of identity and women’s roles in American society or critiques of the claims of wealth and class.
As Smith evolved beyond his university training, exhibiting in major museums, he created the american style (1980), a mixed media collage of pop culture symbols on aluminum printing plates. It contains an advertisement for Lucky Strike, a bottle of Coca-Cola, a toy airplane and play money, among other images, with excerpts from novels by the American writer John Dos Passos. Graham explains, “Collage conveys the American style as elusive and disorienting.”
One cannot pigeonhole Smith’s work aesthetically, as it is so expansive and varied from an artist who has blazed her own trail. Yet the dozens of pieces by her in this exhibition speak to engaged viewers of the deeper vicissitudes of historical and popular cultures and how these cultures inform our lives today. Now in her later years (Smith has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s), MCSAD is showcasing her decades-long artistic practice with this compelling retrospective.