Alexis Smith: Imitation of Life at Margo Leavin Gallery
812 N. Robertson Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90069
April 25 through June 30, 2009
The Journeyman Artist
“I consider myself a journeyman artist”, said Alexis Smith during our gallery visit at Margo Leavin. She said that she had been working as an artist for more than 35 years. Her work is not about esoteric notions. She deals with “slices of life” –their “aspects.” She spoke about the recognizable trademark that is an Alexis Smith.
Smith defined the title of the exhibition, Imitation of Life, as “how we expose and present ourselves.” She is fascinated by the “residue of existing objects” and their “used quality”. She spoke of the “anthropology” and “patina” of objects. From the perspective of a visual anthropologist, Smith’s study of contemporary human beings is evident in the portraits that she has appropriated for the exhibit. In Family Values, there are three portraits that she has actually retouched. Smith ironically has become an “imitation” of an art conservator by revitalizing the portraits to their original luster. She does however allow for the original artist’s faux pas to remain such, as in the woman holding the auction card in the Family Values trio. In this portrait the woman’s left shoulder has a double image where the artist seems to have reduced the size of the shoulder but has left the original form untouched. As in many of her found treasures, Smith found humor in the flaw.
When Smith spoke of “patina” she not only was referring to the objects’ appearance but to the “patina” that a previous owner may have caused and left behind. The responding human factor has made the objects, like chairs or picture frames, acquire layers of changes in their surface, texture, and color. There is a lullaby in Smith’s voice that produced images, for me, of contemporary artifacts frayed around the edges with reminiscent, residual polishes. The Lonesome Cowboy is an example of how “patina”, in varied forms, is integral to the outcome of Smith’s collages. The cowboy in the oversized black and white photograph is one of the most famous cowboy actors-John Wayne. The photograph is coincidentally worn in all the right places such as the inside brim of John Wayne’s hat. His baby-blue eyes are the only thing in color in the photograph. This collage was part of an earlier series Smith created in response to George W. Bush’s administration and the war in Iraq. The collage is designed to keep your eyes moving and evoke personal memories. The upper right corner has a wistful needlepoint of John F. Kennedy and his inaugural speech. At midpoint, on the right, is a nostalgic landscape painting, painted on wood, designed to also serve an illusionary cigar. Most poignantly, on John Wayne’s left lapel, is a poorly creased, funerary U.S. flag probably belonging to a fallen soldier. All the components of the piece extol Smith’s definition of patina.
What would Duchamp say to Formerly Known as Prince? This collage was one of the favorites of opening night. A needlepoint of The Blue Boy is displayed with his face being replaced with the head of a stuffed toy frog prince. The combination of these “ready-made”materials is intriguing for the immediate and random nuances they produce. Smith said she wanted to create artwork that will be seen by future generations with curiosity and interest about our lives today. And she also emphasized her journeyman characteristics. She does a good job and she is fully qualified.
At the same time, Smith had an exhibition at Thomas Solomon Gallery entitled Play It As It Lays. Solomon went to Smith’s studio and selected pieces that would give the gallery audience a glimpse into the psychology of the artist. The intention reminded me of Kurt Schwitter’s Merzbau and his dealings with the placement of objects in the world.
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Sandra Vista is A freelance journalist in Los Angeles.