What’s in a female name as ordinary as Jane? Potent symbolism, when paired with Russell, Eyre or Calamity. And that’s not all, as we see in Alexis Smith’s latest project. She has focused on famous Janes in 22 mixed-media collages. The result is an outlay of social commentary so clever and good humored that it’s easily a hit of the early fall season.
Romance, childhood memory, naive aspiration and terror are played out in vintage magazine covers and movie ads, “Dick and Jane” illustrations and dumb paintings, combined with everything from a black lace bra to plastic pine needles. These meticulously crafted collages are then framed within a kitsch inch of their lives in, say, fake fur, brick or camouflage fabric.
To describe the materials of Smith’s “Janes” is to set them roughly in the ‘40s and to establish their cunningly dated ambiance. To quote their titles or text printed across them is to confront Smith’s ongoing interest in literary sources, verbal-visual puns and banal absurdities. This is twice-layered work: literally in overlapping words and images, conceptually in their readings. The art can be as spoofy as the cheese ‘n’ beefcake couple in “Me, Tarzan/You, Jane” or as chilling as a human target wrapped in a snake and labeled “Asphalt Jungle.” The show has coherent range and it’s a campy tour de force that parades telling cliches on banners of memorabilia.
Over the years, Smith’s work has lost its innocence by shedding its intimacy. Whispered narratives on slips of paper have evolved into elaborately produced zingers. With this confidence has come a distance that can seem precious or brittle, but even those troublesome qualities are suited to “Janes’ ” aesthetic. Who but Smith has so successfully taken a feminine point of view and woven it into an attic load of popular history?
Concurrently, massive works by Mark Lere, Robert Lobe, Claes Oldenburg, Tony Smith and Tom Wesselmann compose “Outdoor Sculpture,” an impressive indoor exhibition. Oldenburg’s “Alphabet/Good Humor” and Wesselmann’s “Dropped Bra” make welcome comebacks while Lere introduces a boffo three-part piece consisting of a gray boulder; an immense, open torso made of a few bars of welded metal and a pair of walking legs in cor-ten steel. (Margo Leavin Gallery: Smith at 812 N. Robertson Blvd., to Oct. 12; “Outdoor Sculpture” at 817 N. Hilldale Ave., to Oct. 5.)