Alexis Smith Exhibit Overcomes Obstacles

The show, “Alexis Smith: Public Works,” which survey’s the artist’s public art projects through plans, models, and photographs, starts out with a few strikes against it.

For one, plans for art in public places are several steps removed from the real thing, and thus several notches lower on the scale of sensory impact. They lack the colors, the textures, the physical immediacy of the finished work. Also, looking at diagrams, models and photographs in a neutral gallery space cannot compare to experiencing a work full-scale in its intended site. Most work suffers in the translation.

Fortunately, the Alexis Smith show, which opened at UC San Diego’s Mandeville Gallery last week and continues through Feb. 24, also has something essential working in its favor: its subject is the work of an extremely inventive and intelligent artist. The integrity and charm of her ideas would survive in nearly any form. This show brings some of Smith’s distant work closer, and several of her unrealized plans to public view.

Smith, a Los Angeles-based artist, layers her work with references to private hopes and broad cultural aspirations. Strivings for the American dream mingle with a more universal longing for paradise. She has worked on an intimate scale, making diaristic books and collages with absorbing, cryptic narratives, and since the early 1980s, she has also worked on a larger, public scale. The current show surveys Smith’s varied ventures into the public arena, from murals to monuments, paved paths to wall panels.


“People who wind up doing a lot of public art have a sort of missionary quality, the civic spirit of people who would like to upgrade the environment,” Smith is quoted as saying in the show’s small but fine catalogue. Indeed, Smith’s work is very much about expanding experience, about introducing the unexpected and unfamiliar to a familiar place or activity, and adding a glaze of nostalgia to the fleeting present, a sense of perspective gleaned from a brief blink at the past.

In L.A.'s MacArthur Park, site of a series of contemporary public art works by different artists, Smith installed a few “Mini-Monuments” bearing phrases from Raymond Chandler mysteries. A one-foot-tall granite slab, engraved with an image of a pair of boxers, reads, “Mine was the better punch, but it didn’t win the wristwatch.” A similar monument near the Niagara River in New York features a rendering of a slightly distraught Marilyn Monroe. The pattern of her hair transforms into the image of the Niagara Falls, while below runs the line, “Nothing in the world could keep it from going over the edge.”

Whether or not the viewer of these works recognizes their sources--the latter is a line from the movie, “Niagara,” starring Monroe--these monuments prompt a mental double-take. They occupy little space but interject large questions. They hook you with a single line and a simple image, leaving your own imagination to supply the rest of the narrative.

Interiors that Smith had proposed for the Miami International Airport (with R.M. Fischer) and others that she executed in a performing arts center in Grand Rapids rely on visual quotes from decades past to provide a pleasant, intriguing sense of displacement.


Streamlined designs from old automobile hood ornaments, among other designs, restore a sense of the wonder of travel to the airport’s spare, anonymous architecture. In the performing arts center, Smith covered the lobby’s nondescript walls with a busy array of stylized designs celebrating theatre and music, vitalizing the dead space with a feeling of grandeur and excitement.

One of Smith’s most ambitious and successful works, “Same Old Paradise,” was installed in the lobby of the Brooklyn Museum in 1987-88, and is represented here by photographs, studies and a fragment of the actual work. The 65-foot-wide mural and the framed collages mounted on its surface give spectacular form to the myth of the American dream. Glorious, larger-than-life oranges grow on endless rows of trees before quaint, small farms and a grand mountain range. But an undercurrent of danger pervades this paradise, as symbolized by the traditional snake, which stretches out of the road itself and sits, poised, across from the delectable fruit.

In the collage panels, Smith combines billboard fragments with actual objects--arrows, outdoor thermometers, car ashtrays--and an excerpt from Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road,” recounting his revelation that the “whole country (is) an oyster for us to open, and the pearl was there, the pearl was there.” Desire and delusion fuel one another here, and make Smith’s installation a powerful evocation of the double-edged nature of the American dream.

Smith’s more recent proposals feel more subtle and abstract than earlier works. They conjure up broader notions of culture and progress; they are less indebted to the styles of the past, and more focused on the world of the future.

“Snake Path,” which will be installed later this year on the UCSD campus as part of the Stuart Collection of Outdoor Sculpture, is represented here by two studies and a model, but for even the most basic details of color and configuration, one must resort to Hunter Drohojowska’s catalogue essay. The 500-foot-long path will be built of hexagonal slate tiles in green, gray, sand and purple and will lead up a slope to UCSD’s central library.

The contemplative mood of the path is set by its “Garden of Eden” rest area and the seven-foot-high stone book standing further down the slope. A passage from Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” praising the inner paradise over the earthly one, will appear on the cover of the book--an apt thought for students to consider on their way to the library, placed there by an artist whose own literary bent could not have made her more appropriate for the commission.

“Alexis Smith: Public Works” was organized by Mandeville Gallery director Gerry McAllister and curator Brent Riggs.