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ART REVIEW : A Snake in the Grass at UCSD : Alexis Smith’s ‘Snake Path’ winds up a hill to the university library, symbolically linking it to the realm of paradise.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Graceful yet lethal, seductive but dangerous, the snake has long been regarded as a slippery character. Ever since it tempted Eve with a piece of forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, the snake has been stuck with a reputation as a bad influence. Deep in collective memory, the snake lurks as a symbol of evil and the loss of innocence.

Alexis Smith, who for 20 years has brought mundane, nostalgic cues from popular culture into her collages and installations, has also taken on the classic subject of the snake. Her most monumental use of the symbol to date is the newly completed “Snake Path” on the campus of UC San Diego. The 560-foot-long slate tile path is the 11th commissioned work of outdoor sculpture in the Stuart Collection at UCSD, and one of the most brilliant. Its completion will be celebrated Saturday afternoon with a public reception from 3:30 to 5:30 at the site, near the UCSD central library.

Like few other artworks in public places, Smith’s “Snake Path” deftly manages at once to be conceptually accessible, functional and inspirational. It is flawlessly integrated with its site (though the site itself could use some help), and it works as visual spectacle as well as a prod to intellectual inquiry.

The path consists of hexagonal, scale-like slate tiles in earthen tones of gray, sand and rust, mounded slightly to suggest the snake’s rounded back. It winds its way up a hill on the east side of the library and extends its pink granite tongue toward a large terrace surrounding the facility. Near the tail of the snake stands a large book, sculpted of granite and identified on the spine as Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Within a foliate border on the cover runs the excerpt: “Then Wilt Thou Not Be Loth To Leave This Paradise, But Shall Possess A Paradise Within Thee, Happier Far.”

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Smith, who lives in Los Angeles and was the subject of a retrospective that recently appeared at the Museum of Contemporary Art, thus links the university with the protected realm of paradise. She reinforces that association farther up the path, where the snake loops around a small edenic garden planted with fig, palm and orange trees, and a lush array of flowering plants. A gray granite bench within the garden bears another quote, this time by poet Thomas Gray, and an engraved image of Adam, Eve and the snake in the Garden of Eden, derived from an old print.

How apropos that the snake meanders up the steepest approach to the library, for Smith’s work implies that knowledge is an exquisite burden. It may provide a paradise within, as Milton promises, but it will surely get you booted out of the paradisal garden--the passive, sheltered state of ignorant bliss.

Though “Snake Path” has been in the making for the last six years and the issues it addresses are broad enough to be timeless, its completion now, during the presidential election campaign, gives it an interesting political twist. Knowledge is, indeed, forbidden fruit in the eyes of the current Administration, which has openly condemned the cultural and intellectual “elite.” The university is an oasis--not a terribly well-funded one anymore, but nevertheless a safe breeding ground for ideas and theories. But outside its walls, conditions are growing more hostile.

Smith has engaged the question of who defines paradise repeatedly in her art, and seems to have pinpointed the collective imagination as its most likely site. Hollywood comes close for some, the university for others, but there is hardly room for innocence in either place. Sitting on the bench in “Snake Path’s” garden, one gazes not just over campus buildings but also over a cluster of automatic teller machines and the Price Center--UCSD’s answer to a shopping mall with food court.

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Unfortunately, “Snake Path” will not work its subliminal wonders on every student heading into the library, for it doesn’t lead to the library’s entrance. That can be found on the south side of the building, where nondescript doors set into walls of mirrored glass lead into the facility. Smith’s path culminates at a dismal concrete plateau that surrounds the library but affords no access. Stark and unadorned, it is also short on function, though some students seem to be using it as a passageway from one part of the campus to another.

This aspect of the site is far from ideal, but it doesn’t detract from the power of Smith’s work. It simply calls attention to another site that could use the same thoughtful and invigorating treatment.

Alexis Smith’s “Snake Path” is permanently sited on the east side of UC San Diego’s central library. For more information, call the Stuart Collection, (619) 534-2117.


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