Alexis Smith’s fantasia on femininity and gender roles
Alexis Smith’s exhibition at Honor Fraser opens with a bit of magic. As you enter the gallery, you’re greeted by a parade of brooms along one wall, leading through the foyer and into the gallery. Anyone familiar with Disney’s “Fantasia” will be reminded of the marching brooms of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” from which Smith’s installation takes its name. In that segment, Mickey’s helpful enchanted broom quickly turns into a legion of uncontrollable automatons. Mayhem ensues.
Yet these brooms are far from the hearty specimens of the classic fable. Most are stiff, dingy nubs, long past usefulness. That’s the first indication that Smith’s is a darker but no less cautionary tale.
For if Disney’s “Apprentice” (and the 19th century Goethe poem on which it is based) advise against summoning powers you can’t control, Smith’s version translates that warning from the realm of fable to that of contemporary commerce and femininity. The installation, a collaboration with writer Amy Gerstler, was first realized in 2000. It is perhaps even more powerful now.
The brooms lead you into a room where an outline of Disney’s Cinderella dances across the wall. Waltzing with her prince, she is perfect except for the blue broom mounted over the drawing. Its bristles obscure her face like a slap.
On the adjacent wall is a text by Gerstler, formatted like the initial page of a fairy tale. It is addressed to the broom, celebrating it as magic helpmate, but also as vehicle of erasure: “what sweeps clean also shoves dirt under the rug.”
The installation then moves from Cinderella to witches, with two images of more recent vintage: the cover of an adult video magazine depicting a sexy witch and an ad for the store Target featuring a woman riding a cheap vacuum cleaner like a broom. The association of women’s work and witches (both associated with brooms) is never too far below the surface, whether stoking sexual appetites or the desire for a cheap appliance.
At the end of this first gallery, we return to Cinderella, this time represented by a floor lamp, whose old-fashioned lampshade resembles nothing so much as a blowsy ball gown. At its feet is a staircase made of encyclopedias, topped by a bottle of Joy brand dish detergent: the glass slipper? This tableau is paired with another text, written from the jealous point of view of Cinderella’s stepsisters, lamenting the resilient charms of “the purer girl we’re scouring her down to.” Cleaning, or women’s work, is also purging, erasure, even torture.
The second gallery continues the fairy tale theme, with pictures of a gingerbread house and wall paintings of a beanstalk and a winking Big Bad Wolf accompanied by the text “Aren’t they all witches, under the skin?”
A third gallery contains four recent, unrelated works by Smith, collages of found objects mounted on thrift store paintings. Like most of her work, including “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” everything is sourced from somewhere else. Smith’s brilliance lies in the stories she tells by combining these appropriations, stories all the more resonant because they refer to everyday things. In this light, her “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is a call to vigilance, a modern-day exhortation against mindless marching in the name of purity.
Honor Fraser, 2622 S. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 837-0191, through Aug. 27. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.honorfraser.com
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