ALEXIS SMITH: Autobiography, Almost Involuntary (abstract) — IN HER OWN WORDS
I think you could justifiably make a case for me as some kind of eccentric, like Joseph Cornell — somebody really driven by a particular cosmology and the attempt to articulate it. But you could make an equally good case for me as one of a contingent of humorous L.A. conceptual artists who are tongue-in-cheek and irreverent, yet still serious and intellectual, like Ed Ruscha or Mike Kelley, John Baldessari or Al Ruppersberg. I’m just as tied to that group of people as I am to the world of the inanimate.
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As a child — and to some extent, even to this day — I felt more comfortable in the world of the inanimate, just a some people feel more comfortable with animals and plants. I have a feel for everyday objects of the physical universe. As soon as I fell into the art world, I ceased to exist in a vacuum. I realized that mine was a natural, innate impulse, but I also had to assess all the formal issues of composition, color, and materials. I began to learn and became more sophisticated about both the history of art and its materials.
When I started working, I put together pieces of other people’s writing with objects and images. I was using all of it as found material, taking things that other people had said more eloquently than I could say them myself. I figured that if other people thought these things, and I thought them too, they must somehow be universal. I sought to show people the connection between the physical things they make and the stories they tell: the same impulses that generate the language and the stories generate the objects. For me everything is related, and I think it always has been. Stories are an extended series of meanings. I think I can look at things and see relatedness, that is, see instinctually how something could be a metaphor for something else, how images and objects fit together and how people generate stories, words, and objects. All these things are extensions of how people experience the world. I like the idea that these elements of meaning are not static, that they shift according to the context.
A lot of the source material that I ultimately used in my work came from my father. He was born in 1906, so he was two generations older than I. He sort of grew up with the century. He was born in Ogden, Utah, and he used to ride around in my grandfather’s buggy under a buffalo robe while Grandpa Driver, the only doctor around in those times, made house calls in rural Utah. My father lived through World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, and he told me the whole story of the century through his own experiences, because he was a big talker.
As a result, I was able to project elements of my own life into a sort of prototypical American experience. I put my father’s accounts together with the things I had read for myself, and I did a sort of humanized history using some creative anthropology to reveal the texture of the way things looked and felt. I found that there is a kind of mythology that’s peculiarly American and is outside standard history and traditional European academic culture … I have a perverse sort of antagonism to the European academic tradition and the tyranny it has exercised over the art schools and non archival forms and materials … The artists to whom I really relate are not visual artists; rather, they are quirky American geniuses like Isadora Duncan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Thomas Edison, George Gershwin, and Walt Whitman, who naively reinvented their forms through a mixture of imagination and chutzpah because they refused to accept the traditional definitions of what they wanted to do. (From a 1991 interview with Richard Armstrong, edited by R.A. in 1999 for Technological Rituals)
Alexis Smith’s collages in “Saying yes to everything” at Honor Fraser Gallery
POST SCRIPTUM by Rosanna Albertini
Because I happen to be a European scholar, I must step into Alexis’ antagonism to a tradition which is far from monolithic. Like her Lady Jane (1985) I could sit on a chair with panther legs in the middle of flying bullets and say: “I must remember about chandeliers and dancing and swans and roses and snow.” Not by nostalgia, only to enjoy with Alexis the irrelevant things that add savor to life. The oldest, faded from their first meaning, objects and words become often impertinent, they freely move from the rational order to an imaginary, unfamiliar landscape, a sort of intellectual wilderness. They are totally dependent on us.
They become stereotypes. Alexis picked them from the 20th century garden: “Imagination is more important than knowledge” comes from Albert Einstein and lands in an American Boy’s Life (1989). The same idea had older legs in the time of a boy called Emile, tutored by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “We believe intelligence is our helper, but imagination is all we have. Through this imaginary world everyone traces a route he/she believes to be the good one.” The conceptual closeness between Alexis and Emile’s father is surprising: the texture of life alters and disfigures people and objects. Through this constant alteration we perceive ourselves and that which is produced by us.
Alexis: “I can look at things and see their relatedness.” Jean Jacques: “And we care for everything, we cling to everything: times, places, people, objects, everything which is and will be important to each of us; our individual nature is only the least part of ourselves. Everyone stretches herself out, so to speak, over the whole earth and becomes receptive over the entire large surface.” Alexis answers stretching the earthly geographical history on the terrazzo floor of the Los Angeles Convention center. “Whither Goest Thou, America?” (Pair o’ Dice, 1990). America the continent has been devoured by a car, the car bumper as large as a whale’s mouth. But the car — icon of a country of movers — looks like the head of a comet dragging the continent along. Embodying mountains and deserts, it’s a mere part dragging the whole and is dragged at the same time. This is a meaning Jean-Jacques could not have conceived. It is the twentieth century landscape.