“Alexis Smith: The American Way” is the Los Angeles artist’s first retrospective in three decades, comprising early artist books made in the 1970s, room-size installations from the 1980s, and more recent mixed-media collages that extend into the 2010s. A proper, well-structured presentation of some fifty works, it nevertheless maintains a sense of intimacy, like a love letter from the show’s curator, Anthony Graham. Smith is everywhere and nowhere here; her variously mediated presence is rendered structural to the work and its staging, beginning with the first gallery’s spotlighting of Your Name Here, 1975/2016, a royal-blue cinema-style director’s chair emblazoned with ALEXIS SMITH. As the story goes, she was born Patti Anne Smith in 1949 and changed her name when she was seventeen and a student at the University of California, Irvine. Identity, both given and made, individual and yoked to collective myth—which is often stupefyingly vulgar and cruel—subtends the rest. The pieces in the first room alone offer a chronology-spanning overview of the artist’s career and include the exhibition’s namesake, The American Way, 1980, a collage in five sheets that mines the use of newspaper clippings and the stream-of-consciousness expression of John Dos Passos’s trilogy of novels, U.S.A. (1930–36). Like its source, Smith’s rejoinder makes a point about the brutalities of capitalism and the flexibility its contingencies require. One bit, running beside a small picture of an alarm clock, reads: TO DO TO MAKE THERE ARE MORE LIVES THAN WALKING DESPERATE THE STREETS HURRY UNDERDOG DO MAKE.
Smith is elsewhere attuned to the malleability central to American narratives via their foundational symbols, protagonists, and plots, which turn on notions of reinvention rather than on those of becoming (even if they are one and the same). Smith has been known to invoke Greek myths (as in the collage Orpheus: 3 Movies, 1974), and her attunement to metamorphosis likewise finds Ovidian complement. Yet the artist is consistent in her attention to the instantiations of these themes in the contexts of a louche postwar California culture and its recapitulation in novels and films. Golden State and Hello Hollywood, both 1980, specify this conceptual geography. The former, a large-scale installation, takes text from Raymond Chandler’s 1949 novel The Little Sister—in which the narrator describes driving into the San Fernando Valley—and features wall-emblazoned ads, as though they’re being seen from a passing car. This work was first shown at LA’s Rosamund Felsen Gallery with Hello Hollywood and other Chandler-related pieces, brought back together here for the first time. Hello Hollywood, too, nods to motorists: Silhouettes of palm trees hawking Burma-Shave shrink, receding in a perspectival play that touches upon illusionistic painting as much as travel on the proverbial open road.
More recent works admit Smith’s abiding interest in clichés of Western promise. She slices into these banalities through wry assemblages that speak more directly to contemporary life and recuperative nostalgia. Degree of Difficulty, 2002, for one, skewers images of female celebrity and sexual objectification. A large photograph of Britney Spears—her smiling mouth visible as her eyes and nose are obscured by an impenetrable blue square—shows her wearing a crop top and low-rise jeans (a period-appropriate thong peeks out from the waistband), while her left hand clutches a unsubtly phallic Pepsi bottle, pointed at her crotch. This element anchors the composition, which also features a picture of Shirley MacLaine on the cover of Modern Maturity (her face split open by a black diamond) and another smaller intercession of a calling card for a sex worker. Nearby, the epic Red Carpet, 2001, recalls the Hollywood reference of Your Name Here. It, too, is predicated upon the possibility of subjective interpolation in a space devoid of human presence, but framed as though it could hold it. Red Carpet—a massive hallway rug that scales up a humble serape pattern and leads to a trompe l’oeil painting of an apocalyptic sky—first premiered as a site-specific installation at SITE Santa Fe in New Mexico. A companion text for the work reads HEAVEN FOR WEATHER. HELL FOR COMPANY, the epithet a fitting one for an artist whose body of work acknowledges the desire for escape—from self as much as surroundings—as perfect pretending.