Alexis Smith is a multimedia artist whose use of text in combination with images is her trademark. She mixes found objects from thrift-stores and Hollywood memorabilia such as posters, album covers, and ticket stubs with quotes from magazines, newspapers, novels, and poetry to create collages, assemblages, and public art to expose the irony in culture, politics, and life.
Smith was born and raised in Los Angeles and considers herself a “product” of Hollywood where she “grew up with media when it was simpler.” When she was seventeen, she whimsically changed her name from Patricia Anne Smith to Alexis Smith, taking the name of the glamorous movie star from an earlier era. “People did things more spontaneously then.” She attended the University of California, Irvine – Vija Celmins and Robert Irwin were mentors – and received her B.A. in 1970.
Smith juxtaposes media with words and images as she quotes classical, modern, and contemporary authors, such as John Milton, Henry David Thoreau, Gertrude Stein, and Jack Kerouac. She arranges their words into her image-and-text pieces, often focusing on the domesticity of a house or its contents. Her printed book-like illustrations, captioned with snippets of text, are usually set within a custom-made frame. In 1995, Smith made “Woman in the Dunes,” a mixed-media collage whose text summarizes the 1964 Japanese novel by Kobe Abe. The words are written across a landscape of sand and dunes with a small photo of the face of a traditional Japanese woman emerging from the sand along with other calligraphic elements.
Her 1977 “Labyrinth” is a seemingly simple piece, a printed book-illustration of a house shaped like a toy house from a Monopoly game, pasted onto paper with a fragment from Walt Whitman’s poetry: “The paths to the house I seek to make/ But leave to those to come to the house itself.” This text meets with the earlier 17th century plan for an elaborate garden labyrinth at the Palace of Versailles. Smith’s work – with its domestic focus on home and garden – hints at a subtle feminist undercurrent.
In her series “Jane” Smith focuses on women named Jane: Jane Austen; Jane Porter of the “Tarzan” novels; and Jayne Mansfield actress and model. In her assemblage diptych, “The Girl Can’t Help It,” the artist combines Mansfield’s black lace corset, a camera, and a map of the homes of Hollywood stars to reference Mansfield’s sexuality and fame, while the text behind the corset details Mansfield’s tragic death in a horrific auto accident.
Her assemblage “Wasteland” shows the hot Sonoran Desert in a reproduction of a tourist painting, captioned with the painted word ‘Wasteland’, the title of T.S. Eliot’s iconic poem. The barrenness of the land is enhanced with a car’s license plate, which Smith attached to a dustpan handle and stuck into the middle of the picture. The license is an “Amber Waves of Grain” Indiana license plate more than twenty years old. It shows a painting of a colorful sunset behind a darkly silhouetted Midwestern farm. Smith also shows the signature of the artist who made this painting: Norman Yeckley, a WPA artist who died unrecognized and forgotten in 1994 – the same year that the sunset license plate was made. Her assemblage melds her work with Yeckley, T.S. Eliot, and the anonymous designer of the license plate with the fastidious lettering of Norm Laich, a sign painter who was an important assistant in the production of art works made by contemporary artists.
Smith has produced three-dimensional, mixed-media installations in her public artwork. Her first public piece, made in 1982 for a bank in Hollywood, California, was a mixed-media painting and collage in the form of a streamlined passenger train. One of her most famous commissions was her 1992 “Snake Path,” a 560-foot-long, 10-foot-wide outdoor walkway for the University of California at San Diego. The flagstone footpath, shaped like a coiled serpent, snaked uphill through a garden of apple and pomegranate trees to the university’s library.
Smith had a retrospective the the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1991. She recently had a survey of her works from 1973-2016 at Los Angeles’s Parrasch Heijnen Gallery. Her work has been shown at the Laguna Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Walker Art Center, Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Currently 51 of her works are being shown in a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego on view through January 29, 2023.
Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Palm Springs Art Museum, Laguna Art Museum, the Walker Art Center, the Hammer Museum, and the Getty Center.