Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

Skip to main content
A directors chair with Alexis Smith printed on the blue fabric.

Alexis Smith: The American Way

Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego presents the first retrospective of the California artist’s work in over 30 years, on view September 15th, 2022 - February 5, 2023

(July 14, 2022 – San Diego, California) – From September 15, 2022 - February 5, 2023, The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) will present Alexis Smith: The American Way, the first retrospective of California artist Alexis Smith (b. 1949, Los Angeles, CA) in thirty years. Smith is widely known for her mixed-media collage works which draw heavily on film, literature, and pop culture. Her unique practice has been informed by Conceptual and Pop art and shaped by the Feminist movement of the 1970s, yet she has set out a path all her own and her consistently defies easy categorization. Through the works featured in The American Way, Smith presents stories of self-realization and self-transformation—examining the role of these narratives in creating a distinctively American mythology. Featuring work produced throughout the artist's career, from the 1970s to the 2010s, this exhibition highlights the themes that permeate the artist's oeuvre, including her interests in gender, identity, and class.

From the very beginnings of her career, Smith’s artistic practice can be connected to a sense of self-invention. This is visually articulated by one of her most iconic works titled Your Name Here (1975), which is a director’s chair with the artist’s name emblazoned on the backrest. Alexis Smith was, however, not the artist’s given name. Born Patti Anne Smith, she adopted the moniker of actress Alexis Smith during her first year of study at the University of California, Irvine as a means of starting afresh. This choice not only represents a clear nod to the resounding presence of Hollywood in the artist’s cultural consciousness—a glimmering world where anyone can arrive to supposedly become someone else—but also reflects her interest in identity and its construction through eliciting confusion between Smith the artist and Smith the actress.

Smith herself was born in Los Angeles, and has continued to live there throughout her career. It is thus
only apt that Hollywood, the very pinnacle of American fantasy-making, should recur as a subject throughout much of her work. In a series titled The Twentieth Century (1983), for example, Smith screenprinted the same phrase onto numerous found movie posters: “I’ve died so often, made love so much—I’ve lost track of what’s real.” These works, in their sameness and variation, hint at a certain futility. Each movie ends the same way—the hero falls in love, the starlet dies, the credits roll, and it all begins again. Such stories are as such not only endemic to Hollywood and Smith’s coming of age as an artist, but also remain central to the creation of the American ideal, which Smith so often keenly and even humorously scrutinizes.

Mixed media collage on 2 panels with painted backdrop

Alexis Smith, Isadora, 1980-81. Mixed media collage on 2 panels with painted backdrop, 14 1/3 x 41 ½ in.; 14 1/8 x 48 3/4 in.; backdrop, 10 x 12 ft. Collection of Thomas Solomon and Kimberly Mascola

Her resulting collages consequently tend to include movie posters, album covers, advertisements, and news clippings.. Through her collage, Smith underscores the way that media prop up quintessentially American stories of self-invention and reinvention, built upon shared fantasies and futile aspirations. The 1980 collage The American Way, from which this exhibition takes its name, combines text from John Dos Passos’s trilogy of novels, U.S.A., with a variety of objects, news clippings, and advertising images to illuminate ideas about consumption and success that appear throughout Dos Passos’s fragmented text while also conveying that the American way is an idea both elusive and disorienting.

Kathryn Kanjo, David C. Copley Director and CEO, comments: “MCASD is the perfect place for this
major and long overdue retrospective of Alexis Smith, who not only has strong ties to Southern
California—where she has lived throughout her life—but also with the Museum itself, as one of our
collection artists. I’m particularly excited to see the return of Smith’s iconic wall-based collage, Men
Seldom Make Passes at Girls Who Wear Glasses
(1985), which formerly welcomed visitors in the
Museum’s entryway, because it emblematizes just how large of an impact she has had in the San Diego
community for so long.”

Anthony Graham, Associate Curator, comments: “Alexis Smith has long been considered a central
figure of art in Los Angeles and has continued to have an impactful presence in the region–and yet, her
work has not received the critical attention that it deserves. Smith's singular career working in collage
expands our understanding of American art and provokes us to think critically on the culture we share.”

The American Way brings together fifty artworks from each stage of the artist's career, from her early
artist books and intimate collages to wall paintings and room-sized installations. In dialogue with the
exhibition at MCASD, two major public artworks are held in the Stuart Collection, on view at UCSD. Throughout these seemingly varied media, Smith has carried a recognizable sensibility, forging
connections by combining text, image, and object. Through the wry power of suggestion rather than explicit statement, Smith appropriates and interprets shared cultural touchstones, often drawing from the past to point out its power in the present. Central to understanding Smith’s exploration of the American way is the search for self-realization and transformation. This is evident not only in the artist’s subject matter but in the constant reinvention of her own practice.

The exhibition catalog, co-published with Scala Arts Publishers, features a significant collection of scholarship by the exhibition’s curator Anthony Graham, art historians Cécile Whiting and Ariel Evans, as well as a contribution by artist Elliott Hundley. This fully illustrated publication, underwritten in part by Garth Greenan Gallery, reflects the breadth and depth of Smith’s five decade career and cements her place as one of the most incisive American artists today.

Alexis Smith, Men Seldom Make Passes at Girls Who Wear Glasses, 1985. Wall painting with two framed mixed-media collages

Alexis Smith, Men Seldom Make Passes at Girls Who Wear Glasses, 1985. Wall painting with two framed mixed-media collages, panels: 27 x 33 x 3 3/4 in. (68.6 x 83.8 x 9.5 cm), each of 2; overall dimensions variable. Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Museum purchase with partial funds from Ansley I. Graham Trust, Los Angeles, 1995.9.1-2.

ABOUT MCASD:

The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) is the region’s foremost forum devoted to the exploration and presentation of the art of today. Open since 1941, we welcome all audiences to reflect ontheir lives, communities, and the ever-changing world through the powerful prism of contemporary art. Between two MCASD locations — one in the heart of downtown San Diego and the other in the coastal community of La Jolla — we showcase an internationally-recognized collection. MCASD’s dynamic exhibition schedule features a vast array of media in an unprecedented variety of spaces, along with a growing dedication to community experiences and public programs. As a cultural hub, MCASD seeks to catalyze conversation in our region.

IMAGES:
Image 1: Alexis Smith, Your Name Here, 1975. Mixed media, 34 x 22 x 20 in. Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery. Image 2: Alexis Smith, Isadora, 1980-81. Mixed media collage on 2 panels with painted backdrop, 14 1/3 x 41 ½ in.; 14 1/8 x 48 3/4 in.; backdrop, 10 x 12 ft. Collection of Thomas Solomon and Kimberly Mascola. Image 3: Alexis Smith, Men Seldom Make Passes at Girls Who Wear Glasses, 1985. Wall painting with two framed mixed-media collages, panels: 27 x 33 x 3 3/4 in. (68.6 x 83.8 x 9.5 cm), each of 2; overall dimensions variable. Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Museum purchase with partial funds from Ansley I. Graham Trust, Los Angeles, 1995.9.1-2.

VISIT:

MCASD La Jolla, 700 Prospect St, La Jolla, CA 92037
MCASD Downtown, 1100 Kettner Boulevard, San Diego, CA 92101

CONNECT:

Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | YouTube

PRESS CONTACTS:
Cultural Counsel | Evan Lenox (National)
evan@culturalcounsel.com
978-844-1241

TR/PR | Toni Robin (Local)
tr@trprsandiego.com
858-483-3918