alexis smith

Madeleine Grynsztejn: I read somewhere that you are the daughter of a psychiatrist. Did this at all inform your work?

Alexis Smith: I think it affected me in an even more basic way than that. My formative childhood years were spent on the grounds of a mental hospital where my father was assistant superintendent, and it was a different environment from the one most people grow up in. It was an insular community that was completely cutoff from the outside world. The patients ran the laundry and worked in the gardens and the houses. They had a band and a movie theater it was a whole, separate city unto itself, full of doctors and patients and doctors' families. There was a lot less difference and separation between the patients and the doctors than you would have thought. We would have patients work in the house where they would be alone for a time, and then they would have an attack or an acute crisis and would disappear, either for a while or permanently. I think a lot of crazy things went on one of the women who worked in the house would wax the cellar stairs or wash my mother's antique furniture with Drano. It's hard to describe the quality of that kind of environment, but I think it had an effect. It was just off enough to be affecting, to be an alternative to normal family life.

Grynsztejn: I'm reminded of your Calamity Jane piece, which uses the image of Frances Farmer, a Hollywood actress, who suffered psychologically and fell victim to deplorable mental health treatments that ended in a partial lobotomy. I also thought of your Ebb Tide piece when you were talking about the woman who washed the furniture with Drano.

Smith: It was strange. It was California in the fifties, first of all, and then it had that edge of nonreality, of literal craziness. The other thing about my father was that he was two generations older than me. He was really old enough to be my grandfather, and I was his only child. My father was a raconteur, a very talkative guy who was a great storyteller. He had lived pretty much through the whole century. Born in 1906, he was like a supplemental history of World War I, the Depression, and World War II. He gave me a sense of American history and exposed me to those events in a very real and different way from what was taught in school. My family background is western pioneer, so I did not come from an east coast intellectual academic tradition in any way.

Grynsztejn: Your work remains very entrenched in west coast art history.

Smith: It is not so much west coast art history because I don't believe there's any such thing. It's west coast culture. Up until the sixties there wasn't any west coast art history to speak of except for small, isolated groups of artists.

Grynsztejn: Your work has been critically aligned with the tradition of California assemblage, with artists like Edward Kienholz and Wallace Berman, rather than with the east coast surrealist-derived assemblage that harkens from Europe. The irony and humor in your work has been compared with that of John Baldessari, Vija Celmins, and Ed Ruscha. Would you agree?

Smith: I would. I think it has to do with the fact that we were all formed by the same cultural phenomena. I wasn't particularly inßuenced by those artists because, strangely enough, I've done the work I do in some form since I was a child. In college I found out that the work I'd been doing had the potential for being art, but I was already working in this way and it was familiar to me. I had always cut up words and images and put them together, and I was encouraged by friends of mine to take art classes because they recognized a potential. It was defined as art because of the context, but I probably would be doing it in a garage anyway if I didn't have the art context to do it in. I don't know what the difference is between the east coast and the west coast, but I think that there are real observable differences for example, there is a lack of reverence here for tradition and for the past. The people who have traditionally moved west are the people who were willing to start all over and make it on their own. This is an attitude that persists in the west. The west has a classless quality about it. That's not to say that it doesn't have a lot of nouveau-riche people. But it lacks an upper-crust made up of old families. Except in a limited way, that class doesn't exist here; people were trying to get away from that when they came here. They associated culture with that class system. To get away from culture was to get away from the class system and to reinvent yourself. It is appropriate that the culture and the industry out here are the movies. Hollywood is one of those places where people invented themselves. Any soda-jerk could become a star there existed the magic of possibility, where anybody could do and be anything. There is a different concept of art that comes out of that kind of sensibility, which is probably less skilled in terms of traditional academic training and more open in terms of what kinds of media and what definitions of art people are willing to use. You certainly see that in artists like Baldessari and Ruscha a sort of irreverence for prescribed media and for prescribed subject matter and art historical tradition. That is consistent with people's atttudes here.

Grynsztejn: You changed your name in college.

Smith: I did, but I didn't do it with a lot of forethought. I was Patricia Anne Smith and I was known as Patti Anne, and I couldn't stand it. I would have been known as Patti Smith, so I was just as lucky that I did change it. I changed it impulsively to Alex and subsequently lengthened it to Alexis Smith because of the movie actress of the same name, but I already had Alex as a nickname. Alexis Smith had been in many movies in the late forties and fifties.

Grynsztejn: Does she know?

Smith: Yes, and she has one of my pieces. I recently met her through a director friend of mine. She is a very charming woman.

Grynsztejn: Obviously, by college age you had a strong admiration for Hollywood and Hollywood films.

Smith: I did. I was interested in the movies and fascinated by them, but probably no more so than anybody who grows up in a film-industry town.

Grynsztejn: Your work deals with images and stories that may be categorized as "kitschy," yet you remain very respectful of the material you don't criticize or lampoon it.

Smith: I am not sure what "kitsch" is. It hasn't been successfully defined for me.

Grynsztejn: Kitsch, to me, means in part that the object exists in the arena of popular culture and contains an element of its own degradation.

Smith: I don't think that I come from the kind of background nor am the kind of person who can afford to pass judgment. I think that we are talking about a snobby and cynical outlook at culture on the point of view of one who is better than and not touched by it. In my case, I happen to feel affectionately toward popular culture because I am part of it. I don't see myself as being outside of it passing judgment. I am not an academic, a philosopher, or an anthropologist. I am dealing with these things as things that have meaning for me and for other people, and that's our common bond. I am immersed in popular culture: I'm sort of in the trenches and don't believe in cynical, judgmental art. I believe in much more emotional, sentimental work. Over the years I have gotten a lot of shit for not being a cynical, intellectual artist and have received a great deal of criticism for making art that's sentimental and cute. It's amusing to me now that it has come full circle and there's an acceptance of the work, but it wasn't always so. Part of what you're talking about has to do with the fact that there's a white, Western- European intellectual tradition where you set yourself apart from the world by dealing with it conceptually and intellectually that is what constitutes "history." Western civilization went into so-called primitive societies and told them they were doing it all wrong and tried to get them religion and clean them up. I think it's now obvious that there is a vitality in those "other" cultures and so people are looking to them. In doing so we have to question how judgmental we've been how overly conceptual, industrialized, mechanical, scientific, intellectual, and out of touch. Maybe the balance is redressing itself a little bit.

Grynsztejn: Your use of literature covers an incredibly diverse range of authors including Thomas Mann, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, and John Dos Passos. What ties these writings together for you? What attracts you to those particular writers, and how do you pick the excerpts you use?

Smith: I think that I picked these writers and excerpts more intuitively than anything else; they were writers to whom I had a strong intuitive, emotional response. I wasn't particularly well-educated, so I wound up reading many books as an adult that someone more educated than I might have read in school. My lack of a formal education helped me become interested in literature as an adult. When I wanted to work on a particular subject, I looked into different areas and sometimes I would stumble into writers who I thought were interesting, and then I made art about their work. I made work about Borges when I was particularly interested in destiny. I became interested in Whitman when I began to think about the characteristics of the American sensibility. I've always been interested in mysteries, and Raymond Chandler is the definitive LA mystery writer. Also, his ability to formulate metaphors and descriptions in ways that were unique and could be taken apart into shorter metaphors was useful to me. They made a great superstructure for the pieces called Chandlerisms, which combined Chandler's metaphors with an object to make a third, visual metaphor that didn't previously exist, but was related somehow parallel, but not the same. I was able to use these different writers for different purposes.

Grynsztejn: Raymond Chandler plays into your work very nicely because we are familiar and yet not familiar with his literary voice. Some of Chandler's lines are like literary ready-mades. Very succinct things.

Smith: That's a really good description of them. First off, the literary metaphors are surprising to people, and then I overlaid them with their visual equivalents, which carry their own possibilities for association independent of the words, yet still similar … I used this method to break down what I was trying to do to a simplified essence. There was a period in my work the first ten years that was produced while I educated myself on the relationship between words and images. I learned a lot about linguistics and the associative power of images. Gradually I was able to make the work more lush, more complicated and baroque because by then I knew what I was doing I had become more sophisticated.

Grynsztejn: The written portion of your work is usually in quotes.

Smith: Sometimes. If it's a person talking, it's in quotes.

Grynsztejn: Do you literally lift the texts?

Smith: Yes.

Grynsztejn: You use both fiction and nonfiction.

Smith: Yes, but you can't always tell the difference. I might use a line out of someone's biography, out of a letter written to somebody, but it might be odd enough that you wouldn't think it was nonfiction. There's a line in a piece called The Perfect Couple, a line from Jane Mansfield's biography: "She could wrap him around her pinkie, but he could pick her up with his." Now, technically, it's nonfiction, but it's poetic.

Grynsztejn: In a number of these works, the subject is the relationship between men and women and the position of women in society in particular. You use found images that oftentimes show women as less than independent, but not victimized.

Smith: I think if you look at the Jane pieces and especially the pieces about Jane Mansfield, it's simply a fact that she had a lot of not-so-great things happen to her; however, that happens to everybody. That's the thing about life. I hope that the men and women who I've dealt with in my work have been dealt with affectionately, and that I've addressed sexism with a sense of humor about what I consider to be human foibles. I was recently criticized in a review for a show I did called El Dorado the second part of a series based on Jack Kerouac's On the Road for glorifying the world experiences and myths of men as being superior and more romantic than the experiences and myths of women, and that I was therefore part of the problem rather than part of the solution. I was told that my work was antifeminist. But in Jane I worked from a woman's point of view, and that work was seen as feminist. I'm not a social critic. I point out what I think are amusing and ironic human qualities, and I think people, both men and women, generally have a hard time in life. I collaborated with Amy Gerstler on a piece called Past Lives. I think people had a difficult time figuring out what point of view we had because the material was in some ways humorous and sentimental since it used old children's chairs and childhood references but the writing we incorporated about the human experience was very black and consisted of failed expectations, disappointments, criminal behavior. We ran the full spectrum and were not confined to serendipitous Middle America.

Grynsztejn: I don't think you focus exclusively on "a man's world." In your work both men and women are equally constructed or not fully constructed out of and around your bric-a-brac. Especially in the case where you use quotes, there's a sense of absence since you can't physically see the person speaking. At the center of many of your works, there's someone missing, whether it's a man's story or a woman's story.

Smith: That's true.

Grynsztejn: Who are your favorite characters in your work? Do you have a particular affection for characters who have surfaced in your work, either through quotations or as images? And by characters I could mean fictional characters or real-life movie actresses.

Smith: That's a weird question because I don't have a particular interest in these people. I think I am interested in what people say. I am interested in the way they take common impulses and translate them into stories and feelings and poetic observations, and I'm interested in things that happen to people that seem like good examples of the human condition. The people who I have a soft spot in my heart for, for whatever reason, are the eccentric American geniuses like Walt Whitman and Isadora Duncan, George Gershwin and Frank Lloyd Wright. Those are the people I like the best.

Grynsztejn: I thought you might have a particular affection for the types in your work like the tough-talking girl Friday who doesn't get the guy, the cigarette-smoking secretary …

Smith: Those are the types of people that you empathize with because you see yourself in them.

Grynsztejn: Do you?

Smith: I used to like those funny women in forties movies, the wise-cracking women …

Grynsztejn: About Jack Kerouac, the line "Whither goest thou, America?" it's a line you've used quite a bit in several works. It's a kind of signature leitmotif. Is it something that you're asking all of us generally?

Smith: Well, the quote goes something like "Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night, I mean, man, whither goest thou?" I think I only used the whole quote once, but I do think there is a wealth of ways to interpret the quotation visually, which is probably why I've used it often. The more I thought about it, the more I thought of ways to envision it. I do think it's a question worth asking. It's a question that Kerouac posed because hurtling across the country in his car was the place from which he saw the world and found out about America. But now, twenty-five or thirty years later, I think that question is even more relevant in a way because we're experiencing the breakdown of the myths that this quotation took for granted. America has always been about going places, about expanding and getting bigger. What fascinated me about On the Road was its revisiting of the traditional Western, Christian ideas of paradise and the promised land, and of manifest destiny, going across country and leaving where you were for someplace better. All these issues were built poetically into this book in a really conscious way: for example, the main protagonist's name is Salvatore Paradise, "Salvation Paradise," pretty explicit. I became fascinated by the fact that those basic American myths were all embodied in the book. You could take a poetic quote that was in a language very similar to that of the Beats, but it was pithier in terms of imagery. I also became fascinated, as did Kerouac, with the idea that instead of having the promised land be a place, it might be a state of mind. I got involved with Zen and some things Kerouac was involved with so that I was able to read additional meanings into the work.

Grynsztejn: Were you reading about or practicing Zen?

Smith: Both, and thinking about how those experiences affected Kerouac. You can read the book on an obvious level as being about moving through space and going to the promised land and about paradise being a real place. Then you can read into it a more Eastern, more Californian idea that paradise is a state of mind. That interpretation can engender different kinds of imagery, which in turn rise to different levels of meaning.

Grynsztejn: The imagery of travel is consistent in your work. Your work is much like the experience of driving itself; when you drive and look out of the window, you're experiencing an ongoing visual bricolage. You see one thing after another. I see this constant movement in your work. Are you speaking about the car culture, or about the idea of not being tied down, or about freedom?

Smith: At one end of the spectrum, I'm dealing with real dumb things like people driving around in cars. At another level I'm also speaking about freedom and will and how much control human beings have over their destinies. And then I think art talks about the nature of human experience and perception, and how you can change perception, and whether you change your experience by changing your environ- ment or by changing yourself. All those ideas are in there, from the most concrete to the most abstract.

Grynsztejn: A consistent theme in your work is that of the fallen paradise, which you used prominently in a mural-size installation called Some Old Paradise at the Brooklyn Museum. Asphalt Jungle, the female target with a snake wrapped around it from the Jane series is also about the "Fall." In the billboard you recently did for the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, you use an image of California orange groves taken from old fruit crates another place that has fallen and is no longer, the California of the film Chinatown. Is it too specific to say that you think of California itself as a fallen paradise?

Smith: I never address anything really specifically in my work. My father, who was a buyer and seller of property, described Southern California during the Depression as a place that had incredibly blue skies, no smog, orange groves everywhere and a beautiful crystal-clear ocean, and Hollywood … Maybe that wasn't the California I grew up in.

Grynsztejn: Your father the psychiatrist?

Smith: Yes, my father the psychiatrist. And one of the places we lived in right before we moved to the hospital grounds was on a citrus grove in Covina so that as a really young child of about two or three I spent a lot of time playing in the mud of the furrows of the orange groves. So it is not a California that I don't remember. I think it is not so much what my experience of place has been, but that California, like Florida, Hawaii, and the tropical island places with warm weather, blue skies and abundant vegetation automatically invite a comparison with the Garden of Eden. I see California as a potentially useful symbol for a fallen paradise because of the way people think of California. It's just like Hollywood it's fraught with symbols. Certain things carry a cultural symbolism that everyone agrees upon, and you just play off those things. Those symbols rise out of experience, but then they also become self-sufficient and self-fulfilling. It's just like the way clich?s are born. Things are true and then they're true a few more times, and then they enter into a genuine, widespread understanding of things that constitute folk wisdom. They may stop being true, but they don't fall out of folk wisdom even when they're not true anymore. A lot of the material I deal with derives from the mythology or the folk wisdom of things and the imagery that people associate with things, which may or may not be the way things really are. But it is about people's conceptual understanding of their culture. That is what advertising is built on.

Grynsztejn: Do you look at advertising a lot? The way it gets the message across telegraphically?

Smith: Yes. I don't watch television anymore for some reason. I watch it a little, but I used to watch a great deal of TV when I was younger. I think anyone who is brought up reading magazines and watching TV has a common understanding of what images are appropriate to what words. That is how you can make an ad. Ads are a phenomenon of true visual literacy.

Grynsztejn: You are talking about familiar images, visual aphorisms. I'm reminded of Jenny Holzer's Truisms, which push at the limits of verbal aphorisms. One difference between your work and Holzer's is that Holzer writes these "aphorisms" herself they seem like common-sense clich?s, but then you realize that they're not. You work with purloined anecdotes, on the other hand, but both you and Holzer manipulate the verbal by establishing a certain context for it in your case, by combining the verbal with certain imagery.

Smith: But so do many artists. So does Richard Prince, for example. But my work differs from his in that my work is muddier, in terms of its purpose. There are so many things going on in my work that it's hard to pin it down. I think that my work is a very weird hybrid of old-time assemblage and a hands-on concern for battered objects that are poignant, mixed with a literacy and a conceptual point of view. It has also a certain quality of humor and irony that seems associated with the west coast. There are many things going on simultaneously in the work so that it's hard to pin any one of them down as the single motive. Sometimes the different elements are in conßict with one another.

Grynsztejn: About your Jane series, why did you choose that first name to tie together a whole series of works?

Smith: I'll answer that by reading an entry out of the Dictionary of American Slang. "Jane: a girl or young woman." They give some examples: "A cake eater who lets a Jane pay her own way"; "Ladies from Long Island, Janes from Jersey"; "His regular Jane had given him the air." I knew that Jane was the slang word for "woman." So I took the Janes of my childhood, the Janes of the fifties, who are a diverse group: there was Tarzan and Jane, Calamity Jane, Dick and Jane, Jane Russell, Jane Mansfield, Jane Eyre, and Jane Bowles there were all these Janes. I read about all of them and started to find these rather strange crossovers in imagery and behavior. I repeatedly found jungle imagery, alcohol, lots of car accidents images that could easily be combined and reused. I read about all of these people and characters, and gathered lots of quotes from various books, letters, what have you. Then I garbled up the imagery that went with the different people so that it became universal. That's where Jane came from.

Grynsztejn: The Jane series made me think it was named in honor of somebody. Then the fact that it's a first name evokes and provides some kind of intimacy. But actually the work is not very intimate. Plus, it's the very name used to define an anonymous, sometimes dead, woman, a "Jane Doe."

Smith: Well, it's not that the work isn't intimate, it's just that "Jane" is a cipher for womanhood in the fifties. These are the women who I grew up with, so that they are ostensibly the role models I had for the way women were supposed to be. That made it amusing for me.

Grynsztejn: So what "Jane" means to you is …

Smith: Womanhood. I think that the Janes were pretty tacky in a way, but nice. Their world was a world out of control, and they gave me the opportunity to use all those wonderful emotions in my work, like expectation and disappointment my favorite human foibles.

Grynsztejn: Would you say that this is the tie that binds all your work?

Smith: Expectation and disappointment? No, I don't think so. Although, if you go back to the beginning of my work, and certainly if you look at the last ten years of my work, for some reason the themes of expectation and disappointment have consistently cropped up. I have a feeling that is just one of the legacies of adult life. In the first ten years of my work, I was largely concerned with the nuts and bolts of the relationship between words and images. And with fate and destiny, which makes sense because a young person is thinking about what life will have in store. Then in the work you make when you're between thirty and forty, you start to see this visitation of expectation and disappointment. I think that as you get older there are certain things that you expected to happen that don't, and things you didn't expect to happen that do. It becomes something that you see not only in yourself but in other people's writings.

Grynsztejn: It seems nostalgic. I guess nostalgia is visually manifest in your work. Do you experience moments of nostalgia?

Smith: Yes, maybe sometimes, I think so, but I've always been one of those people who looks forward rather than back. Personally, I'd always rather be here now than at any previous time. I've been criticized for making "nostalgic" work, but for me it's a more anthropological selection because I am not personally given to nostalgia for the past. I don't even have a very good memory for what happened to me before. I'm not one of those people who is filled with a yearning for what once was because I'm always more interested in what's happening now than in what happened before. I would say that the true tie that binds all my work is not very esoteric and I don't know what people will think but the tie that binds my work is that it amuses me. That's why I do it, and I've been very careful, over the years, to leave myself the freedom to do the things that interest and amuse me. It's been my theory that you can't do art for a long time if it isn't interesting and if it isn't fun. I think that's a very selfish thing, but the things that I have been interested in the ironic things that I have noticed about myself and everybody else, the books I've read, the song lyrics I've heard, the images I've seen and the personal connections I've made with all those things have all been in step with my work. I only do things that interest me: if it interests me, I'll do it for free. If it doesn't, I won't do it at all. I think that my work is clean in the sense that I maintain the freedom to do what I want and not do what I don't want. And otherwise I'm so perverse that, believe me, I would not have persevered if I hadn't maintained that freedom for myself.

Grynsztejn: How do you think that the humor in your work affects the viewer? What do you want to accomplish by using humor and generating humor in the viewer?

Smith: I think that what I do is potentially a self-indulgent pursuit in the sense that I do it largely for my own amusement, but I also think that because I do it quite seriously and have been doing it for a really long time that, over the years, you've come to understand what things work for many people. So I automatically cut out things that might be so obscure that nobody else would get them. People who make art use it as a form of communication. The art that I make is the language I speak in; it's my vocabulary, how I communicate with the world. So, obviously, I want to communicate I want to communicate my sensibility and my point of view about what things mean and how the world fits together. When I say that the tie that binds my work is that it amuses me, I mean that my amusement is what sustains art as an activity for me and what motivates me. I don't have to do it. I do things that I have to do even though I may not want to, but that is not about doing the work. I very rarely get to the point where I don't want to do the work or don't find it interesting. I want to share things with people and I want to put neat things out into the world. I guess as you get older you get more sanctimonious, but I want to set an example of a person who is doing what is authentically hers and is able to do it out in the world for a living as her primary work and pursuit.

Grynsztejn: Having begun with books and then gone on to multi-paneled and large single-panel pieces, you then started to make large installations. What led you to something as large as, let's say, your outdoor piece at the Stuart Collection at the University of California, San Diego? You did your first large work in 1980 with Hello Hollywood, then The Grand, Some Old Paradise, and now The Snake Path at UCSD, another work using the image of a "fallen paradise."

Smith: I've been doing public art for ten years, so that work is just one among many. I really like a lot of things about my smaller-scaled work in terms of its formal qualities and its combination of words and images, and I like the intimacy of the scale. But there are things that the smaller work doesn't do it isn't commanding and it's very delicate and not as visually aggressive. Like a lot of other artists in the late seventies and early eighties, I became involved with creating a suitable context for hanging my work, and that drove me to paint images directly on the walls and to play the painted background against the objects in the same figure-ground way that the works themselves were formed of a background of paper and a foreground of collaged objects. That led to environments and then the opportunity to do installations permanently. As I began to do more permanent and public installations, all of which were large-scaled, I had to deal with new issues related to the permanency of the work to think of materials that would hold up and last for a long time. I began to think about architectural materials, all while gradually becoming more competent, until I was able to visualize my work beyond the small, ephemeral form that it had originally taken. Once you start doing public works, you start thinking about how you can win the war of attrition against entropy and vandalism. Then you go from paper to paint to terrazzo to slate to granite … whatever is durable. I've worked in other disciplines before. I have all along worked on graphics, posters, jewelry, and designed things that shared a conceptual orientation with the two-dimensional work, but using found, everyday forms. It just took a little self-confidence and experience to be able to project what I wanted to do out into the world of architecture.

Grynsztejn: Do you see your architectural-scaled works as distinctly different from your smaller works, in subject matter, media, or conceptual underpinning?

Smith: No, I see them as ostensibly the same. The Snake Path is a path formed in the shape of a snake made of slate scales. The piece contains the same paradise imagery as some of my other work, as well as a quotation from Milton's Paradise Lost. The quote is "And wilt thou not be loath / To leave this paradise yet shalt possess / Paradise within thee happier far?" It relates to what we've been talking about, and it is also the perfect quotation for a university campus, because it carries the additional suggestion of the ivory tower environment and the need for personal investigation. The work also has literally built into it a "tree of knowledge" and the Garden of Eden. Formally, it's a very different piece from my smaller two-dimensional work. It's not painted and it doesn't have a frame, but the elements other than that are the same conceptually. Another piece currently in the working-drawings stage is for the new LA convention center, which will include two terrazzo floors, the largest one being 50,000 square feet. It will bear an incredibly oversized map oversized to the point of abstraction of the Pacific Rim. At various locations around the rim will be inlaid medallions with ethnic design motifs corresponding to the different cultures in the region. All the motifs are related in the sense that they're all based on images of the wave, the spiral, or the wheel so that you can sense a commonality of vision shared by these different cultures, and yet you can see their unique differences as well. You can orient yourself based on how well you know what the art of each of these different cultures looks like. This piece is just a different form of what I already do, even though it doesn't have words.

Grynsztejn: Where do you find all your sources?

Smith: Everywhere. I pick things out of the street, go to garage sales, thrift shops and swap meets, and people give me things. A lot of times information and things will come to me and they'll stick with me until I have an opportunity to use them. Things have come along very propitiously, at the right moment, and then lo and behold, an excellent opportunity will present itself that calls for just the right image. I have tons of junk in storage just waiting for the right idea or the right opportunity to present itself. It is a very interactive way to make work, and I think that's another thing that ties my work together. The work that I do is the way I give my life meaning. There's a great Paul Bowles quote that goes, "It takes a lot of energy to invest life with meaning." I think that, in a way, that is how art functions for artists, particularly in what I do, because it is very dependent on chance encounters the things you find and the opportunities that come your way. I think it is a way to make me feel that life is meaningful.

Grynsztejn: Initially your collages seem much tighter, driven by a story line and are very formal and reductive in composition. I think your work has gotten progressively more, as you said, "baroque."

Smith: Yes. Mostly they have gotten more baroque because I had to be really confident that I could do it well on a basic level before making really baroque work. Very often works that are "baroque" are so because the artist's thinking is muddy and the excessiveness covers the fact that the piece doesn't really work. I don't really care if a work is simple or complex, but I am interested in a seamlessness in either case, where the piece looks really easy and natural, like some magical found object that someone happened on with a kind of "Ah-ha!" There is a kind of simple, easy, gentle perfection about it. It doesn't matter how much you have to kill yourself to get to that point as long as the difficulties are all hidden. You want it to look effortless, you want it to look seamless. You want it to look like real life and yet be just a little more profound than real life. You want it to look like it came out of the real world and not like some really fussy thing that can only exist in a high-oxygen artistic milieu. I want my work to be able to exist both in everyday life and as art and have meaning in both environments.


Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.