‘Alexis Smith: The American Way’: Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit in La Jolla showcases ‘transformation’

"Alexis Smith: The American Way" opens Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Focusing on what Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Director and Chief Executive Kathryn Kanjo calls “the power of transformation,” the institution has revealed a new exhibit of mixed-media collages drawn from film, literature and pop culture.

“Alexis Smith: The American Way” opens Thursday, Sept. 15, at MCASD’s flagship location at 700 Prospect St. in La Jolla. It will run through Sunday, Feb. 5.

The exhibit, the first retrospective of Smith’s work in 30 years, showcases 50 of her pieces from 1978 to 2016.

Smith’s use of wit and humor “scrutinizes the narratives that are embedded in our culture and asks us to think critically about how they inform our sense of self and our society,” said MCASD associate curator Anthony Graham.

The piece “The American Way,” mounted in the exhibit’s entrance, features an “energetic, poetic and enigmatic combination” of passages from a novel combined with images from newspaper clippings and advertisements that resonates differently each time someone views it, Graham said.

Smith, who was born in 1949 in Los Angeles, began her career in the 1970s at the height of conceptual and pop art.

“There is an enduring theme in Alexis’ work of self-invention,” Kanjo said.

“She really took these ideas and made them her own,” Graham said, noting that her work incorporates creations like the opera “Madama Butterfly” or a poem by Walt Whitman and retelling them “from her own angle.”

Smith, who also created two of the works in UC San Diego’s Stuart Collection, is committed to collage, “a medium that takes humble objects and transforms them into something spectacular,” Graham said.

MCASD associate curator Anthony Graham
MCASD associate curator Anthony Graham says “The American Way” exhibit contains 50 of Alexis Smith’s pieces that were heavily influenced by film, literature and pop culture.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Many of Smith’s pieces are murals painted on MCASD’s walls by an outside company, with her original collages layered on top.

Some of the pieces display pithy quotes by American playwrights and other notable people who “challenged established hierarchies [and] norms of what was considered in good taste or bad,” Graham said.

The signature piece in the collection, “Men Seldom Make Passes at Girls Who Wear Glasses,” which features a mural of Marilyn Monroe with collages within the lenses of her eyeglasses, is a “stellar example of Smith’s playful yet subversive attention to the roles of women in our culture,” Graham said.

Many of Smith’s collages include images thought to be sexist while repositioning them and revealing the influence the feminist movement had on her work, Graham added.

Not wanting to cement herself as a feminist artist, Smith later created works that showcase a “sense of adventure, of setting out to invent oneself … thinking about the role the West plays in the American imagination,” Graham said.

One such piece, “Red Carpet,” is a large installation including a 35-foot-long carpet and a Mark Twain quote that Graham said juxtaposes the desert sky and Hollywood’s use of red carpets.

The Smith exhibit is the museum’s second to be featured since it reopened after an extensive four-year renovation.

The first was “Niki de Saint Phalle in the 1960s,” a retrospective of the work of the French American artist who spent her last years in La Jolla before her death in 2002.

Hosting the Smith exhibit now follows MCASD’s “focus on celebrating significant women artists who perhaps have had less recognition than they deserve,” Kanjo said.

The exhibit also brings new scholarship to Smith, which Kanjo said is “widely needed.”

The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Tickets are $25, with various discounts available. For more information, visit