A Comic Book Trickster
During the year that Alexandria Smith just completed as a visiting artist in printmaking at the University of Iowa, she was exposed to new printmaking techniques. These helped Smith refine her existing skills and gave her command of new methods she now incorporates into her practice. Based in Brooklyn, Smith uses the visual language of cartoons to express ideas about being a woman, about being African American and about everyone's quest for selfhood.
Back in 2014, Smith mounted “Perpetual Adorations” at the Scaramouche Gallery, her first solo exhibition in New York City. It presented an insecure, young girl with thick pigtails named Marjorie. That character was a surrogate for the artist in her quirky development from child to adolescent to adult.
Though representations of African American women predominate in her paintings and collages, Smith says her art has made an impact on people of all ages, genders, ethnicities and sexual orientation. “As someone that makes the female brown body the focal point of my work, there is a tendency for people to only feel that the work is about that identity. That is part of it, but not the only theme I'm exploring. The problem that I aim to dismantle is the association of universality with whiteness. My work is not merely exploring monolithic ideas about identity, but the expansiveness of it and commonalities that we all share and can relate to.”
Complexity via Simplicity
Alexandria Smith is among a plucky cadre of contemporary African American studio artists who’ve been inspired by styles and motifs of cartoon illustration. They include Deborah Grant, Kerry James Marshall, Laylah Ali, Trenton Doyle Hancock and William Villalongo who co-curated the Black Pulp! show at Yale University's 32 Edgewood Gallery (January 19 – March 11, 2016). Alexandria Smith was represented in the show along with these and other artists.
The simplicity of comics style, she says, can reveal complexities. “I am intentionally simplifying the means of communication as a way to delve deeper into more complex and nuanced concepts,” says Smith. “A cartoon vernacular is a language that many people have grown up with. It's nostalgic and familiar. It has an appeal and an allure that I have always been drawn to. My decision to use this style of creating stems from my early interests in cartooning/animation, but I am also playing the role of the trickster in my work.”
IRAAA+ first covered Alexandria Smith’s work in our report on the group show, I See You: The Politics of Being (January 26, 2014 - June 1, 2014) at the Harvey B. Gantt Center in Charlotte. Contributing writer Jonell Logan wrote about Smith’s background and her talk at the show’s artists’ forum:
"Alexandria Smith traced the history of her work back to influences from her grandmother’s house in North Carolina. Her use of wallpaper designs, doily patterns, allusions to wooden floors and the ever-present pig-tail create an ever-expanding visual language that has informed her 2D and now 3D and performance-based work.
Like many children being raised in New York City, Smith was sent to the south during the summer to escape the sweltering concrete. Her paintings and collages in some way recreate that space, while manufacturing a place where a young woman’s identity can be formulated, transformed and re-constructed."
The Take Home From Iowa
The Iowa fellowship provided Smith with a solo exhibition, All The Women In Me, that enabled her to realize installation ideas she had long been contemplating. She exhibited a dozen new paintings salon-style on a painted wall that echoed some of the patterns and design elements in those works.
The Iowa show launched the artist in the direction her current projects pursue. “I am exploring the concepts of liminal space and the psychology of color through the paintings and collage installations that I am creating, as well as manipulating the space that they are exhibited in,” explains Smith. “This is an extension of my previous work. I have always explored the construction of space both metaphorically and literally within the constraints of the square or rectangle. Now I am simply breaking those boundaries and bringing those ideas into ‘real’ space. Each idea is building onto the next and evolving over time.”
Alexandria Smith recounts that she recently gave a lecture at the San Francisco Art Institute. A few days later, Smith received an email from a student who had attended her talk. The student wrote that the day of the lecture was her favorite of the entire semester: “When I see artists like you, it helps validate me in real life. It is not easy to make the narrative you depict beautiful, but you do. I appreciate you!”
For Smith — and for any artist — such a powerful response is like vitamins, minerals and sunshine. “This is the impact that I strive for. It's the reason why I make the art that I make and motivates me to go to the studio on the days when I am struggling,” says Smith.
Cliff Hocker lives in Richmond VA.