Snakes of Knowledge

Los Angeles-based artist Alexis Smith has a long and fruitful association with UC San Diego’s Stuart Collection. Her Snake Path installation outside the University’s Geisel Library, completed in 1992, has become iconic in the campus landscape. Smith’s monumental mural Same Old Paradise marks a welcome return to the Collection.

The mural is a collage that takes its title from the narrator of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Sal Paradise, whose compulsive cross-country travels immortalized the restlessness of a generation. The work consists of eight collages superimposed on a 22-foot by 62-foot muslin backdrop. The backdrop of the collage is an idealized landscape of California orange groves, based on images used since the 1930s to decorate orange crates. As is typical of Smith’s multitextural approach, images derive from many sources, including Hollywood advertising, billboards, and road signs. The text comes from such favored writers as Kerouac, Jack London, John Dos Passos, and Raymond Chandler (the quintessential L.A. scribe). Smith had previously incorporated quotes from Thomas Gray’s “Ode on Prospect of Eton College” and John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” in Snake Path.

Same Old Paradise was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1987, and subsequently crated and stored. Packed away, the original had been unseen until Stuart Collection offered the mural a permanent home at UC San Diego, an offer that Alexis Smith happily accepted. The sheer size of the work proved a challenge to finding a suitable site, but after patient searching a home was found in the auditorium at the University’s new North Torey Pines Living and Learning Center, slated to be opened in 2021.

Anthony Graham, Associate Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) and an authority on Alexis Smith’s work, joins Stuart Collection’s Mary Beebe and Mathieu Gregoire to explore Smith’s collaborations with the Collection in the larger context of her career. The trio note that both Snake Path and Same Old Paradise feature “the Snake of Knowledge,” alluding to the Garden of Eden and the loss of innocence that accompanies life experience. Other prominent themes include the impact of Hollywood on American culture, California’s status as a mythic state of mind, the ideological underpinnings of mass culture, and Smith’s ironic, occasionally incongruent usage of stereotypes from recent American history (e.g., Marilyn Monroe) in her work. Graham also discusses the upcoming exhibition he’s putting together for MCASD, a comprehensive look at the fifty-year span of Alexis Smith’s creative life.

Watch Alexis Smith: Snake Path & Same Old Paradise.

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