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Alexis Smith

Same Old Paradise (1987)

Same Old Paradise, a 22' x 62' mural painted by Alexis Smith, was commissioned by Brooklyn Museum in 1987 as a temporary installation, after which it was crated and put in storage. It remained rolled-up for thirty years, but became the inspiration for Alexis’ Snake Path, installed at UC San Diego in 1992. Alexis had promised to give the mural to the Stuart Collection, if we could find a wall to accommodate it. Fast-forward to mid-2017 when plans for the North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Community were coming to fruition. A vast wall at a new auditorium would prove to be ideal. We were thrilled, as was Alexis.

We had no idea what condition Same Old Paradise would be in after all this time. In January 2018 we unrolled it. A small group, including Alexis and her husband, Scott Grieger, and Alexis’s former assistant, Meg Belichick, were astounded by the pristine condition, vibrancy, and overall vision of the work. It was an emotional moment. Seeing the mural up close is like entering the landscape itself, with the orange trees aligning and realigning in the way they do when one speeds along an actual highway. The associations are specific (Sal Paradise is Jack Kerouac, the main character in On the Road through whom we experience the journey) and universal.

Meg Belichick writes about the creation of Same Old Paradise:

In the spring of 1987, Alexis Smith asked me to work as her assistant on her Grand Lobby installation at the Brooklyn Museum. The work would be made in Los Angeles over that summer and shipped to Brooklyn for an exhibition in October. I started working in her studio on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice on Fridays during my sophomore year at UCLA.

Alexis was testing paints for their mold resistance and choosing the fabric for the mural. From the beginning she described the 22' x 62' painting as a backdrop that was to be stretched around the main wall of the museum lobby, just like canvas on stretcher bars.

Alexis worked with Lucia Winograd, a fine painter and illustrator, to create the rendering for the mural. Lucia had recently painted some large peaches, like the kind you find on a fruit crate label—but for a record label. Alexis gave her a simple sketch of the composition for Same Old Paradise and they worked together to develop the five-point perspective of the orange grove and the colors in the scales of the snake that turned into a paved road.

The completed rendering was stunning. Alexis used an overhead projector in the UCLA theater arts workshop to project the original simple drawing onto the light muslin after it had been stretched, primed and fire protected. Alexis worked with Rich Sedivy, a professional scene painter, to translate the painting from the scale of a fruit crate label to a billboard or movie screen. Weeks of painting (and brush washing!) came after. Rich layered in the sky and mountains and the orange groves. Lucia painted the giant oranges and the scales of the snake. Every image and shadow involved layers of different over-painted colors.

We anticipated hurdles as we were preparing for the installation in Brooklyn. The overriding intent was to get viewers to see up close to the painted surface, as well as from far away. It had to be seamless. According to Alexis: “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.”

The eight framed collages, mounted on the mural at eye level, included objects related to lines from Kerouac’s On the Road:

The road was straight as an arrow.
The moths smashed our windshield.
My eyes ached in nightmare day.
I suddenly saw the whole country as an oyster for us to open, and the pearl was there, the pearl was there.
A fast car, a coast to reach, a woman at the end of the road.
I looked greedily out the window.
Somewhere along the line, there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.

Alexis loved to drive, and when you drive and look out the window you are experiencing something akin to her work—an ongoing visual collage. You see one thing after another.

She also used to talk about “freedom and will, and how much control human beings have over their destinies.” Alexis was practicing Zen Buddhism when she was creating Same Old Paradise. Just as Kerouac had, she also had become fascinated with the idea that instead of having paradise be a place, paradise might be a state of mind.

-Meg Belichick, 2018