Artist and Painting Professor Alexandria Smith on How Doodling and Daydreaming Are Integral to the Creative Process

Smith's debut show opens this week at Gagosian in New York.

Photo: Amoroso Films. Courtesy the Artist and Gagosian
Photo: Amoroso Films. Courtesy the Artist and Gagosian

Alexandria Smith’s surreal mixed-media paintings are neither landscapes nor portraiture; in her works, which she constructs with painted wood, the rules of composition are unbound by physics—it is the stuff of dreams.

The Bronx-born artist, who is based between New York and London, where she is head of painting at the Royal College of Art, will have her first exhibition with Gagosian on New York’s Upper East Side this week. Smith was also among the artists who appeared in the gallery’s buzzy show of socially engaged art, “Social Works,” curated by Antwaun Sargent last fall.

For Smith’s upcoming solo show, “In Pretend Gravitas and Dream Aborted Givens” (also curated by Sargent), she takes up the words of American cultural critic Greg Tate, a mentor who died last year. In a 2011 essay, Tate aptly described Smith’s practice as one that identifies “with the need for all ghosts, freaks, and spooks to make peace with the everyday realms of the mundane and the quotidian.” Indeed, every element of the artist’s canvases exist in a sort of magical flatness that she builds up with wood assemblage before painting the surface.

For her Gagosian debut, Smith will show new paintings that continue her investigation into selfhood, queerness, Blackness, and femininity. Her moody assemblage paintings, which are housed in custom artist frames, will also be presented in a solo exhibition at the New Hampshire’s Currier Museum of Art in June.

We caught up with the artist while she was touring the Venice Biennale last week ahead of her own exhibition.

© Alexandria Smith. Photo: Prudence Cuming. Associates Ltd. Courtesy the Artist and Gagosian

© Alexandria Smith. Photo: Prudence Cuming. Associates Ltd. Courtesy the Artist and Gagosian

What is the most indispensable item in your studio that you can’t live without?

That’s a tough question, I don’t really have one. The obvious answer would be my paintbrushes.

What is a studio task on your agenda this week that you are most looking forward to?

The agenda that I’m most looking forward to is finishing the last two paintings for my solo exhibit at Gagosian.

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?

I am always listening to music while I work. The genres range from hip hop and R&B to rock and jazz. Most recently, I’ve been listening to a series of amazing lectures by Richard J. Powell called “Colorstruck! Painting Pigment Affect” hosted by the National Gallery.

© Alexandria Smith. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian

© Alexandria Smith. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian

Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?

Some of my favorites are: @simoneyvetteleigh@adriennemariebrowne@blackforager; @the.black.gaze@professionalblackgirl@apshantology

Is there a picture you can send of your current work in progress at the studio?

These images are of the last two paintings I made after the wood pieces are assembled and primed with gesso. I enjoy this stage of my work because I see the natural shadows of the work that the layering of the wood creates.

Work in progress. Courtesy the artist.

Work in progress. Courtesy the artist.

When you feel stuck while preparing for a show, what do you do to get unstuck?

If I’m feeling stuck while preparing for a show, I tend to read both fiction and art theory texts that are conceptually similar to themes that I’m exploring. I also turn to doodling and drawing which is the nucleus of my practice.

What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you most despise?

I most admire the range of a painter’s depiction of light. I most despise works that blatantly copy other artist’s work.

What images or objects do you look at while you work? Share your view from behind the canvas or your desktop—wherever you spend the most time.

I look outside of my studio window at the Thames River often and daydream.

View from Alexandria Smith's studio window onto the River Thames. Courtesy the artist.

View from Alexandria Smith’s studio window onto the River Thames. Courtesy the artist.

What is the last exhibition you saw that made an impression on you and why?

Faith Ringgold’s show at the New Museum during my last trip to NYC and Francis Bacon’s show at the Royal Academy of Art in London. Both of them are my all-time favorite artists so it was a dream to experience such comprehensive exhibitions of their work in person for the first time.

I am also currently responding to this last question from the Venice Bienniale and Simone Leigh’s presentation in the U.S. Pavilion is breathtaking. I’m awestruck.

In Pretend Gravitas and Dream Aborted Givens” opens on April 28, 2022 at the Park & 75 location of Gagosian, at 821 Park Avenue, New York.


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