Artist and painting professor Alexandria Smith on how doodling and daydreaming are essential to the creative process

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Alexandria Smith’s surreal mixed-media paintings are neither landscapes nor portraits; in her works, which she constructs from painted wood, the rules of composition are not tied to physics – it is the stuff of dreams.

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

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

For her Gagosian debut, Smith will be showing new paintings that continue her exploration of selfhood, queerness, blackness and femininity. Her evocative assemblage paintings, housed in custom artist’s frames, will also be featured in a solo show at the Currier Museum of Art in New Hampshire in June.

We met the artist while she was out in front of her own exhibition at the Venice Biennale last week.

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

What is the most essential element in your studio that you cannot live without?

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

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

The agenda I’m most looking forward to is completing the last two paintings for my solo show in Gagosian.

What atmosphere do you prefer at work? Do you listen to music or podcasts or do you prefer silence? Why?

I always listen to music while I work. Genres range from hip hop and R&B to rock and jazz. I recently watched a series of amazing talks by Richard J. Powell called Colorstruck! Painting Pigment Affect, hosted by the National Gallery.

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

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

Which artists, curators or other thinkers are you currently following most on social media?

Some of my favorites are: @simoneyvetteleigh; @adriennemariebrowne; @Schwarzforager; @the.black.gaze; @professionalblackgirl; @apshantologie

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

These images are of the last two paintings I made after the wood pieces were assembled and gesso primed. I enjoy this phase of my work because I see the natural shadows of the work created by the layering of the wood.

In progress.  Courtesy of the artist.

In progress. Courtesy of the artist.

When you’re feeling stuck preparing for a show, what do you do to break free?

When I’m feeling stuck preparing for a show, I read both fiction and art theory texts that are conceptually similar to the topics I’m researching. I also turn to doodling and drawing, which is at the core of my practice.

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

What I admire most is the range of a painter’s depiction of light. What I most despise is work that blatantly copies the work of other artists.

What images or objects do you look at while working? Share your view from behind the screen or your desktop – wherever you spend most of your time.

I often look out of my studio window at the Thames and dream.

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

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

Which exhibition impressed you most recently and why?

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

I’m also answering that last question right now from the Venice Biennale and Simone Leigh’s presentation in the US Pavilion is stunning. i am awesome

In Pretend Gravitas and Dream Aborted Givens opens April 28, 2022 at Gagosian’s Park & ​​75 location, 821 Park Avenue, New York.

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