Alexandria Smith’s career is on the launch pad, and right now, everything is new.
“The scale, the color palette, multiple figures — it’s all new,” said Smith, 37, surrounded by the paintings in “Litany of Survival,” her solo exhibition at Boston University Art Galleries. “Who knows how things filter into your subconscious?”
Smith’s paintings leer and tilt, jar and jiggle. They’re surreal (or perhaps too real) — reflections on race and gender that reflect disturbing dreams and the irrational, tender, and violent muck of the psyche — her own, or perhaps society’s.
Single eyes stare out at you from a stack of disembodied heads. Knobby-kneed legs with no feet kick open a door with a clatter of cartoon glyphs. Women’s bodies merge. Heads disappear. Feet have their own cheeky character.
“She’s a beautiful painter, hands down,” said Lynne Cooney, artistic director of Boston University Art Galleries. Cooney met Smith two years ago and rearranged the gallery’s schedule to wedge this show in before the space closes next year for renovations — and before Smith’s rising star makes her harder to get.
“In previous work, she would make fragmented pieces that came together in one installation,” said Cooney. “Now she represents the fragmented in a cohesive, single image. And they’re big. She’s pushing the figure, and maintaining the integrity of the initial idea.”
The paintings are at once brooding and comical. Figures and body parts double and mirror each other in tricky spaces.
“We all have multiple identities,” Smith said about the doubling. “With friends, with family, at work. W.E.B. Du Bois’s double consciousness as it pertains to African-American identity. And now we see one presentation at work, and on the Internet the same person might be race-baiting.”
Besides the BU show, Smith’s work seems to be everywhere. She has paintings in “The Lure of the Dark,” (massmoca.org/event/the-lure-of-the-dark/) up into February at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and “States of Freedom: The Figure in Flux” (artgallery.tufts.edu/exhibitions/2018/freedom.htm) at Tufts University Art Gallery through Dec. 16. Her collage work is in “Nine Moments for Now” at Harvard’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art through Jan. 21. In April, Smith’s solo show of collage, sculpture, and sound, “Monuments to an Effigy,” opens at the Queens Museum.
And if she weren’t already busy enough, Smith, who teaches at Wellesley College and splits her time between Wellesley and Brooklyn, has just curated her first exhibition, “Coded.,” at the Boston Center for the Arts’s Mills Gallery. That one is all about color: its slipperiness, its emotional charge. Smith noted color theorist Josef Albers’s statement that “color is the most relative medium in art.”
“We almost never see in our mind what color physically is,” Smith said in an e-mail. How we read it depends on context: surrounding colors, form, placement.
She is highly attuned to tone. She lit up pointing out how different blacks play against each other in her painting “a pastorale,” at BU. In it, a blue figure lurches toward a dark portal and her own shadowy reflection: Black on black.
The insistent, even defiant physicality in Smith’s paintings recalls the pink, schlubby figures and hands in Philip Guston’s late paintings. But Guston’s work was about indignity; Smith’s finds dignity in the hidden, rejected, and ignored. A canny curator should put Smith’s paintings alongside some of Guston’s cartoonish renderings of Ku Klux Klansmen. The gallery might combust.
“The idea of feeling other is present in these paintings,” Smith said. They wrestle with the effect of being the object of everyone else’s projections.
‘The idea of feeling other is present in these paintings. They’re not literally speaking to one particular experience, but to emotions growing up throughout my lifetime.’
“They’re not literally speaking to one particular experience,” she said, “but to emotions growing up throughout my lifetime.”
Smith was the lone artist in her family in New Rochelle, N.Y. Her father is a pulmonologist and her mother a nurse; her brother is in finance.
But she knew early on she was an artist. “My mom said I declared it at age 3 or 4,” Smith said. “It’s all I’ve known.”
After attending public school, she went to a mostly white all-girls Catholic high school.
“I’m not white, I’m not going to fit in, especially in high school. Kids are like that,” she said. “And the wealth in that school — there was a class and a racial divide, and people were made to feel other and not human. It’s something I’ve constantly felt, and feel in Wellesley.”
Partly in response to that unease, the new palette in “Litany of Survival” is somber, a big switch after years playing with punchy, sourball tones.
“The time of making these was not a time of joy,” Smith said. “There were micro- and macro-aggressive experiences in the town itself that had an effect on the palette. Plus, every week someone of color is being murdered.”
She loves teaching. Indeed, she always wanted to be an art teacher, and got a master’s in art education at New York University before pursuing her MFA at Parsons School of Design. She was hired at a charter school in Harlem.
Smith had trouble finding the time and resources to make art. But she kept at a semblance of an art practice.
“I didn’t have a studio space. I was teaching full time,” she said. “I took advantage of the school copy machine and started cutting things up — quickly, at my kitchen table. And that’s when these hybrid forms came about.”
Indeed, forms and figures — characters, really — recur in her paintings, as she digitally samples and remixes them.
The stark but sensual works are as much about painting itself — form, color, space, ground, pattern — as they are about notions of “other.” A raw edge coming from asymmetry, color choices, and topsy-turvy spaces makes the headless, naked, conjoined figures and impudent feet feel all the more unnerving.
Smith looked at “Meeting of The Minds,” featuring a stack of sideways heads borrowed and multiplied from earlier work, each with one large, wide eye. The lines behind the stack look parallel, but they’re not; that may make you woozy. And those staring eyes! Not all of Smith’s paintings pin the viewer like that.
“It’s a reclamation of power,” said Smith. “Who is looking at who. And who is allowed, and who is permitted.”
ALEXANDRIA SMITH: A Litany for Survival
At Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery, Boston University, 855 Commonwealth Ave., through Jan. 27. 617-353-3329, www.bu.edu/art
At Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, 551 Tremont St., through Jan. 27. 617-426-5000, www.bcaonline.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.