Alonso G. Smith

Alonso G. Smith
Alonso Ginnold Smith was born in Palo Alto, California, on August 2, 1917. His father, Stanley Astredo Smith, a distinguished professor of Romance languages and literature at Stanford University, provided his children with classical literature and fluency in a number of languages - because he said, "This is what I know best." Papa Smith was a courtly, turn-of-the-century gentleman with unshakable integrity and a somewhat ironic view of life, all traits passed on to his artist son.

Professor Smith also had strong convictions about educating his offspring, three one-year-apart sons and, ten years later, a daughter. He allowed only French spoken at home and, with his wife's assistance, gave daily after-school lessons in that language and its literature to his often resistant children. Perhaps the perfectionism in his son's application of paint to canvas can be traced to such early disciplines, just as the surreal symbols, allusions, visual metaphors and puns often have their source in literature as well as in sabbatical leave schooling in France. During those stays in Europe, with their obligatory visits to museums and cathedrals, Smith first encountered the great art of the past and found himself particularly drawn to the symbolic paintings of Bruegel and Bosch.

The artist's mother, Doris Ginnold Smith, also had a profound effect on her imaginative son. She was a highly intelligent and musically talented woman who, like most women of her time, forsook art for family. Smith remembers that though he was sometimes a disappointment to his academic father, his mother understood his differentness, just as he understood her deep yearning for musical expression. He tells us that sometimes, as a small child, he would lie in bed at night listening to her poignant renditions of Chopin preludes, and slowly drift off to sleep in tears. Among the numerous musical themes in Smith's paintings is "Swan Song of a Dancer" who reluctantly gives up her art for love. In "Orpheus and Eurydice", Smith's sequel to that myth, we find the musician thwarted by destiny again.

It was Doris Smith who explained the piano keyboard to her son and encouraged his preferred method of learning intricate classical pieces "by ear". She introduced him to the full, golden clarity and range of Enrico Caruso's voice, reborn in Smith's clean, soaring lines and rainbow palette. It was Caruso who later inspired the artist to learn many operatic arias for his own strong tenor voice.

Sandwiched between two very articulate brothers, Smith was and still is the quiet "middle son" of the family, but the most psychologically astute observer of the human comedy. As a child, his keen appraisal of situations and personalities often go him out of trouble for his somewhat unique kinds of mischief; later, he directed his insights toward paintings on human relationships and social dilemmas ("Jealousy", "Vain Discourse on Ecology"). By mid-century, Smith was already taking on politicians, freezing them historically in his satire as they play with forces they can rarely control. Never mean-spirited or cruel, these satires are more like playful thrusts and parries that prick consciences and call attention to the arrogance of power ("Political Malpractice").

Vain Discourse on Ecology
"Vain Discourse on Ecology"
(1969, oil/masonite, 28" x 28")
Somewhere in the blur between adolescence and adulthood, in a basement workshop, Smith discovered the wizardry of electronic technology. In a while, he constructed a radio transmitter that could broadcast, somewhat illegally, within a one-mile radius. In a well-organized project, he and his brothers - all three now language majors at Stanford - transmitted music and comedy to neighbors, who tuned in regularly. Since these were the Great Depression years, the brothers also broadcast news and lectures on domestic and world affairs - including information on the grim forces elbowing the world into World War II. If, in those early broadcasts the Smiths brought entertainment and reality to mile-away neighbors, it is the artist brother who has since brought all this, in fine art, to Everyman today.

In 1940, during a sojourn to Mexico on his father's last sabbatical, Smith encountered the works of the Mexican master painters and muralists. For him they were like skyrockets bursting everywhere with color and power and meaning; they were "telling it like it is" by merging real life with real art, and, like Bruegel and Bosch, they left a permanent imprint. This was a turning point; Smith's creative impulses, already taking shape and direction in other ways, were now demanding hands-on action in art.

Unfortunately, bad news came during this trip in the form of hepatitis and then jaundice, and also in the form of a German physician in Guadalajara who too long misdiagnosed the ailment. With typical humor, Smith tells us that his father had no pretensions to being an expert in any field but his own (he was an agnostic because he could make no special claim to knowledge of the hereafter); therefore, in all candor, he trusted this German specialist who turned a color blind eye to jaundice ("Medical Malpractice").

The approaching world war was bad news, too. Brothers Ben and Berto were inducted and sent to battle in France; a somewhat humiliated Alonso was assigned to defense work in electronic industries, of course. During this phase Smith cut short his academic pursuits and moved to San Francisco. There he rented a shabby room ("Housing Shortage") from an excessively flatulent landlady who, because of his mustache, addressed him as "Mr. Hitler". He also began his art career in earnest, carefully balancing work-time with art-time, as he has done for most of his life.

Medical Malpractice
"Medical Malpractice"
(1975, oil/canvas, 36" x 48")
Smith and his first wife, whom he had married in 1942, moved to San Francisco's North Beach, where he and many other struggling artists congregated - attracted to the charms, views, and low rentals of Telegraph Hill; there Smith painted steadily. To his surprise, exhibitions came almost at once in small avant garde galleries. Even more surprising was being reviewed by the distinguished art critic Alfred Frankenstein, who noted the potential of this young artist who had a special "philosophic gift". In 1946 two very early drawings, "Housing Shortage" (1942) and "Nightmare of a Streetcar Motorman" (1943) were exhibited in a group show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

This philosophic gift, seen through the lens of Smith's imagination, is clear in even a limited cross-section of pieces: unresolved conflict in "Adam and the Atomic Apple"; pleading discordant music in "Orpheus and Eurydice"; human indecisiveness in "Portal of Decision". More recently we see Dante's trilogy on the afterlife in "Escape: A Divine Comedy" and in "Treachery from Lower Hell".

Smith's second marriage in 1949 has endured. With the arrival of two sons, Christopher and Lawrence, and a return to the peninsula suburbs of his childhood, real family life began. However, from 1953 to 1965, he devoted much more time to family and to work as an electronic design specialist - with job requirements of spare time research in that field - and little energy was left for painting. During those artistically unproductive years, he nevertheless took great pride in being the responsible pater familia, like his father. Still, creativity too long suppressed will leak out at the seams, and Smith found temporary satisfaction in learning and singing operatic arias; he sang for family and friends, and sometimes for himself on the shores of Stanford's lake - to the embarrassment of his young sons but to the applause of students sunning themselves across the lake.

During and since this hiatus, American ideals have struggled against witch hunts, assassinations, the goings and comings of long and short wars, shadowy secret governments, and loss of civility everywhere. Apparently, all this was stored for future reference, and in 1965 Smith began to paint again, recording for history the foolhardiness and hubris of the twentieth-century world. "Spirit of the Times: Warmakers", depicts a gun-toting president encircled by childish aides riding skateboards; "Higher Education: Star Wars" transforms a starry-eyed president into the mythical Pegasus who is defecating multiple missiles on the realities below - foolish people doing outrageously foolish things!

During most of his twenty-eight years in electronics, Smith had avoided the hassles and hazards of exhibiting in an art marketplace that, almost exclusively, promoted works alienated from reality. Fortunately, this allowed him to remain independent and uninfluenced by commercial demands on his talents. With retirement, he was urged to exhibit again; rather uneasily he agreed, but once again was surprised by the response. His colleagues in electronics, who had had no knowledge of Smith's secret life as an artist, were amazed; some drawn to "Delirium Tremens" shared confidences with him; corporate executives chuckled at seeing themselves satirized in "Time-Work Scrutiny"; doctors responded good-naturedly to a newly created medical specialty, "Medical Malpractice", the painting that later won "First Place Award: Artists' Choice" in an international competition by The Artist's Society International. His lampooning of politicians also earned him a First Place award, for "Political Malpractice", in a political satire show sponsored by the supervisors of San Mateo County. According to the artist, however, most gratifying in his return has been renewed contact with the creative arts community, and with college students to whom he has, for many years, been presenting slide lectures of his work.

Delirium Tremens
"Delirium Tremens"
(1978, oil/canvas, 46" x 25")
On June 12, 1996, Alonso unexpectedly passed away while traveling abroad in Cambridge, England from Acute Purulent Meningitis, an infection traced back to root canal surgery in the States.

Though Smith's tongue-in-cheek satire has remained constant, some important changes in color and style evolved over the years. Early canvasses, bright with complementary colors, became slightly darker, then bright again in a rainbow palette that seems to reflect the artist's humor, as well as his hopes for positive resolutions to come. The satiny, jewel-like surfaces, rendered with painstaking precision in a single layer of paint, sometimes fool the eye into seeing fluorescent pigment which isn't there. Compositions, too, became more complex, with multiple details and subtleties, with themes and sub-themes, taking a year or more for each painting from conception to completion.

Whereas many modernists believe a "visual experience" is the sole purpose of painting, Smith wants his art to engage the mind as well as the senses; he hopes it will record for history the struggles and disabilities of this century, but also evoke feelings for his poetry of color and line and symbol. Because of this two-edged purpose in art, his surreal-real images have been classified as Satiric Social Surrealism and do seem to fit neatly into that niche. Still, whatever the category, Alonso Ginnold Smith's legacy will surely be that of a master painter's amusing yet genuine vision of the absurdities and enigmas of life in our times.