Agitating for Fun and Profit
By Julia Chaplin
Winston Smith’s montage art asks you to question authority, trust no one, and laugh really hard.
Winston Smith, who named himself after the protagonist of Orwell’s 1984, likes to slice up vintage National Geographic and Life magazines and World War II era children’s encyclopedias and paste them back together to create images that most God-fearing Americans would not be proud to have on their coffee tables. Smith’s lo-fi montages of apple-pie women feeding babies milk from torpedoes and Norman Rockwellesque retirees harvesting money from trees — collected now in his book Act Like Nothing’s Wrong (Last Gasp) — are agitprop images in the grand surrealist tradition of John Hartfield’s famous antiwar collages. “Artists are like canaries in the mineshaft,” Smith explains. “Coal miners used to take these birds underground as indicators of poisionous gas. If the bird dropped dead, then they would be alerted. Artists have this certain kind of sensitivity.”
Smith’s dark sense of humor found him a friend in Jello Biafra, who first entered his orbit after receiving a postcard of JFK’s head exploding with the message: “If you want more, write back.” Biafra did, and ended up using the artist’s rendering of a crucifix wrapped in U.S. dollar bills on the cover of the Dead Kennedys’ 1981 album, In God We Trust Inc. In Smith’s world, where UPC symbols bear a striking resemblance to Nazi architect Albert Speer’s “Cathedral of Light,” it’s not surprising to find that the last four digits of his phone number happen to be 1–9-8–4. Gulp. “One of my cats is named 51 50,” Smith notes. “The police code for crazy.”
Act Like Nothing’s Wrong by Andrew Rozmiarek
Symbolic. Ironic. Gross. Funny. All these describe the cannibalistic artwork of Winston Smith. For the past 18 years, Smith has been creating collage art from the thousands of magazine images that fill his tiny San Francisco apartment.
Using Uhu gluesticks and an Olfa stainless steel razor blade, Smith harvests photographs from old magazines, combining them into works that target the “nothing’s wrong” attitude, as he calls it, prevalent in today’s media.
When Smith returned to the US after six years in Italy, two of them at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, he was struck by the level of corporate control endured by most Americans. His work is an uncomfortable reminder that things are not as pleasant as they may seem.
Smith uses images from the mass media, twisting them into the Frankenstein children of Madison Avenue. In pieces like one in which a farmer unloads a pile of babies with a pitchfork (the caption reads,“Well, it’s a job, and a man’s gotta eat”), Smith challenges those who would never “knowingly” hurt anyone yet are willing to work in industries that create weapons of destruction.”
My work is on a scale that people can relate to,” he says. We may not see the government spending billions of tax dollars on “Batman planes that can’t shoot straight,” but we can’t ignore the message in Smith’s image of a hundred slaves toiling to pull a nuclear submarine up a rocky hill.
Icons of sex, money, and violence are everywhere in his art. “I work with what I have,” Smith says. “That’s what Time gave me.”
The Montage Art of Winston Smith — Volume 1
“It is impossible to pin down who’s the ‘best’ collage artist in the universe, but Winston Smith would certainly leap to mind (and then blow that mind repeatedly). Most of his images are like a punch in the face. There must be ten zillion people doing collages for everything from Exxon ads to fanzines to street posters, so the competition is stiff; but Smith’s work has stood out, glaringly, for the last 15 years as the most consistently startling, meaningful and technically accomplished in this bastard field. It’s high time Smith became a rich, famous artist rather than the best-kept secret of the underground.” — unknown
By its very nature, the medium of collage demands the appropriation of many and spanerse images. These images are the works of wonderful artists who produced work from the 1880s through the 1950s. Many were well-known in their field. Many worked in near anonymity. All of them contributed to the vast visual galaxy of cultural icons that have enhanced and defined our civilization. Acknowledging their classic work is an honor, since without their efforts this volume could not exist.
Act Like Nothing’s Wrong includes 95 pages of the collages including one entitled His Most Holy and Orthodox Reverend Ivan Stang, High Pope of the Church of the SubGenius. With forward by Dirk Dirksen and introduction by Suzanne Stefanac.
Currently available from the publisher Last Gasp. (including signed copies)