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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.

 

Hidden Wimmin, 1987Win­ston 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.”

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Act Like Nothing’s Wrong in Wired Magazine

On October 1, 1994, in Profiles, by admin

the fol­low­ing appeared in Wired Mag­a­zine, Issue 2.10, Oct 1994

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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.”

 

Act Like Nothing’s Wrong

On April 20, 1994, in Books, by admin

The Mon­tage Art of Win­ston Smith — Vol­ume 1

Act Like Nothings Wrong by Winston Smith

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)

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