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.”