Kiki Smith: Unifying Dichotomous Universes
Kiki Smith embarked on her exploration of the human body during a time when the body was viewed with disinterest by many artists and fear by society at large. Smith’s mid-20s, the genesis of her professional pursuit of the arts, coincided with the peak of the AIDS crisis. The panic and distrust of human contact caused by the disease was personalized in the death of her sister Bebe from the virus in 1988. This death, in addition to the death of her father eight years earlier, defined the trajectory of Smith’s work: her ability to grow universal truths from the examination of her personal experience, her graphic view of the body as a leaking vessel, her use of delicate and fragile materials in her figurative construction, her conflation of the feminine and the morbid, and her view of humanity (and to a greater extent the created world) as an integrated system. Employing a subject older than written history, Smith reminded a generation increasingly divorced from physical realities of the filth, the sensuality, and the vulnerability of flesh.
Though Smith’s full artistic commitment to the human body crystallized in her mid-20s, her exploration of mythology and anatomy preceded this decision. Growing up in the Catholic Church bred an understanding of the importance of the physical in young Smith. The theology of transubstantiation, the relics of the saints, and a general reverence for the incarnation of spiritual meaning in physical objects formed the foundation for the examination of the careful dance between the “real” and the “significant” body. Smith realized the relationship between these two principles—that is the physical reality and the meaning attributed to it—did not read simply as analogy or duality, but existed in a constantly negotiating relationship subject to change. Smith viewed abstraction as her father’s domain, and unlike many artists of that period, found herself most fluent in the complex language of the figure. "I think I chose the body as a subject, not consciously, but because it is the one form that we all see; it's something that everybody has their own authentic experience with."
The trajectory of Smith’s work inched towards the fully realized figure, beginning first in the microscopic, then proceeding to organs, systems, skins, and only then into the complete human figure. This slow growth of subject matter did not correspond with a timidity of purpose; Smith wore her own screen-printed scarves and shirts that proclaimed “cancer” and “corrosive,” viewing that as the artist’s role in society. Rejecting art history as a voice of the patriarchy, Smith’s early work grew from pop, punk, and the underground. Smith worked odd jobs, played cardboard instruments in a political parody protest band, and participated in a group of artists called “Colab.” This group gained its moniker from collaborative groups shows installed in unconventional venues. Smith began to develop an underground reputation, though her work became less graphic and didactic throughout the years. Despite this softening, vestiges of her punk past, a strong feminist view, and a concern for the powerless in society undergirds her work.
Had Smith simply focused on the politics of the body, her work may have stayed at the underground level, lost in the myriad of voices screaming about AIDS and sexual liberation. However, with the mindset that would continue to characterize her work, Smith attacked her subject, the body, from all possible angles: considering politics, yes, but also the anatomical, mythological, spiritual, and personal implication of the figure. Her first work recognized with high regard by most of her biographers is the 1983 “Hand in Jar.” Smith, like the creator of penicillin, has a messy workspace to thank for this discovery. Combining a plastic glove and algae in a mason jar, Smith created an eerie disembodied hand. This image drew from faerie and scientific lore—a witch’s or apothecary’s jar, a scientific specimen, a part for Frankenstein’s monster. Indeed, Smith sometimes referred to herself as “Kiki Frankenstein,” an artist mixing not only scientific knowledge and mystical beliefs, but the elements of death and life as well. The same algae that destroyed the plastic glove was growing into its own entity. Smith summed up her view of herself as healer of broken forms and ideas:
“You’re melded back together but the sutures show. I’m trying for a containment, but one can’t hide the rupture. This century was about deconstruction, dissection, but the Frankenstein model can bring things back to life.”
“Hand in Jar”, this seemingly simple, accidental, or offhanded work, hinted at the view of the universe as an interconnected whole that informed Smith’s handling and combination of the human figure, animal and cosmological imagery throughout the rest of her career.
After “Hand in Jar,” Smith continued to create work referencing singular body parts. Although originally interested in the algae or single celled organisms, Smith expanded her repertoire to an examination of organs, then skins, then the full figure, moving from the inside out. Her first full figure sculptures were untitled beeswax representations of a man and woman featured at the Whitney Biennial. A naked male figure leaked semen and a naked female figure leaked milk. The initial sense of disturbance invoked by this pair gives way to a great sadness. The semen and milk fall to the ground, unused for the purpose of nourishing life; this Adam and Eve pair have been ineffective in transferring their life to the next generation. They stand apart, segregated from the cycle of life and death that constitutes the activity of the universe. Hanging from poles, as if crucified, they are vulnerable and pitiable beings. Yet after Eden, this vulnerability, loss of purpose, and discontinuity in the life cycle is an expected reality, a familiar tragedy. The viewer’s initial disgust melts into a tragic recognition. Perhaps more disturbing, in a later work, Smith shaped a similar couple, yet rather than leaking life-giving fluids, they greedily sucked milk and semen from their own swollen bodies. In a fate more detestable than the initial pair, the second mother and father consume their own energy rather than even attempt to transfer their life to another generation. An artistic comment, this could be interpreted either as a singular artist’s, a generation of artists’, or humanity’s polarized tendencies towards unrealized endeavors or self-obsessive destruction. Smith places high value upon human life and the role of the artist in society, to waste either of these seems a great fear and motivator in her prolific production of work.
Following the success of the Whitney Biennial figures, Smith went on to produce a series of female sculptures in abject and humiliating positions. Pee Body drips golden beads onto the gallery floor, Tale drags a long train of feces across the room, an untitled work turns from the viewer leaving only her jaundiced skin and deeply scratched back visible, Mary the Mother of Jesus stands flayed with arms open before the viewer. These women’s bodies act as canvases for the most despised aspects of physicality: wounds and waste. Repulsive, these women flaunt their blood and fluids before a fine art audience accustomed to viewing the female figure with the male sculptor’s eye for lust, desire, and perfection. Smith seizes the narrative of the female form from its patriarchal possessors. In a larger battle against didactic dualism, a splitting of a complex world into polarizing categories, Smith diffuses the distinctions between saint and slut, propriety and physicality, femininity and ferality.
As the second wave of feminism crashed over New York City, Smith frequently referenced the importance of the feminine. Smith viewed an overvaluing of the masculine and rigid barriers between the masculine and feminine as destructive beliefs pervading both art and mainstream culture. “Our bodies have been broken apart bit by bit and need a lot of healing; our whole society is very fragmented…everything is split, and presented as dichotomies—male/female, body/mind—and those splits need mending.” Though the series of abject women seem more wounding to the image of the female than healing, Smith envisioned them as indicators of the trajectory instigated by a psychologically unhealthy view of the female body. Though never wanting women to be seen as purely physical objects, Smith did want to show the physical nature of women rarely portrayed in art or media. A woman who scars, bleeds, urinates, defecates. Her body acted as a wound, nauseating in its openness and vulnerability. Smith herself struggled with the concept of vulnerability personally and artistically. Her female figures often stare at the viewer with open arms, reminiscent of the crucifix position and the ultimate self-sacrifice, the giving up of the body to death for the benefit of another. Yet Smith rages against this demand for the female to take the role of passive innocent. Her abject figures express vulnerability in the most active way possible, bringing their most personal physical acts into the public sphere. This play of weakness and strength, observed and actor, obfuscates the role of women in the traditional male/female dichotomy.
Smith continued to pursue the concept of the feminine through the creation of doily-like or floral patterns with prints and string. Beneath these works she boldly stenciled words like “gentle,” “celestial body,” and lyrical prose about the moon. First, these works combine craft and fine art, a woman’s work with a traditionally male pursuit. Second, they elevate the daily and ordinary beautiful, the “nice,” or the delicate to the level of serious work. As the first works created after her acceptance to the Pace Wildenstein Gallery, this was a decisive action reclaiming the feminine as a “valid set of personal responses.” Bordering on kitsch, these doilies coyly discomforted the audience, yet ultimately gained recognition and significance. The timing of the creation of these works, after acceptance at a major gallery, undoubtedly enforced the authority of their feminine nature.
The production of the doilies occurred after a major shift in Smith’s work. When she completed a series of violent and vulnerable female sculptures, she shifted to working with female figures from Biblical literature and myth. At this point, she sought to express both spirituality and beauty in her work. These works possibly resulted from her own widening view of what the feminine could be: an acceptance of beauty and spirituality, gentleness and self-sacrifice, motherhood and nurturing as strengths of the feminine that had been diminished and disdained, disguised as weakness.
This second series of deific or venerated female figurative works included sculptures of Mary Magdalene breaking free from a chain, a representation of the goddess Nuit, and the mystical Hebrew character Lilith. The abject women turn away from the viewer and show no inclinations towards movement. The female goddess sculptures actively engaged their environment and often stared directly at the viewer. Lilith, a particularly striking example, crawled downwards across a wall, turning a patinaed bronze face with glass eyes to examine whoever approached. In apocryphal Jewish mysticism, God created Lilith from the same earth He used to create Adam. Lilith refused to submit to Adam, a being of equal origins, and fled the garden, eventually becoming a powerful demon goddess, a devourer of infants, and a vampiric seducer of men. Smith’s Nuit sculpture consists of arms and legs dangling from the ceiling implying the form of a woman arching her back. Nuit, an Egyptian goddess, consumed the sun at the end of each day and birthed it anew at each dawn. Mary Magdalene, freed from her demons, lifts her eyes as heavenwards as she walks forwards, a broken chain still shackled to her ankle. These women embody power and freedom. Their bodies are no longer objects to be looked at, or canvases for the psychological and physical misdeeds of society, they act as conduits of spiritual power, their physicality no longer a source of shame or a record of abuse, but a fertile ground for returning life to the universe.
Though Smith cast most of the sculptures for this series from plaster or bronze, in her early works and throughout her career, Smith utilized materials considered too feminine or too delicate for fine art. Paper, glass, beeswax, crochet, beads, string, and thin ceramic pieces allude to traditional craft, and by extension, feminine work. In her early work with Colab, Smith made some pieces from cardboard, and received criticism from male artists in the group. After this, with her typical fiery and resilient spirit, Smith decided “I’m going to make everything delicate, fragile, and ephemeral and I’m going to ram it down people’s throats.” She found that the translucence of paper and wax mimicked the appearance of human skin. Pleased by the malleability and the tactility of these materials, Smith disregarded the accusations of irresponsibility for making impermanent sculptures and lack of gravity for so blatantly referencing the kitsch and the craft. Smith recognized that the materials and methods she employed were marginal forms of art making. However, this matched with her view of women in the art world. Already marginal figures, no threat to reputation or pride limited them to accepted forms of production.
In addition to her vast number of sculptures, Smith collaborated with printmakers throughout her career. Her prints, like her sculptures, mainly portrayed mythological, Biblical, or literary female figures with delicately etched lines. Fascinated by lithography for its ability to combine photographic and drawn images and by etching for its support of finely detailed drawings, Smith saw printmaking as an integral part of her multipractice. She worked in a large scale at first, comparable to action painters, she used her own body and hair as imagery for the plates. For her earliest prints, she physically altered the plate by swirling her hair against it, compiled and printed photocopied pictures of her breasts to form a grid, and used a new photography technique to make a 360° wraparound portrait of her face. These prints played with the many different methods of creating an image. Within the limits of reality-capturing media like photography and scanning, Smith still managed to distort reality to reflect a level of fantasy and mythology. The print medium allowed Smith to express her ability, pervasive through her whole body of work, to recognize the differences and interactions between the “real” and the “significant” body. There is a “real”—a physical, tangible, optically perceptible—body and there is a “significant”—a spiritual, emotive, cultural or mythological symbol—body, and the two sometimes occupy the same space, but often, only in the work of art, an object or image frozen in time and isolated from reality, can this physical object and spiritual presence overlap. Smith’s prints played with truth and analogy. Her wraparound head image—“Blue Lake”—certainly provided a mechanistically accurate view of the head, but this flattened amorphous shape differs so greatly from what we from our ocular perspective recognize as head that its mechanical accuracy only imbues it with a grotesqueness. The blue coloring either indicates some spiritual being—like the skin of the omnipotent Hindu gods, the distortion and expansion of the face calling to mind their multitude of limbs—or a topographical phenomenon—her face like a flattened version of the globe, the hemispheres curving in odd connecting ovular shapes. In “Banshee Pearls” Smith obsessively and repetitively overlapped her surprised face, flowers, and pearls. A connection made between these three feminine objects also tied the feminine to death—the flowers at the grave, the pearls of an old woman, Smith’s father calling her banshee when he died. The mythic is truer than the truth, the distorted photograph a greater reflector of reality. If twentieth century thinkers tried to clarify, to iron out the wrinkles of the world, Smith attempted a certain clarification as well through the reviving of old distortions and the crumpling of the fabric of the universe so that the planes of science, art, religion, and myth could make contact once more.
Once many artists began to take interest in the human body, Smith moved on to other subjects of interest. Her later prints and drawings began to feature a number of human/animal interactions. In “Born,” a bronze sculpture, a deer birthed a full grown human woman. In the sculpture “Rapture,” a woman stepped from the dead body of a wolf, and in the prints “Rapture,” “In a Field,” and “Splendid,” wolves attacked naked women. Her sirens melded the heads of human women with the bodies of crows, “Jersey Crows” featured twenty seven bronze crows littering the gallery floor, and her “White Mammals” series featured white sculptures of dead animals lined in a row with delicate line drawings accompanying each. These works capitalized on the violence presence in the relation between man and nature, yet the revelation of humanity’s violent side became inextricably linked with the sexual, living energy of physical bodies. The works existed on a spectrum from the clear and politically charged—“Jersey Crows” referenced an event in which the spraying of pesticides caused twenty seven crows to drop dead from the Jersey sky—to the opaque and lyrically communicative—“Born” invoked creation myth, stories of Romulus and Remus, and the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale of Grimm’s fame. The bird, the deer, and the wolf all occurred regularly in her work and seemed to serve similar purposes with each appearance. The bird served as a marker of death, an animal beloved by Smith’s sister Bebe, and was often cast in blackened bronze, a reminder of the less noble variety—ravens and crows—often signaling death in works from Ovid to Poe. The deer served as a female presence, a mothering figure. The wolf, like the trickster, often marked the transition between states: from death to life, from childhood to womanhood, from innocence to violation. As markers of death and life, these animals served as markers for the physical transitions rejected by man in their pursuit of progress to the detriment of nature. Smith viewed the break between nature and society as catastrophic to the understanding of the function of humanity, the sense of connection between generations, and the comprehension and nurturing of the “anima,” the part within humans most related to animal nature, intuition, emotions, instincts. Like many other separations, Smith sought to mend this rupture between man and his environment, as neither could exist in fullness without the other.
This leads to the peak of Smith’s work, her cosmological masterpieces encompassing the universe in all its many parts. In works like her large print, “Moon,” and in her installation “Constellation,” Smith turned her attention past the figure and the creatures of this earth to the stars, planets, and celestial bodies. These works echoed her early exploration of the cell and the atom, the macrocosm circling back upon the microcosm, a final assertion of the interconnectedness of all things. In “Constellation,” glass animals lie over top of constellations they represent, a superimposition of real and significant celestial and animal bodies. These works, delicate in material, refined in craftsmanship, collaborative in production, and ambitious in scale, exceeded the idea of mere human connectedness and reached even farther to the idea of universal unity.
In the way she collaborated with other artists, thought about nature, and viewed generations of humanity, Smith had an awareness of the interdependence of our universe. However, this idea encompassed both a physical and spiritual unity of all things, she never valued the intangible over the real nor promoted a similarity merely based on cellular identity. The sacredness of religious art, the fury of second wave feminism, and the mystery of modern science met in the contemporary art gallery, brought together by Smith’s refusal to induce separation between male and female, the spirit and the body, and intellectual and spiritual pursuits.
Grosenick, Uta, and Ilka Becker. Women Artists in the 20th and 21st Century. Los Angeles: Taschen, 2005. Print.
Posner, Helaine, Kiki Smith, and David Frankel. Kiki Smith. 1st ed. Boston: Bulfinch, 1998. Print.
Smith, Kiki, and Ulmer Museum. Kiki Smith: Small Sculptures and Large Drawings. New York: Hatje Cantz, 2001. Print.
Weitman, Wendy, David Frankel, and John Coletti. Kiki Smith: Prints, Books and Things. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2003. Print.
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