Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
November 16, 2006 – February 11, 2007
Kiki Smith is known as one of the most original and protean American artists of our time. Her art is about the most important issues human beings use to develop their own way of life: curiosity, intuition, inspiration and experience. For Kiki Smith these issues reflect her understanding of art: “It’s a collaboration with the material, and when it’s viewed, it’s a collaboration with the world. What your work is resides in between those different spaces” .
The Whitney Museum of American Art presents a full survey of her works over the last 25 years to enable a communication between the viewer, her work and, according to her, the world. The show is divided into thematic sections such as “Entering the body”, “The Figure Reimagined”, “The Natural World”, “Wunderkammer” and “New Mythologies”, which represent both Kiki Smith’s artistic development throughout the past 25 years and a curatorial perspective, which offers the viewer a topically focussed insight into Smith’s art.
Throughout the past decades Kiki Smith has explored a broad range of subjects, including religion, folklore, mythology, natural science, art history, and feminism through her remarkable innovations in sculpture, printmaking, drawing and like this consistently reveals new metaphoric and symbolic potentials.
She is best known for her depictions of the human body, considered both provocative and aggressive towards the viewer’s perception. Smith started modelling the human body as her major focus of interest in paper and cast it in wax, plaster, bronze and resin. While her works have their visceral moments, they're strongly imbued with beauty and poetry. Her physical materials present the body entering new territory in the history of figurative sculpture. Smith's art renders the figure in frank, nonheroic terms, not contradicting but turning the figurative tradition in sculpture inside out, creating objects to tell stories not about their material existence, but about their transcendental potential.
Kiki Smith regards herself as a storyteller in the sense of reiterating over and over again themes like the figure, nature, life, beauty, joy and death, which humans have questioned for more than a hundred decades. It’s about finding aspects of life left out of art. Ways to discover some, but surely not the ultimate answers to those questions, which reside behind the continuity of stories with their features of redundancy, reimagination and relationship amongst each other.
“My work has evolved from minute particles within the body, up through the body, and landed outside the body”. The body in Smith's work becomes connected with stories, myths and fairy tales. Virgin Mary (1992) renders the Mother of God flayed skinless like an anatomical model with her muscles exposed and In Lilith (1994), a figure of a nude woman crouches upside down on the wall. The bronze sculpture seems fairly conventional until her face gathers the viewer’s attention. A pair of frightened eyes stares out from a dark, impassive visage. With these gestures she uses the body as a metaphor, drawing upon myth, spirituality, and narrative to consider the human condition, its strength and its frailties.
In her work she has been a traveller, meandering from human’s connection with the world to the cosmological realm that binds beings together. Kiki Smith uses the gallery as a space for creating narrative in the meaning of juxtaposing sculpted human figures with subjects from nature and the environment to emphasize our intimate, fragile and often questionable relationship with our outer slope, such as animals and landscape. In her Black Animal Drawing (1996-1998) the impact on the viewer’s perception might not be as strong when concerned with meaning and emotive effect if the spectator only regards the artwork as an isolated object in the gallery. In relation to the human form the drawing leads the viewer’s perception to examine various aspects of the natural world.
Smith’s work has a tang that transcends the sermonising of our time by a subtle narrative style; she sustains a persistent inquiry that results in works of extraordinary power, offering us to re-examine our history, our place and ourselves.
A Gathering, 1980-2005 represents an extraordinary invitation to Smith’s desired process of re-examination. The works are offered to the viewer so that one might gather one’s impressions and follow the most truly and strongest expression an artwork can have: “Things start telling you what you are supposed to pay attention to. It really just comes into you and tells you, ‘Pay attention to this”. The curatorial perspective itself could be described as a faithful servant to the dynamical evolution Smith’s art has on the understanding of the relationship between the human and its surroundings, nature, culture and its constant evolution and in this regard challenges the aim to conciliate her art as a request for undeniable need for a communicative relation and interaction between our intuition and experience.