Kiki Smith: Allegories on Living and the Mystery of Existence

Kiki Smith, “Pilgrim” (2007-2010). Leaded stained glass in steel frames. Installation dimensions variable. Installed in Kiki Smith: Lodestar. Photos by: G.R. Christmas/ Courtesy The Pace Gallery © Kiki Smith, courtesy The Pace Gallery.

“Lodestar” by Kiki Smith—recently shown at The Pace Gallery—should be seen as a companion installation to “Sojourn,” currently on extended view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Both reveal a certain progression in the artist’s ideas, technical involvement, and use of materials. Although “Lodestar” (formerly titled “Pilgrim”) appears more refined and in many ways less divergent than “Sojourn,” the Pace installation of drawings on multiple panels of translucent glass (Glasmaleri) exemplifies the artist’s focus and commitment to extending her intellectual and emotional concerns, especially her concise semiotic understanding, through new and varied processes. Since Smith’s much acclaimed “Homespun Tales” at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia at the 51st Biennale di Venezia in 2005 (which I viewed on two occasions), Smith’s work has continued to push the boundaries of historical contextualization. Her arrangements and interventions involve artifactual rooms with figures, furnishings, fabrics, needlework, castings, and utensils of various kinds. Just as there is a connection between “Lodestar” and “Sojourn,” so there is a connection between the works shown in Venice and Brooklyn.

Whereas in Venice Smith used a sequence of rooms in an 18th century palazzo, in Brooklyn she employed those of the 18th century house, once owned by Major Henry Trippe and now permanently installed on the sixth floor of the museum. The life-size figures constructed out of fabric and paper in the current installation suggest puppetry reminiscent of Gordon Craig’s essay on the ubermarionette at the outset of the 20th century. Both the Venice and Brooklyn interventions imply a certain investment in bringing everyday things from the past into a new and often mysterious, if not unsettling, evocation of the domestic roles to which women have been historically consigned. At the outset of Smith’s “Sojourn” at the Brooklyn Museum, where the collision of past and present generate a certain tension, one encounters a magnificent needlework “painting” made by a pre-Victorian “folk artist,” Prudence Punderson, titled “First, Second and Last Scenes of Mortality.” In many ways, this modest work of embroidery sets the stage for viewing Smith’s large-scale printed drawings on delicate woven paper on which various family images, which include herself, the artist’s mother, and her two sisters, are shown either together or repeated in separate panels.

Through the use of personal, clearly intimate subject matter, Smith creates a story of difference removed from mediated sentimentality, sustaining an unrepentant narrative that goes deeply into the harrowing seeds of consciousness. In the process, the artist begets a mythic allegory not only about “women’s work,” but also alluding to an epic worldview in which attention is paid to the intimate themes of everyday life, which were often left out of mainstream art during the era of Modernism (not discounting the slick prefab objects and digital spectacles so often repeated in 21st century art fairs and biennials).

Given the loss of her parents—more recently her mother and, several years ago, a sister—the artist’s desire to come face-to-face with death through the distance of allegory is achieved through large-scale drawings and relatively life-size sculptures that manifest a grieving over personal loss, possibly mixed with an equivocation of guilt, as it combines with an insurmountable awareness of fragility in life. The drawings are interspersed with sculpture—human-scale aluminum-cast figures, simulations of birds, chairs, wooden coffins, light bulbs, mythic totemic animals, and flowers symbolic of grieving and regeneration. Recognized as a feminist throughout much of her career, Smith’s focus is given to imagery intimately involved with human subjects, who, in many cases, are confronted with sickness and death. Her installations—as in “Lodestar”—also suggest a theatrical space, where the artist’s sensitivity toward women is pronounced and openly displayed, often verging on a form of empathy.

“Lodestar,” for example, constitutes a way of seeing outside of the rhetorical and patrimonial images so often regurgitated in the history of art. In her plate glass drawings, the viewer enters a very different kind of environment. The drawings are clear and resolved. They are baked on glass (involving a highly sophisticated technical process), mounted in rectilinear steel frames, and displayed in a freestanding relationship with one another. The works range from one to four units of glass, resembling windows—a theme also present in “Sojourn”—where viewers may look through these figurative drawings of women, and occasionally men, in various seated, standing, or reclining poses, sometimes isolated, contorted, embracing, or flying. Because the medium is glass, these suspended figures imply a decorative relationship to the space on West 22nd—but not in the negative sense. Functioning rather as elements within a theatrical set, they suggest mythically endowed dramatic interludes and individual vignettes. The figures—both male and female—virtually define Smith’s allegory of life.

If one closely observes the glass drawings in “Lodestar,” they hold a presence similar in effect to the video artist Gary Hill’s 12-channel installation “Tall Ships” (1993), where the viewer comes face-to-face with figures, triggered by electronic sensors, that appear and disappear as ghosts before the viewer walks away and activates another image, perhaps retaining a memory or sensation of the personage previously encountered. However, the major difference between looking at Hill’s digitally-constructed images in a darkened space and scrutinizing the thinly penciled and washed figures of Smith is the difference between experiencing forms in the absence or presence of light. To retain the illusion of Hill’s figures emerging, rescinding, and then reemerging, it is necessary to view them in darkness. Smith’s figures require that we ambulate amid ambient light and peer through the overlapping translucent plates of glass.

The movement in Smith’s work, unlike Hill’s, is essentially theatrical and phenomenological. Hill’s figures move in response to our movement in a darkened space, while the action in Smith’s installation is what the viewer brings to the occasion: the figures are still and we move through and around them. In the allegorical stillness of Smith’s “Lodestar,” there is a mystery and unassuming elegance that casts us into the process of begetting life. We are not viewing volumetric figures as in the case of Sehgal or Gormley (among others), but figurations conceived the way a large cartoon might be drawn in the Middle Ages. We are going back in time, but also through time, into a renewable form of light. The difference we feel within our consciousness may be attributed directly to the act of seeing. We are engaged with figurative representations that exist between the normative structures of the way things are, yet dependent on knowing that the way we see them is inextricably connected to art. In this sense, Kiki Smith offers an entrance into another world, a mysterious and timeless world, where the poetry of existence is known to reside, and where the feminine impulse plays a fiercely central role in revealing the traces of all that we are in the process of losing: the traits that once made us human.

Contributor

Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.