“I often look at our little house and think, how wonderful that so much of happiness ashould be comprised in that little spot.”
— Thomas Cole
From August 12 – November 19, visitors enter the domestic bliss of Thomas Cole’s Federal style home and are immediately greeted with the sensibility of his 21st century catskill neighbor, the multidisciplinary artist Kiki Smith. The result, Kiki Smith: From the Creek, curated by Kate Menconeri as part of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site’s program OPEN HOUSE: Contemporary Art in Conversation with Cole, is a witty and weird 19th/21st century gloss on the vicissitudes of domesticity and nature.
As is well known, Kiki Smith’s artwork gained notoriety in the mid ‘80s. At the time, she was living on Ludlow Street, immersed in the agonies of the AIDS crisis, which took the life of her sister and many friends. Since then, Smith has turned to more general themes of nature, myth, and metamorphoses, where all manner of dreamlike bestiary and imagery inhabit her work, asking the question, “Where do I end, and where does the rest of the world begin?” What’s always been clear in Smith’s eyes is that we ought to embrace the ineffable part of ourselves and our biologies rather than see these as afflictions.
It is therefore at once unsettling and uncanny to encounter Smith’s work while immersed in Cole’s intimate environment. While Thomas Cole’s paintings mourn the industrial era’s disturbance of our coexistence with the natural world, Smith’s introspective work is an extension of her earlier explorations of the limits of our corporeality, and indeed our souls.
On ViewThomas Cole National Historic Site
August 12 – November 19, 2017
Upon ascending the stairs to the second floor, present-day visitors are confronted by a life-sized, richly layered jacquard tapestry. The enigmatic piece is Congregation (2014). Facing the viewer, a young nude girl sits awkwardly on an immense downed tree, her hands resting lightly on the tree trunk for balance as her legs hang loosely in the air. A bizarre web of multicolored threads emerges from her eyes and spreads out into a labyrinthine network connecting various aspects of the tapestry. Smith renders her subject with an ominous storybook naïveté—a peculiar symbiosis of animals, plants, and nature spirits in cosmic, although not always peaceful, cohabitation. Medieval weavers reserved the tapestry format for religious and mythological subjects. Resonant with animistic reverence, Congregation preserves this tradition. It is serene and contemplative in its scale, offering a portal into hidden worlds that occupy the forest.
A recording by Smith of the creek behind her home called The Creek (2017) fills the adjacent sitting room with the sound of a trickling stream. Atop Cole’s classically-inspired mantle, a small porcelain bust of John Milton rests front-and-center. Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost (1667) was a favorite of Cole’s (who was a poet himself ), most notably in a pair of alternately Arcadian and calamitous high dramas both painted in
1828, Garden of Eden and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. On either side of the bust, Kiki Smith’s petite milky-white sculptures Woman with Dog and Woman with Wolf (both 2003) portray a nude woman cavorting in a wily unselfconscious manner with a dog and a wolf. Their heedless frolic calls to mind a halcyon vision of life before the Fall. In one sculpture, the wolf stands on hind legs while she rides on its back. In the other, we catch the wolf ’s domestic ancestor, a dog, mid-pounce, tackling the girl. His muzzle comes disconcertingly close to her neck, a tense exchange rife with an undercurrent of peril. In their propinquity, one might read the canine/woman as somehow conjoined, as two sides of the same character. Smith’s depiction of wolves has been extensive, going as far back as the late ‘90s. These earlier projects appealed to notions of a mystical feminine proximity to nature in religion and folklore, such as her sculptures Rapture, (2001) and Genevieve and the May Wolf (2000).
In the adjoining nursery one encounters Familiars (blue) (2001) and Familiars (pink) (2001), an infant’s and a child’s bed dressed in plush wool coverlets. Each blanket’s centerpiece is an illustration of a woman adorned in ornate ceremonial garb. She keeps company with a menagerie of wild and domestic farm animals. The word “Familiar” is emblazoned beneath them, simultaneously suggesting the intimacy of home as well as the spirit animals of folklore. Resting atop each bed, hand-sewn and silkscreened dolls lend an air both comforting and menacing. With a simple flip, these shape-shifting dolls, Untitled (Wolf and Riding Hood Doll) (2002), might transform into Little Red Riding Hood or the Wolf, or as in Owl & Pussycat (Invertible Toy) (2002), from a cat into an owl. On the facing wall, one encounters a complement to Congregation’s vernal imagery, an outsize tapestry titled Fortune (2014), which engulfs the room with the image of a deer in an autumnal forest.
Additional pieces appear throughout most of the home’s remaining rooms. At their most poignant, three cast aluminum variations of rather ordinary house chairs transform into a perch for golden birds (Homecoming, 2012; Welcome, 2015; Present, 2015). With wings outspread, the birds are on the cusp of liftoff. By no means do the chairs evoke assembly-line perfection; instead, they feel awkward, tender, perhaps even damaged. Sequenced along a single sightline, the first—a pair stacked upon one another—appears in the master bedroom. The second is alone at a window overlooking a clearing. Outside, a third pair hovers in the air, leaning on one another as two birds hoist them skywards. This is the unexpected heart of the Kiki Smith/Thomas Cole pairing. With this ensemble of works, Smith brings a disquieting vision of nature into the home, as if to challenge whether we can ever truly sever ourselves from earthly tendrils or whether nature—both our own and the outdoors—can, in fact, be tamed.
STEVEN PESTANA is a visual artist and writer living in Brooklyn. He holds an MFA in Digital Media from Rhode Island School of Design and a BA in Art History from New York University.