Kiki Smith, 211 West 19th Street, New York
Sculpting, painting, and weaving the human and animal form in a variety of mediums, Smith has long been interested in our most basic relation to the world we live in. How do we live with our mortality, she asks, and how is our experience influenced by the religious, environmental and social structures around us?
The works in this exhibition exhume the body from its battlegrounds: angry spirits inspired by Greek myths stand with Eve-like bronze women; poisoned birds fallen from the sky. Directly and without rhetoric, Smith’s work exposes our core: emblems of primal loss, sexuality and birth that suggest our unchanging nature over the millennia.
Text by Lumi Tan, former Senior Curator at The Kitchen, New York, NY:
If a current generation of artists is preoccupied with a future in which the human body is mutable and ever expansive in relation to the different ecologies, materials, and technologies, it is clear from this exhibition that Kiki Smith has already been exploring these possibilities for decades. Whether it is the confrontational reality of the messy, vulnerable systems of the body or more pleasurable imaginaries of hybridity, mythology and interspecies knowledge, Smith’s works of the 1990s provoke a prescient dialogue between the interior and surfaces of our bodies, and how we impact and are informed by our life in the natural world.
In Las Animas (1997), Smith wanted to turn what she deemed “deficits”—the shame of wrinkled skin, veins, scars— into a positive energy. While these marks can make us feel alienated from the body we might expect or desire, Smith suggests we celebrate them as evidence of life and its dynamic effects rather than mere evidence of our mortality.
This bodily landscape becomes more literal in My Blue Lake (1995), in which Smith used a rare camera used for geological surveys to render herself as a map. Maps are intended as a diagrammatic representation, but Smith is aware that they cannot inform the reading of the complexities of an individual: the precision of the camera abstracts face, shoulder and hair into indistinct masses.
Harpies (2000) breaks out of the intimate spaces of the body. Originally made for the 2002 Whitney Biennial, these spirits were placed at the gate of the Central Park Zoo to look down upon entering visitors. In Greek mythology, these female deities were powerful hounds of Zeus with malevolent reputations. Smith complicates this narrative by allowing these watchful spirits to be intimidating without forcing scale or typical expressions of menace.
Six Crows (1995) lie on their backs with eyes averted, casualties of an unknown phenomenon of sound or poisoning that has forced them from the sky: a testimony to how out-of-reach these creatures are, unless they have died. Smith gives us the opportunity to study them at proximity, proving the necessity of remembrance. Though made of materials preserve for decades to come, Smith’s objects transcend traditional artistic values of permanence and autonomy in exchange for fluidity and communion.
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