A Gathering Storm

John Haber
in New York City

Racine or Donne looked into much more than the heart. One must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, or the digestive tract.
      —T. S. Eliot

Kiki Smith: A Gathering and Lodestar

Kiki Smith's retrospective follows twin shows of Eva Hesse by six months. Hesse, nearly twenty years older, died six years before Smith so much as came to New York. Yet Smith could easily be picking up where the older artist left off.

Both reached their full potential thanks to an older man central to Minimalism. Both then refused either traditional male role—whether the anointed heir or the angry rebel. Instead, they drew on Minimalism's physical presence and the generative possibilities of repetition. Both became models for a feminist art without overt social commentary, a kind that evokes the pliancy and facticity of the body. Both have made people see simple, plastic materials as matters of life and death. In a postscript, I consider her three years later, indeed tracing a course from birth to death. Kiki Smith's Untitled (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1990)

The spooky parallels help bring out their differences contrast as well. Smith might at times find even Hesse's singular objects too confining. She wants art that looks as if it would persist if the viewer went home and the gallery walls fell away.

Precious bodily fluids

The parallels could spin out further. Both, too, have remained hugely influential while often slipping outside the mainstream. Eva Hesse might have changed that had she not died young, but Smith has made a career of cultivating the edge—maybe even a life. Jane and Tony Smith, an opera singer and, of course, a sculptor, might have lived at the center of the arts scene but or fled from it. Maybe they taught their daughter other ways to survive and to shine.

Born overseas, she grew up in New Jersey. She hit New York in 1976, along with any number of artists trained in geometric abstraction and critics just reading up on the Postmodern condition. Unlike both, her work starts with human images and instinct. She exhibited with an artist collective in the 1980 Times Square Show, which helped launch the East Village arts scene. Her work reflects life on the edge, haunted like Charles LeDray by AIDS and drugs, starting with a plaster hand from that year covered in green and blue boils. However, she avoids the big, expressive gestures of Jean-Michel Basquiat and so many others from those years.

In fact, the work that one sees first contains nothing but air. Twelve large, empty water bottles look as if they should hold specimens from an antique laboratory. A later room indeed arranges objects from throughout her career in what she calls a cabinet of wonders. Here only the Gothic lettering on each bottle identifies its contents with what a certain film character calls his "precious bodily fluids," from semen and blood to pus and vomit. The curator, Siri Engberg of the Walker Arts Center, identifies some as life sustaining and some as disease bearing. Like the implicit calendar of months, however, they suggest not a division but a continuous cycle between the body and the world—and they do nothing to make it sound pretty.

At first, the frankness reflects literal studies of anatomy. She worked on an emergency medical team and saw her sister die of AIDS. Bronze casts represent the male and female urogenital system, another confluence of waste and generation. Before long, though, her approach to the body turns on the transformation between object and image. Human hair and sheep wool join in a Dowry Cloth. A wall of small, thin aluminum plates represents torn and beaten skin.

The early 1990s shows her at her most brutal and poetic. A lithograph, Blood Noise, has such inscriptions as "my leg feels like something hit it" and "I can't remember the last ten years." Maybe she wished she could forget. She strips the virgin Mary down to musculature, palms open in weary submission. A naked man and woman lean forward with heads bowed, eyes blank, and skin heavily bruised, as if expelled from paradise by brute force. Mary Magdalene has a manacle around one ankle, but her own bronze and steel could form a piece with her chains.

Already, however, Smith associates the fragility of a life with delicacy as much as pain. She likes materials that suggest natural processes or another kind of fineness, the decorative arts. Crystal sperm swim in a circle, many bearing her fingerprints. Cellulose and Nepalese paper form female dolls. She describes the materials of her figurative sculpture as beeswax and microcrystalline.

To eternity and back

Asked about her father's big, black geometries, Smith makes no attempt to distance herself. He, too, represents something physical and familiar. Sure enough, her father did call his cube on a defiantly human scale Die, and a snakier form outlines a cigarette butt.

One review of Hesse this summer complained that Minimalism, like that of Hesse's close friend Sol LeWitt, "seems so industrial." But Minimalism, like Hamlet, knew not seems. It really was industrial, even when handmade. When it went to the hardware store for parts, it wanted an art firmly in this world. When Kiki Smith, too, skips ordinary art supplies, she wants something more solid and mundane. From the start, however, her reality has a more naturalistic face.

Perhaps the row of bottles, the rows of plates for skin, or the circle of sperm learns, too, from Minimalism's iterative, geometric structure. However, she mines it for imagery and for metaphoric associations with nature. An arithmetic series translates into germination, just as the circle depicts insemination. Smith also comes neatly after a show on bodily functions at P.S. 1, "Into Me / Out of Me," only she might interpret that to mean a process of continued renewal.

Throughout the 1990s, she embeds humanity more and more amid other species and other processes. More Schott crystal turns into solid geometries, like crystalline ore. Other images include stars, moons, worms, mammals, and especially birds. One bird perches with its mouth wide open in agony or in pride, but never as a bird of prey. Some silhouettes could pass equally for birds or for people. A naked woman, this time in bronze with skin intact, steps right out of the belly of a beast.

Clearly Smith's outlook has grown more optimistic, although I hesitate to say sunnier, given her love of night. She calls that wolf-woman Rapture. Her Revelation unfolds as words on papier-mâché bandage rolls, as if to bring comfort and healing. As with stars and moons, she also seems drawn less and less to Biblical accounts of sin, more and more to eternity. Even with Lilith tumbling off the wall in 1994, she looked to myths beyond the Bible. Lilith—Adam's first bride and, as temptress and serpent, engine of his fall—preceded Eve and, no doubt, outlasted her.

Whenever one hears recourse to origins and the eternal, one should look out for nostalgia for a more recent past. As with her cabinet of wonders, in the last decade Smith has drawn more overtly on the Victorian age. Dresses get softer and frillier, Touch has exquisitely rendered colors and flowers, and her fables include Alice in Wonderland. After a detour into eternity, Smith has fallen too easily in love with her cultural limits. Yet she has also returned to the reality of human history and human stories, and I like the development. Alice may not bear bruises, but she has to put up with sadness and a spooky duplication of her own image.

Kiki's daughters

Smith's career, then, describes an arc but also a constellation. She connects creature comforts, life and death, nature, myth, tradition, and female perception. She has said that she starts with the body as something that others share, but most often she means a woman's body, and she places it as the still point at the heart of myth. Among her earliest works, a breast has the form of a shield. A title like Lucy's Daughters describes an unbroken feminine chain from even before humankind. Men appear as accessories to or products of that chain, like embryos or those crystal sperm.

Her work has an essentialist view of the human condition, like the Brooklyn Museum's "Global Feminisms" but unlike "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" to come at P.S. 1, with a women's suffering and nurturing as the essence. In another early work, a naked woman's outstretched arms stick to the wall, as if crucified, but one remembers just as much the long hair that hides her bowed head. These emblems of human nature belong at once to the body and to myth, which for her never give way, not even when they die. Her reach for eternity, the richness of her imagery, and the fineness of her materials account for much of her resonance. Her theme of physical encounters also connects to art's fascination with installation and sensual overload, while her love of old images connects to a shift from formalism to theater. Like Hesse, she created her own definition for a feminist art just when others were forging theirs as well.

That definition also accounts for her place on the edges. She looked to nature and belief, just when other models for art and feminism were looking to culture and disbelief. She dresses the body down, while Cindy Sherman or Pipilotti Rist dresses it up—and while Marina Abramovic or Roni Horn turns it into a riddle. She sees a cycle of passage through the body, while Andrea Zittel or Jessica Stockholder harnesses the cycle for machines of her own invention. She sees a female body as eternally present, while new-media artists such as Christina McPhee or Shirin Neshat see it as absent or at risk. She calls her retrospective "A Gathering," just when assurances of a social or political community are facing a gathering storm.

She emerged when images, decoration, and expression invaded painting. She also really does come out of the generation before, the generation of Minimalism and performance, like blood and feathers for Ana Mendieta. She can drive me nuts by insisting on fictions I can no longer take as fact. Hesse truly was central in her lifetime, and she has remained central, even as art has taken other directions. She drew on impersonal processes and materials, with trust that they would have human consequences. Smith starts with the human to reach for something beyond recognition.

When it works, it stays personal, like those bruised bodies or like Alice's pale complexion and fragile ego even in Wonderland. Smith can hardly seek the center, not when she sees so many dying at the margins. Her fine craft helps, too. So does her own reticence. Her art insists on its presence, but she accepts her absence, as she had connected bodily substance and emptiness at the exhibition's entrance. Her only image lies in those fingerprints, and the dozens of sperm make it hard to think of them as unique.

The sequence of exhibitions from Hesse to Smith makes sense, just as fall and winter follow spring and summer. Hesse's objects spread open and multiply before one's eyes, like a sign of spring. Smith's stand apart or turn in on themselves, like curling up for the winter. I would rather turn up the heat, but I know the feeling.

Postscript: pilgrim's progress

Smith has a way of avoiding the appearance and materials of fine art. They would commit her to something more refined and lasting, where her sculpture sinks deep into sweat and fragility. They would look like objects in the present, where she sees a woman's body as part of a longer cycle, somewhere between a career, a lifetime, and eternity.

Kiki Smith's Pilgrim (Pace gallery, 2007–2010)Now she takes a form associated with antiquity and quality. Instead of glass bottles, like specimens in a museum of natural history, she adopts mouth-blown stained glass, the handmade kind suitable for cathedrals. In fact, she is also working on windows for the Eldridge Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side. Pace gallery alone is itself big enough to drive a truck through, and Sterling Ruby has. Smith responds to this site, and she hopes in turn for a future site constructed around her. Pilgrim depicts stages in life, from natural childbirth to a coffin (which in turn becomes light wood on the scale of a child at the Brooklyn Museum).

Not that she has given up on grit or mortality. Smith takes pride in abjection—what since Julia Kristeva has been a postmodern textbook definition of gender and oppression, but also of horror and depression. In the Joannou collection at the New Museum, her sculpture could be in an abusive relationship with the male art world. It has broken her body, submerged her face, stripped her bare, and left her nothing but her long limbs and flowing black hair. The new work mounts frosted glass in roughly thirty metal frames like industrial windowpanes, but set as freestanding partitions. One can make out others in the gallery or a woman's fate, as through a glass darkly.

Probably all her subjects are women, although stern, erect, and often ambiguous in gender. One derives from Frida Kahlo, whose pride, suffering, love, and disdain provide a similar role model. The series as a whole derives from eighteenth-century needlework by Prudence Punderson. Smith's medium, too, belongs to the anonymity of craft, although she relies on it most for its texture, tiny air bubbles intact. Then she paints on it with a terse, stubbly line approaching pen and ink. The show, "Lodestar," allows an artist known for her sculpture to display her drawings, but as sculpture and installation.

The site, too, develops the unresolved puzzle of caring and reserve, in place of Smith's usual archetypes and emotion. Partitions do not mark boundaries or confinement, like rows of cubicles or a maze, but rather an intimacy new to this space. One can sit on benches or wander. One can see images from either side, merging with the silhouettes of others in the gallery. One could mistake them for one's own reflection. If realism promises art as a mirror or window, Pilgrim is both, but deliberately confused.

It takes pride in caring, but also in a stark, sullen remove. People nurture one another, but stiffly, without a smile or a tear. Even the new-born seems in flight from the mother who lies apart, flat on her back. Punderson called her needlework The First, Second, and Last Scene of Mortality. This is a pilgrim's progress with the accent on grim. However, the scenes do not progress in a straight line, or even as a cycle, but as a broken path with a bare hint of redemption.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Kiki Smith: A Gathering" ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through February 11, 2007. Her "Lodestar" ran at Pace through June 19, 2010; many of the same drawings and motifs appeared on paper and in sculpture at The Brooklyn Museum through September 12.

 

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