Review of Kiki Smith Art Exibition

Recently, the Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro held an exhibition by American feminist artist Kiki Smith titled “Touch of the Eye/Look of the Hand.” Sixteen works of varying media were on loan from a private collector which ranged from photogravure to etching and lithograph. Although Smith is best known for her sculptures which were not on display, this exhibition attested to her ability to work within a variety of media and art forms.

Without constraining herself, Kiki Smith, born in Germany 1954, uses a wide variety of media to express her thoughts, ideas and experiences. From drawing, printmaking, sculpture, photography, books, performance, sounds and video, Smith does not limit herself to any one particular medium. “My work has its own agenda,” she has said. “I think I am the most ordinary person, but then I have this art thing that’s using me.”

Her work often showcases the human body and different aspects of it both from a physical and psychological perspective, providing a sense of intimacy. Stretched out in one long sinuous zigzagging path, the human digestive system that is represented in Kiki Smith 1993 (1993, etching on Japanese paper) runs itself from the tongue to the anus. Abstract splashes in the background combined with a finishing sprinkling of water create a wrinkled and bubbled surface evoking the senses. Not only internal organs but the human body as a whole can be found in Smith’s works. Sueño/Dream (1992, etching and aquatint on handmade Japanese paper) displays the body without any skin, revealing the musculature structure of a human body. The figure is flayed in a fetal position, seemingly floating in a sea of white. This body is physically and psychologically vulnerable, with the lack of skin and positioning of the body and in this piece Smith has cleverly embodied the fragility of life. Adopting a sculptural approach to printmaking, Smith began the work using her own body lying on a copperplate and allowed the printer to trace her outline.

Classifying Kiki Smith as an artist from the feminist movement carries with it the danger that upon entering her exhibitions, a spectator’s ability to interpret her art without bias is jeopardized by certain preconceptions of feminist art. One of the movement’s goals is to reflect women’s lives and experiences and so we can expect that many of the works will involve or depict some aspect of femininity. As a result of feminist stereotyping this may also create an expectation that the exhibition’s tone will be that of anger or aggression and many of the transgressive works will be obscene or pornographic. While these expectations may be found in Smith’s other works, they were not particularly present in this display. A number of pieces depicted animals or inanimate objects, while others showcased human inner organs or body parts. However, there were a few pieces which played very well to Smith’s feminist classification such as Sueño or My Blue Lake.

How I Know I’m Here (1985 – 2000, linoleum blocks printed in four sheets Thai paper) showcases the artist’s own body, both inside and out, over sixteen feet. The piece consisted of many photographs taken by fellow artist and friend David Wojnarowicz of Smith biting her toenails, eating a watermelon, picking nits out of a child’s hair or picking her nose along with various key internal organs to portray the senses.  The print is presented as almost a narrative. The eye travels the length of the image back and forth spotting new organs or scenes with each pass. The beating heart offsets the breathing pair of lungs in the first panel while the stomach and brain surround Smith eating watermelon on the forth panel. All throughout there are dense lines depicting muscles, veins and nerves. In fact there is at least one thick, white vein which runs the course of all four panels. This combination of both internal and external depictions is a recurring theme in Smith’s works.

Taking an opposite and perhaps complementary approach to Sueño, in My Blue Lake (1995, photogravure, á la poupée inking and lithograph on mold-made En Tout Cas paper) Smith sets out to figuratively skin the woman of the painting. Here she peels the skin and presses it across the page in a nightmarish fashion, transforming her head, neck and shoulders into a flat typography. The title of the work suggests that laying the skin out flat creates a lake, with the woman’s head and shoulders creating an inlet. Her hair marks the ending point of the shore and blue brushstrokes throughout the skin further reflect the image of an inlet.

The layout of the works in the exhibit played very well to Smith’s versatility. In this exhibition alone Smith deals with the external and internal human body, animals both dead and alive, as well as abstract concepts. Etc., Etc. (1999, photogravure on mold-made hahnemühle) demonstrates the artist’s abiding interest in nature. The text running down the right edge, “Let me freeze again to death,” (quoting the poet John Dryden’s and Henry Purcell’s opera King Arthur, of 1691) is an allusion to the work’s themes of the cycle of the seasons and nature’s suspended state during the bleakness of winter.  Several other works including Bird Skeleton (2000, etching), Ginzer (2000, etching) and Falcon (2001, etching) followed before the viewer was confronted with Smith’s more renowned style depicting the body in How I Know I’m Here and Kiki Smith 1993 next. This gives the viewer a chance to ease into the exhibition before taking on some of the more provocative works.

Though the beginning of the exhibit did not immediately dive into Smith’s pieces which dealt with the human body, this did not detract in any way from her etchings. Further illustrating the artist’s capabilities for varied media, Smith’s etchings show a rich and detailed portrayal of animals, the subject of which are dead and taxidermic. Ginzer is an excellent example of Smith’s extreme style portraying the corpse of her cat which apparently was brought to her workshop after it had died . The finished etching takes on a morbid quality by capturing an inanimate corpse as an animal portrait. This was carried further in Falcon, another etching inspired from a taxidermic bird.

The death pose of Ginzer is strikingly reminiscent of the wolf in Born (2002, lithograph on mold-made T. H. Saunders paper). This is one of the many works of art in which Smith’s inspiration for her heroines springs from her readings of popular fairy tales. The Eastern European influence is evident with the portrayal of a more gruesome interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood, following the tradition of the Brothers Grimm. The little girl and her grandmother are both shown wearing red capes and in a motherly embrace having sprung out of the dead wolf’s stomach. This lithograph took over three years to complete.

Animals are used as a focal point in many of the works. Carrier (2001, etching and aquatint in colors with hand-coloring, on En Tout Cas paper) shows six mice swimming in synchronization towards the left of the frame, with one of them riding piggy-back. The etching is devoid of any stark color variations, sticking with unsaturated blues and grays. The mysterious pool of water shows up again in Pool of Tears I (2000, etching, aquatint and chine collé) in which four mice are surrounding a woman figure which is representative of Alice from the fairy tale Alice in Wonderland — again referencing Smith’s favorite fairy tales. The sepia tone and “dry” look bring an almost nightmarish effect and carry on the morbid theme set in works earlier in the exhibition. Her use of animals as the main focal point continues in the collaborative effort with Susanna Moore’s Hunters and Gatherers (2003, seven etchings on hahnemühle). Smith’s illustrations provide the ideal backdrop for the open-ended haikus found in the book such as “The urgent serpent / mistook the rabbit for the / magician’s habit.”

Smith has not been one to apologize for or retreat from her style. In fact she has expressed the wish that her works were riskier.  Her oeuvre is both controversial and extensive in nature and therefore leaves much room for interpretation of meaning and substance. “It’s like making landscape painting — millions of people can do it for eternity and it can always be different,” she says. “There are so many aspects that never occur to you, and also some that do but you’ll never really get to.” This latest exhibit by Smith exemplifies her ability to move beyond the stereotypes of feminist art and her traditional boundaries. One gets the sense from this exhibition that she has stepped out of her comfort level and embraced the opportunity to experiment with new themes and ideas.