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Kiki Smith: Prints, Books & Things

Kiki Smith,
Kiki Smith, "All Souls" (1988), Screenprint on thirty-six attached sheets of handmade Thai paper. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Riva Castleman Endowment Fund, 2003. © 2003 Kiki Smith.

The Museum of Modern Art, Queens
Through March 8, 2004

In the early 1990s, I entered a downtown gallery and encountered a female nude fashioned from beeswax, down on all fours, a tail of intestines or shit trailing out onto the floor from her anus. The figure was crawling, desperate, and humiliated but ferociously aggressive, and yet the pale, translucent wax also had a lyricism and sensuality that seemed to invoke Eva Hesse’s late work in latex. The figurative sculptures, for which Kiki Smith justly became famous—groveling, eviscerated women, suspended torsos—depend for their power upon a balance between violence and material tenderness. The violence in question is surely in part violence against women, but not only; it is also the violence of the mortal and suffering body.

One of the virtues of Kiki Smith: Prints, Books & Things at the Museum of Modern Art in Queens, which is accompanied by a full catalogue, is that it introduces viewers to a substantial, but lesser known body of work by an influential sculptor. Curated by Wendy Weitman of MoMA’s Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, the exhibit unfolds in a roughly chronological order and is divided into five not altogether illuminating categories: Early Screenprints, Anatomy, Nature, Self Portraits, and Feminine Contexts.

Smith worked as an emergency medic in the 1980s, and this undoubtedly contributed to the unsentimental and graphic sense of the body’s inner functioning evident in the work in Early Screenprints and Anatomy. In "Possession Is Nine-Tenths of the Law" (1985), for instance, lungs, brains, and kidneys appear scored onto the molded paper, the addition of daubs of yellow ink giving them a fatty, sickly quality. The organs are not static medical specimens; rather, the aggressively slashed lines make them seem damaged and in motion. "Possession Is Nine-Tenths of the Law" makes clear that for Smith the flesh is ineluctably temporal. The hauntingly titled "All Souls" (1988) consists of 36 screenprints of a fetus Smith found in a Japanese anatomy book, printed on handmade sheets of Thai paper, attached one to the other, and suspended from the wall. Curled up, each identical, each slightly different, the fetuses are like bodily organs, fragments of flesh, waiting to be ensouled. The piece has a sculptural quality, the paper crinkled, asymmetrical, and bowing under its own weight. "All Souls" is also elegiac, for these are passages—knots—of recognizable but not wholly formed flesh that have yet to actually enter the world of contingency and identity. Yet for all the longing "All Souls" may evoke, Smith’s interest in reproduction remains admirably continuous with her interest in lungs, kidneys, and intestines.

"The image of the body is the image of the soul," Ludwig Wittgenstein cryptically wrote. In Smith’s audacious, early vision, the body is made of wet, churning fragments, labyrinthine conduits, and holes, all of it just barely held together by sinew and skin. In "A Man" (1990), one of the exhibit’s most revelatory works, Smith enlarged and abstracted photographs of a man’s orifices—ears, nostrils, anus—into clustered, biomorphic shapes printed on 16 attached sheets of hand crafted Nepalese paper, suspended from the ceiling and scrolling out across the floor. If works like "Possession Is Nine-Tenths of the Law" explore the dynamics of the body’s leaky, damaged interior machine, then "A Man" portrays fleshy identity as an open, anentropic system, as existing in a liminal space where the sensitive body and the enveloping world enfold: bodies are essentially things which breathe, see, hear, speak, eat, shit, and ejaculate. The 1993 etching and aquatint simply titled "Kiki Smith" is a kind of companion piece to "A Man." It consists of a long, dark, zigzagging representation of the digestive system from the tongue to the anus, set on a wrinkled, watery blue ground. "A Man" might be thought of as subversive by depicting male identity as decentered, porous, and unstable; Smith’s self-portrait-as-viscera is, on the other hand, slow, serpentine, and absorptive. The female body, for Smith, is less marked by exterior opening than by complex internal processes, whether they be gestation or digestion. One of the exhibit’s numerous small, lyrical pieces is the potato print "Untitled (Kidneys)" (1995), twin oblong red kidneys decorated with silverleaf additions, blue tubes extending below.

In Kiki Smith’s print work, the visceral is often counterbalanced by an impulse toward the refined and the decorative— anuses and intestines on sheets of beautiful handmade paper. This is also true of the regrettably few objects included in Prints, Books & Things. "Tail" (1997), for example, is a rough chunk of cast glass tapering to a point, and "Womb" (1986) is a bulging disc of cast glass. In both of these works, the live, biological nature of the subject matter pushes against the icily beautiful material. Perhaps the most successful of these is "Finger Bowl" (1986/1996), a bowl cast in silver, swarming with fingerprints and protruding fingertips.

Much of the work in Early Screenprints and Anatomy is self-reflexive and even performative: think, for instance, of "Bluebeard" (1990), made of lithographs of Smith’s hair, or of the wonderfully rudimentary pieces based on photocopies of her breasts. In this regard, the few pieces gathered in Self Portraits feel literal and redundant. The photogravure "Warm" (1992) consists of a composite photograph of Smith nude compressed into the shape of a worm, set on black paper and surrounded by decorative cutout shapes. In "I Am" (1994), Smith crumpled lithographs of her face into three sculptural heads. Compared with works like "Kiki Smith," these pieces are gimmicky.

Apart from Eva Hesse, Smith’s most obvious influence is Joseph Beuys. She shares Beuys’ romantic sense of decaying, organic material, as well as his predilection for allegory. In this regard, the viewer would be well advised to compare Smith’s work to the dazzling Beuys exhibit at the uptown Gagosian, Just Hit The Mark: Works from the Speck Collection. In "Peabody (Animal Drawings)" (1996), Smith has stacked on the floor large sheets of thick, dark red and brown paper on which are detailed etchings of owls and wolves. The color of the paper, and its sticky, coagulated texture, inevitably evokes menstrual blood, and the animals are the kind of animals that haunt dreams: they are, perhaps, animals perched inside a dreamed version of the inside of the body. In the sequence of etchings "The Destruction of Birds" (1997), sharply rendered, palpably dead small birds, are turned away from the viewer, wings tamped down and beaks pointed upward, and in the equally melancholic "White Mammals" (1998) etchings of what appear to be the pelts of rabbits, mice, and a variety of other rodents are tacked to the wall. These are etchings of small, quick, unglamorous creatures, and they have the atmosphere of old natural history museums, where the natural order was catalogued after it was already dead, cured, and stuffed.

When Smith’s evocation of nature lacks the intimate carnality of "Peabody (Animal Drawings)" or the allusions to extermination and extinction of "The Destruction of Birds" and "White Mammals," they tend to become fussy and decorative. The delicate, ephemeral patterning of the peacock’s fanned tail in "Peacock" (1997), and pieces like "Falcon" (2001), "Ginzer" (2000), and "Fawn" (2001) verge on kitsch. All of these pieces strive for a Victorian children’s book quality, which Smith appears to associate with what Wendy Weitman refers to as the "feminine voice"; what these pieces crucially lack, however, is a sense of the demonic. Beuys’ great drawings of stags achieve their power in part from the ambivalent depths of the myths they allude to: St. Eustache’s vision of Christ crucified on the antlers of a stag in the forest, or Ovid’s savage tale of Diana; Smith’s animal prints, by contrast, often seem to assert a thin, naturalist spirituality.

Smith’s fascination with Victorian nature drawing and illustration often leads to work that is graphic and mannered, and this is especially true of the work presented in Feminine Contexts. "Born" (2002) is a double self-portrait as Little Red Ridinghood and her grandmother being disgorged from the wolf’s split open belly, and in the more dynamic "Pool of Tears (After Lewis Caroll)" (2000) Alice is fleeing a menagerie of owls, swans, and rats across a shallow lake: both of these pieces illustrate alternative literary readings rather than enact more immediate and volatile meanings. There are, however, smaller works in Feminine Contexts that are more idiosyncratic and evoke the inbred perversity of the Victorian sensibility Smith is trying to mimic. In "Trinity of Heaven and Earth" (2000), there is a half girl, half horse, a girl with angelic butterfly wings, and a girl weeping in the forest, and the portraits in "Blue Prints"(1999)— especially "Wolf Girl," "Virgin with Dove," and "Melancholia"— are eerie and unsettling. Yet Feminine Contexts leaves one with troubling questions. In order to think about femininity specifically, is it important or even useful to appeal to the female characters in fairy tales and the style of old illustrated books? Doesn’t this lead immediately into nostalgic cliché? Don’t tongues, anuses, intestines, wombs, hair, and nipples offer richer possibilities for thinking about the feminine than iconic animals and fairy tales, if only because they don’t assume the whole narrative of gender as a premise?

Kiki Smith’s most recent major sculptural installations, at Pace Wildenstein and also in the outdoor portion of the 2002 Whitney Biennial, both of which involved large cast bronze deer, failed badly in large part because they attempted to remythologize nature from an external and unitary perspective rather than from the point of view of a charged, fragmented, corporeal subjectivity. Compare this work with Beuys’ terrifying "Lightning With Stag in its Glare"(1958-1985), where the cowering, distorted animals are invested with magical power, or even with the fetishistic presence of the small, splayed female form wrapped in a bandage at the uptown Gagosian. What Beuys instinctively grasped and Smith fails to understand is that spirituality and wholeness are inconsistent, that only the wounded and fragmentary are capable of absorbing spiritual power. Smith is not an accomplished or original draftsman, and the work in Prints, Books & Things is at its best when it is organic, tactile, and essentially sculptural. In addition, Smith’s thinking is fiercer when she addresses the body as a complex, open, mortal system, pumping, excreting, bleeding, and birthing, rather than the supposed larger spiritual unities of nature.


Daniel Baird


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2004

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