“I’m cannibalizing my own experience, my surroundings.” – Kiki Smith
In I Myself Have Seen It: Photography & Kiki Smith, Henry Art Gallery chief curator Elizabeth Brown and artist Kiki Smith punctuate their twenty-year working relationship with an ambitious exhibit exploring the ways photography has both shaped and influenced Smith’s work. At her lecture at Kane Hall on March 8th, Smith stated that it was much more involved than anything she had done in her entire life. With hundreds of small-scale “snapshots” lining the floor, salon-style rows of color prints on the walls – and with sculptures perched atop the crown molding and dangling from the walls – the exhibit creates the sensation of walking through Smith’s memory over the past ten years. The works chronicle Smith’s creative and intellectual process through her eyes – several photographs depict her sculptures at different angles and at different phases of completion. Other photos capture the minute details of her life – a snow covered handrail, a friend, a group of red flowers. The goal in these arrangements, suggests Brown, is to reveal the multitude of ways Smith’s photography acts as a tool and as a way to construct meanings out of her sculptures.
Contemporary sculptor and print maker Kiki Smith has been photographing and exhibiting her work for three decades. Smith grew up in a family where “life wasn’t worth living if you didn’t make art.” As the daughter of minimalist sculptor Tony Smith, Kiki assisted her father with his large-scale sculptures by folding and gluing together geometric cardboard models. Known primarily for her sculpture, Smith began using her body to explore ideas of death and femininity by creating sculptures of internal organs, fragmented body parts and life-sized sculptures of women in disconcerting poses. More recently, Smith has begun to explore animals in nature and women in myths, fairy tales and Christianity. Unconcerned with artistic hierarchies, Smith employs a wide range of media, oftentimes selecting materials for their lowly status. Her work has been exhibited in numerous institutions world wide, including the Walker Art Center, the Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. She is a MacDowell Medal winner and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, in 2005.
In the six North Galleries housing Smith’s work, various themes reveal the ways Smith thinks about her art. Through photography, Smith has documented the different stages of her creative process, re-imagined women from myth and fairy tales and used serial narrative to create photographic works of art. Each gallery includes not only photographs of her work, but sculptures, etchings and lithographs that inspired those photographs as well.
In the main gallery, a woman in bronze is doubled-over; surrounding her are hundreds of interwoven silver beads (Upside Down Body with Beads, 1993). Several large-scale photographs on the wall show the work in progress while other photographs depict close-up shots of its back or the work in another gallery installation. Atop the crowned moldings, heads of women on the body of birds stare down at the visitors below. In another gallery, we see how women in fairy tales inspire Smith to create photographic works as independent pieces of art. In one image, Little Red Riding Hood stares at us intently, shocking us when we realize her face is full of fur. Smith inserts herself into the fairy tales as well. In Sleeping Witch (2000), Smith, cloaked in black, lies in a field of leaves with a toppled basket of black apples. She loosely clutches an apple in her hand, conjuring up associations with Snow White and Eve – is Smith the witch, or has she fallen asleep after tasting the cursed fruit?
In one gallery themed “studio practice: people” Smith’s foam pattern for her aluminum sculpture Annunciation sits in a heavy wooden chair in the center of the room, its hand raised in salutation. The larger than life androgynous figure serenely stares at a wall filled with twenty large-scale Chromeogenic photographs. In one image, Harpies (2000), Smith focuses the lens on the feet of the wax cast for the bronze work, little pieces of wax litter the ground around its feet. In another studio image, Smith photographs silver bones laying on a work table. Running counter-clockwise along the baseboards, the small snap-shots of her studio, wax works in progress and images of people, add up to a larger undercurrent of inspiration for her full-sized sculptures.
For Elizabeth Brown, photography is the closest way one can get to the artist’s mind. Nowhere is this more the apparent than in a gallery featuring Smith’s “ganged” photographs. Interested in serial narratives, Smith often photographed several images at different angles, then pasted them together and sent them to friends as gifts. These works are paired with five display cases featuring catalogs and photo essays Smith has created throughout her career. In one book of poetry, Smith has edited it with blue marker. At the top of the page, she writes “this needs more work.” These personal pieces of ephemera allow the viewer to get an even closer look at Smith’s creative process.
This exhibit calls for repeat visitations. With over 1,000 individual works, there is rarely a time when you are not discovering something new. During the opening reception, visitors were crouching to the floor to take closer looks at the small-scale photographs while others were pointing to the ceiling in surprise of finding Smith’s cast bronze Sirens (2004) perched atop the ceiling. As the first large-scale exhibition surveying Smith’s use of photography, I Myself Have Seen It is not to be missed.
I Myself Have Seen It: Photography & Kiki Smith, March 6, 2010 – August 15, 2010, Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, Washingrton