by Sukanya DebAug 13, 2022
The feisty German-born American artist Kiki Smith (b. 1954, Nuremberg, Germany) is best known since the 1980s for her multi-disciplinary practice relating to the human condition and the natural world. Having met Smith in Mumbai during her exhibition at the Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, one is acquainted with her aura, her veil of silver-grey hair, her piercing blue-grey eyes, and her no-nonsense approach to life.
Smith is known to plan several shows at once: after her big solo titled Murmur in New York in March 2019, this September 28, 2019, she showed a body of works courtesy Galleria Continua, at San Gimignano Rocca Di Monsteffoli, in Italy, from 2003 to 2010 and selection of new work, that is part of their permanent installation and she will also be showing a collection of work titled Compass and Yellow Girl.
Smith is a ‘woman who likes to run with the wolves’ (apologies to Clarissa Pinkola) and is known for creating work that is fantastical as well as corporeal. She draws upon popular fairytale archetypes like Red Riding Hood and Alice in Wonderland, fusing human anatomy with that of plants and animals and even the cosmos. She creates tapestries, drawings, sculptures, prints and photographs that evoke feminist undertones.
“Enchantment is the natural condition of the naïve; re-enchantment a labour chosen by those who have lost their illusions while retaining some measure of their childlike aptitude for wonder, an aptitude reinforced by an adult need to restore to the imaginative realm the masks that reality has stripped from it,” writes Robert Storr in his essay, Tangible Fears – Tokens of Reprieve, (courtesy Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke.) “Kiki Smith has that gift. And, on the evidence of her multifarious and by turn nightmarish and magical images, she has that need as well,” he avers.
Smith has an artistic background; while her mother was an opera singer, her father was an artist, known for his ‘black sculptures’. She joined an artist collaborative called Colab (short for Collaborative Projects Inc.) where Tom Otterness and Jenny Holzer were also members - and she worked at odd jobs before she came onto the art scene with her debut with a solo at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1988.
Since then Smith has been pronounced one of the most significant American artists of her generation by leading art critics like Storr, and her works have been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions worldwide, including over 25 museum exhibitions. Her work has been featured at five Venice Biennales, including the 2017 edition. Her sources of inspiration remain in flux, but Smith’s work itself tends to revolve around the body, death, mythology, and nature.
Smith believes in the “labour of art making,” which can often appear mundane to the lay person. (Smith on Artsy.Net, Alina Cohen March 7, 2019). However, there is a kind of ‘meditative-madness’ to her mark making and the hours of labour almost always results in something magical. In this instance, Cohen had visited her studio and watched her scratch a sheet of plexiglas for an hour during their interview. The results were however magical, as the scratch marks would ultimately result in multiple prints and sculptures of the hybrid goat-fish Capricorn which is also her sun-sign.
Smith works with a fair amount of spontaneity while mounting and planning her shows and even though her shows are meticulously designed, they are ‘subject to change’, till the last minute. Even when she visited India to show a selection of her etchings at the Galerie Mirchandani + Steinrueke, she allowed herself the space to create an installation on site at the very last minute. This tendency to ‘work till the last minute’, might lead museums and galleries to scurry in all directions to accommodate the demands of the artist, but the results are usually well worth it.
During her exhibition in Italy at San Gimignano Rocca Di Monsteffoli, Smith will also show work that is inspired by her obsession with maritime themes. One of the sculptures is that of a wave, with stars upon its waters, it is inspired by the Yugoslavian World War II monuments, called Spomenik.
These sculptural works are certainly more poetic and metaphorical than her early forays that address the bodily and the grotesque. A case in point were the 12 jars she labelled vomit, blood, urine, milk, saliva, semen pus, and tears and her sculpture Man-Woman that dripped semen and blood from the man and menstrual blood and milk from the woman. The early wave of ‘angry feminist’ works have been labelled gratuitously grotesque, by some art critics, while some audiences and collectors (quite predictably) preferred the works that were more lyrical and fairytale-like.
Smith confesses to being disturbed and ‘frightened’ by her own creations, that have roots in her own childhood, where she grew up with a human skull and dentures in her room, and she made shrines for dead animals as a child. These certainly had an impact on her growing up process and subsequently her art.
These days Smith’s work is less within the polemics and paradigm of the gender-binary and has transcended past the binary to include the animal world and the cosmos.