Kiki Smith's universal appeal

By Charles Campbell

My relationship with the Walker Art Center can best be described as…complicated. I am at once enamored of and learnedly wary of institutions, specifically artsy ones. I’m lured by the sheen of the crinkled silver tower at the intersection of Hennepin and Lyndale, but turned off by the elitism of the ivory tower art world. While I am interested in art’s ability to communicate visually, my interest is equally piqued by the fashionable openings attended by BjArk and Matthew Barney. So it happens that what surrounds the art objects—the culture created by the people who make, sell and buy art—often overshadows the art itself.

But Kiki Smith’s work does not get lost in the fray. Working primarily with animals and the human form, she creates pieces strong enough to break through the velvet rope of the art world and invite appreciation from the masses. The nation-wide traveling retrospective “A Gathering, 1980-2005,” currently on display at the Walker, articulates the accomplishments of the artist’s career that has, paradoxically, not yet reached its conclusion.

Kiki Smith is one of the fortunate few who not only achieve critical success, but do so within their lifetime. Smith was born in New Jersey in 1954 to an opera singer and abstract artist. After a year of art school, she moved to New York City where she began her career working with the human body and materials ranging from beeswax to Japanese paper to bronze while employing a wide variety of process-oriented techniques such as needlepoint and printmaking.

“A Gathering” comprises 125 diverse pieces ranging in medium and scale, from palm-size painted bronze sculptures to entire rooms housing installations. One of the frequent themes Smith revisits is that of gender. Yet her sculptures depicting the female nude resist traditional representations as being lovely or seductive. These women do not languish idly to be gazed at; rather, they writhe, crouch and hang in awkward positions. One figure, Untitled (1995), made of paper and horsehair, hangs on the wall bending down so we cannot even see a face. The bronze Lilith (1994) illustrates this best. The figure, huddled on the wall, glares violently up at its viewers with piercing blue eyes, far from inviting further onlookers.

Kiki Smith’s printmaking also reveals a nod to art history, this time through the selected medium. Nevertheless, she does so on her own terms, foregoing the often meticulous hairlines etchings display. In Black Animal Drawing (1996-98), she creates a menagerie of quaintly disproportionate animals. In SueAño (1992), a skinless body seems to writhe uncomfortably on the sterile white flatness of the picture plane. These etchings evoke the whimsy and energy of sketches more than their old-fashioned, detail-heavy predecessors.

As I walked through the well-paced exhibition, I had to set aside my art training and marvel at the, total beauty of some pieces. Yet as a friend commented, this is not surprising: the celestial images of stars and sky subscribes to a universal aesthetic of beauty transcending the confines of terrestrial cultural constructions.

If museums designate spaces for art and the goal of these spaces is to increase the public’s accessibility to art, then Saturday afternoon at the Kiki Smith show was a success. But the popularity of Ms. Smith’s work cannot simply be attributed to hype, her acceptance into the art world, nor her growing household name status (although the occasional reference on “The L Word” doesn’t hurt); instead, it is the universality of her work—the corporeal subject matter— and her unique interpretation of it that lends itself to such enthusiastic reception.