In the early 1990s, Kiki Smith managed to get herself pigeonholed as a feminist body artist. She was catapulted to fame (some would say infamy) by the works included in the 1993 Whitney Biennial and by sculptures like "Tale" (1992), a papier-mâché figure of a nude woman on all fours, trailing an extensive line of feces behind her. Works like these seemed at first glance to hark back to the body art of the emerging feminist movement of the 1970s, when Carolee Schneemann and Hannah Wilke explored female experience in performances and photography.
But the similarities between Smith's works and those by Schneemann and Wilke stop at the surface. Smith was, after all, working in an entirely different era -- not the newly radicalized 1970s but the post-backlash 1990s. And in that context, her explicitly body-oriented works seemed confusing: Were they retreads of '70s feminist explorations? Were they critiques of essentialist feminism, which roots femininity in the body and ignores the social construction of identity? Were they just really bad art?
The jury is still out on some of those pieces (although many critics agree that "Tale" is just really bad art). That said, it would be unwise to dismiss Smith on the basis of a few notorious works. At the St. Louis Art Museum, My Nature: Works with Paper by Kiki Smith shows that the artist has been engaged in far more nuanced explorations of physicality throughout the 1990s.
Smith's works embrace not just the female body but the human body, as well as animals, plants and natural formations. As the title promises, nature is itself the theme, and Smith expresses in each one of these works the unbreakable (even if invisible) connections among all natural things -- animal, vegetable, mineral, organic, inorganic, earthbound and cosmic. It's no understatement to say that these works take on universal themes, but they do so in a surprisingly subtle, even hushed manner, and they make the world seem, indeed, like a small place after all.
"The World" (1998) is a small globe fashioned out of darkly tinted tissue paper. It hangs high from the gallery's ceiling, and most viewers will probably miss it, but it seems to summarize best what Smith is after in this show. "The World" looks as though it were fashioned by a child; its crinkly surface is only a thin skin that threatens constantly to collapse in on itself. Air currents knock it about, and one wonders whether it can survive the exposure to human beings and the elements. After seeing all the works in the show, viewers might wonder the same thing about the real world we live in.
Smith manages to make all of nature seem fragile, tenuous and in constant threat of extinction. "Dandelions" (1999) consists of a series of six small mezzotints, depicting a single dandelion rendered in soft white on a rich black field. In each successive print, the dandelion has lost more of its downy seed pods; in the last print, the plant's original form is almost obliterated.
Imagined on an exploded scale, these tiny dandelions could double for starbursts in the limitless space of the galaxy. This is one of the nicest things about Smith's works in this show: They draw out invisible connections among all elements of nature. And they reveal that even manmade systems are beholden to nature. "Constellations" (1996) and "Gemini" (1996) show human faces pocked with star configurations, a reminder of how people throughout history have attempted to understand the universe by projecting their own image onto it.
Another consistent strain throughout this show is the use of fine tissue paper, which appears as translucent and fragile as skin on an aging person or a fresh onion, or the musical leaves of a cottonwood tree. The exhibit is anchored by an enormous sheet of burgundy-colored tissue paper, suspended in a shadowbox frame, with a peacock and his complexly patterned plumage rendered in delicate lines of silver ink.
This peacock looks confident and proud of his pretty tail feathers. But that cocksure attitude is belied by the bird's gnarled feet, with their twisted toes and absence of elegance. It's in the feet that the truth of the matter seems to lie: They're the vulnerable part of the bird, the part that reminds us of mortality -- that nothing and no one, no matter how beautiful, lasts forever. Death is a part of nature as well, as Smith seems to claim in "Three Crows," a work composed of three sculptural likenesses of beautiful black birds, feet upended, who have met their demise.
Whether these fictional crows have died of natural causes is an interesting question. Smith's works suggest a continuum of the human and the natural; even if these birds had been shot, or died after consuming toxic chemicals of human invention, could their deaths be considered unnatural? Human beings, though part of the natural world, have a capacity for destruction that sets them apart. Smith presses this point in works like "Immortal" (1998), a print depicting an anguished taxidermied monkey suspended in a void, its hands and feet bound tightly.
A number of works in this show are reminiscent of drawings from scientific studies or archaic investigations into flora and fauna. "Owls" (1998), a set of four etchings, offers up precisely rendered studies against alternating black-and-white backdrops, as if by repeating the image we could learn more about the birds. A set of four photographs from 1997 looks to be straight out of a National Geographic documentary on crows, rabbits and baby swans in their natural environments, until one realizes that these are photographs of fictions, lifeless dioramas of animal habitats. Once more, the lines between the natural and the artificial are blurred.
Smith has not left herself out of these investigations into the animal, the natural, the universal. Works sprinkled throughout the exhibit incorporate her own image or the form of the female body. But in the context of all these other works, they read differently than they otherwise would. They don't look like warmed-over body art; they come off as much more interesting attempts to reconcile the inner self with the outside world, perhaps, or the desire to find connections to nature in a human world increasingly detached from it.
An untitled sculpture of variegated copper-covered body parts, which is owned by the museum and has enjoyed lots of exposure already, takes on a new look in this exhibit. It seems more than ever like an archaeologist's find, a strange fossil collection waiting to be tagged and cataloged. "Las Animas" (1997), a photogravure montage of images of various parts of the artist's body, would in another context look like nothing more than a '70s-era feminist conceptual piece; here, the animal quality of the images comes to the fore, and the work benefits from it.
In all, My Nature: Works with Paper manages to reframe Kiki Smith's work, suggesting a remarkably subtle and allusive artistic sensibility. They far surpass the expectations set up by her more notorious works of the early '90s. Fortunately, they move beyond the inherent limits of body investigations and delve into far more interesting territory.
My Nature: Works with Paper by Kiki Smith is on view through Jan. 23.
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