Kiki Smith: Art By Intuition






11.30.16 | KATE PALISAY

"The Falls" (2013) ;  Image Courtesy of The Huffington Pos t

Kiki Smith makes art because it seems as natural to her as breathing. Over the course of her career, while her work has taken on many different forms and mediums, it has always been guided by her intuition.

In the words of Ms. Smith, as she explained in a 2003 segment for Art21, “Art is something that moves from your insides into the physical world. And at the same time, it’s just a representation of your insides in a different form. Physically… art is just a way to think. It’s like standing in the wind and letting it pull you in whatever direction it wants to go in.”

Looking at the art Smith has created in her lifetime, from the beginning of her career in the 1970s until now, it’s easy to see that the artist’s style and subject matter have changed and evolved just as she has. Once infamous for her sculptural portrayal of the often disturbing realities of the human condition, the artist has in recent years focused on themes of nature and favored printmaking. Regardless of subject or method, Smith's art becomes a physical expression of her own attempts to digest and understand her experiences. 

A 2014 TateShots clip features a "studio visit" with Smith, but pinning down a particular space devoted to creation proves difficult: Smith's "studio" is also her living room. This lack of separation between the world of art-making and the world of daily life is no mistake - for Smith, they are inextricably linked and dependent on one another. Her art is the product of her daily lived experiences.

 Describing the evolution of her work in the same clip, Smith says, “Getting older, everything is dynamic and moving, and things that you thought about that were paramount when you were 25 are not. I don’t need to think about the same things every day, or every year to year.” At every age, Smith has been thinking about some decidedly interesting subjects.

"Untitled"   (1990) ;  Image Courtesy of The Broad .

"Untitled" (1990) ; Image Courtesy of The Broad.

Up through the ‘90s, Smith’s work largely dealt with the anatomical, visceral body, exploring its systems and exposing its flaws. The textbook Gray’s Anatomy served as an inspiration and a reference point for the artist, who, in 1985, guided by her fascination with human anatomy and a desire to better understand it for the purpose of her art, trained to be an EMT.

This interest in the human body coincided her own experiences with the AIDS crisis. Smith’s sister, Beatrice, died of AIDS, as did her good friend and fellow artist David Wojnarowicz. Pieces like Game Time (1986), which consists of twelve blood-filled jars stacked on a shelf that reads “There are approx. 12 pints of blood in the human body,” and Untitled (1990), a line of twelve silver-coated glass jugs engraved with the names of twelve different types of bodily fluids (saliva, urine, semen, etc.), offer particularly adroit commentary on the widespread bigoted squeamishness toward the Gay Body.

In the early ‘90s, she turned to the female body in states of abject, creating some of her most damning and memorable works. In Pee Body (1992), a nude female figure squats close to the floor, her head bowed down in shame as she relieves herself, a swirling trail of yellow glass beads of “urine” flowing out behind her. Train (1993), in which red beads depict blood from menstruation, and Tale (1992), in which a female nude is on all fours with a long “tail” of excrement extending from her anus, create similar imagery. In these works, Smith depicts the female body as we are not prepared or accustomed to seeing it - she shows the body as it endures the realities of existence, and she rejects the censorship and idealized beautification that modern photography, film, and media have imposed upon the image of Woman.

As the artist once explained in an interview for Sculpture Magazine, “Often our culture is more restrictive than our beings are psychically. Often there’s not enough space for one’s nature. One has to keep trying to kick out the boundaries so one’s nature can have space for itself.”

"Train" (1992) ;  Image Courtesy of Pinterest
"Lilith" (1994) ;  Image Courtesy of The Met

"Lilith" (1994) ; Image Courtesy of The Met

Not only does she believe in going outside the boundaries of societal norms, but she’s also fearless in following her art in new and, at times challenging, directions. For Smith, thinking and art-making are one in the same, and they do not happen separately from each other. To consider the meaning of something before actually doing it would belie her instincts.

Her approach is an intuitive one. Smith says, “For me in my work I don’t try to set it in any path or any direction. I really try to follow it and I believe in following it. As much as possible, don’t question my impetus or motive for doing something. I just do it and then see what happens. I’m not trying to get anywhere, or to have my work mean anything or stand for anything or represent anything. In a way, it’s a way to synthesize being here into a form that we can look at, or I can look at.”

"Getting The Bird Out" (1992) ;  Image Courtesy of The Walker Art Center

"Getting The Bird Out" (1992) ; Image Courtesy of The Walker Art Center

"St. Genevieve" (1999) ;  Image Courtesy of The Art Studio

"St. Genevieve" (1999) ; Image Courtesy of The Art Studio

View of Kiki Smith Sojourn Installation at the Brooklyn Museum (2010) ;  Image Courtesy of Art Observed

View of Kiki Smith Sojourn Installation at the Brooklyn Museum (2010) ; Image Courtesy of Art Observed

Smith has not only stayed true to herself as an artist, but she’s given herself room to grow and to change. She isn’t afraid to put whatever she’s thinking about out into the physical world, whether those thoughts and ideas are controversial, disturbing, humorous, or uncomplicated, or any combination of the above.

CultureKate PalisayComment