Running in a constant stream along the base of each gallery wall are a trail of postcards. They're snapshots of thoughts, moments, objects, ideas, models, portraits, and footnotes (appropriate then, their placement). In them you'll find teeth, shadows, animals, eggs, moss, fog, light spots, wax wings, studio floors, trees, animal tracks, casts, resin, runoff, waterfalls, and the rest of the world which surrounds artist Kiki Smith.
I Myself Have Seen It: Photography & Kiki Smith is opening tomorrow at the Henry, but if you get a chance to go to their Open House you'll be able to see it tonight. In short, this is a show which highlights the artist's use of photography not just as a medium, but as a tool to record and document as part of her creative process. The tiny postcard-sized photos along the floor are a small part of what Elizabeth Brown estimates were over 80,000 works she and Smith combed through for this exhibition, and they depict nearly everything one might encounter over a period of daily life with the artist. Many of the larger photographs are hyper-closeups of sculptures or wax casts right before a pour, steps in the mold-making/refining/finishing process, or finished works at various angles of interest. Mixed in semi-Salon-style with the photography are lithographs, large-scale prints, and drawings; and of course featured throughout each room are her sculptures. Of particular delight are the Sirens, (scattered throughout one of the main galleries), and the White Mammals on boards with their likenesses in print above them. This is an important show for anyone, but it especially speaks to artists who might, like Smith, obsessively document or take any kind of notes in the studio. It says your observation and the finished work are not separate from one another. They are part of the same thing, and they come from the same place. These not-pieces will each, if not now, have a place somewhere someday.
Despite my fangirl-dom, I won't call her legendary. I have this idea she might either laugh at the title or her eyes might grow big as she defers to artists she admires such as Nancy Spero or Richard Tuttle. The reason I hesitate is because instead of some dusty legend on a shelf, Smith is a working artist who insists on using her own hands and leaving her own marks. In fact, she's using them and leaving them not only on the work she creates, but in the community she nurtures. She says she doesn't want her work to be politically didactic or about anything, but despite her best efforts and claims it is [clearly about something]. One look tells you it's about labour, being female, archetypes and reinventing them. When I look closer I see something about the work itself and about what it means to be an artist. Of her process she says: "I don't believe in being willful as an artist because the work goes in all different directions ... really my emphasis is in craft, material culture, homemade objects, and referring back to an agricultural society where people are more conscious of domestic life and, you know, making things. Politically I'm not a big fan of propaganda...we should all be citizens in any way we want..."
I get the sense from reading others' ideas about Kiki Smith that there's dissatisfaction with her style of artistic nonchalance; that it's irresponsible or lacking in some kind of meat we want to learn from. I disagree. Speaking as someone who overthinks and overspeaks my art on a consistent basis, I appreciate the idea that she "doesn't have much to say" and perhaps would (perhaps we should) rather be making. Why not think that way? She gives credit to talking where credit is due and when it counts. When asked what she thought about the idea of finding our own citizenship and battling propaganda which exists in the art world itself, and do we really need to churn out MFAs and feed ourselves back into academia she suddenly looked very serious and praised the benefits of such a system: "Education is so important! With it you gain access, you gain colleagues, and you become empowered by learning from an older generation ... your peers will hold you through your whole life...but it's important to engage with people in your community with all this talking" Not that she doesn't revert back to the dangers of talking too much. She mentioned she doesn't get too deeply involved with her students when talking about "why they make art", keeping it technical and focusing on helping them find their own voice. This dovetails beautifully with one of my favourite quotes from her lecture where she says "I hate all this junk they teach in art school, where you're supposed to know what you're doing. It's only in the unknown that we get to blossom."
So there we are, right next to the witch with the dark stars and the fruit. We eat from it, we gain some knowledge. It might not be everything we've hoped for, because we've held her so high aloft (if I had been there last night perhaps I would have been disappointed, too?). But she's a contradiction. She's an artist like me, and maybe like you, making things with her hands and leaving a mark. And again like me, and maybe like you, she's obsessively documenting and holding a thought, coming back to it when the idea fits or becomes something beautifully cannibalized in rebirth, blossoming in the unknown.
*the title of this post comes from one of the photographs in the show, a series in which she depicts herself as a witch amidst the leaves