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Kiki Smith
Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art
Northwestern University, 40 Arts Circle Drive , Evanston, IL 60208
April 8, 2011 - August 14, 2011

Re-Seeing It
by Amelia Ishmael

“I really love the way the camera fucks up things unpredictably,” Kiki Smith remarked to curator Elizabeth Brown in 2007. Redirecting the way Kiki Smith’s work has historically been understood, Elizabeth Brown’s “I Myself Have Seen it” was first shown last year at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, Seattle, and is now at Northwestern University’s Block Museum until mid-August.

“I Myself Have Seen It” is the first large-scale survey of Smith’s photographic work across her varied artistic output. The crux of this exhibition is to reintegrate Smith’s photographic explorations within her own artistic oeuvre.  Primarily recognized as a sculptor, printmaker, and bookmaker, Smith’s recognition as a photographer has, up until now, been historically acknowledged as peripheral to the other interests. This exhibition distinctly confirms Smith’s practice as one truly maneuvering across media—using one medium to simultaneously and critically investigate another.

Smith’s narrative investigations of feminine archetypes, from mythological figures such as Daphne and the Wolf Girl to fables such as Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty, have long held a place within contemporary art and the heritage of feminist artists such as Eva Hesse and her contemporaries Louise Bourgeois and Nancy Spero. Using the body as a site of emotional and psychological investigation, Smith’s surrealist artworks explore relationships of identity and humanity by drawing upon the frictions within personal and cultural layers of consciousnesses. Her photographic works add another layer to this, as Smith shares her own intimate relationship to time and space with her viewers, allowing us to imagine ourselves within her personal perspective.

Installation view of "I Myself Have Seen It" at the Block Museum of Art.  Image courtesy of the artist and the Block Museum.


Skirting around the gallery’s perimeter, a nearly continuous line of 4”x6” photographs wrap the exhibition in a stream of impressions. These images testify to Smith’s practice as a prolific photographer and reaffirm their integral inclusion within her process. They include reflections on the landscapes and animals she encounters on travels, the trees surrounding Smith’s New York studio and residence, the stages of development her artworks go through before display, and reinterpretations of her works after completion. Honing down these expansive images into organized themes is difficult, though Brown tries with subsections such as “Studio—Figures” or “Nature.” Above this spanning line, compositions of larger prints are installed across the gallery’s walls, highlighting Smith’s re-consideration of a particular artwork or series.

Many of these images could be understood as the artist’s personal image archive, which she draws upon throughout her work no matter what its form. The concept of a definitive finished image here becomes challenged ; her artworks become reflexive to the point of being vitally anthropophagist: experience turns into images, turns into artworks, turns into experience, and back into images. Through this course, Smith offers new interpretations of her surroundings and her own works by restricting the depth of field, offering unique perspectives rarely initiated by observers, and composing new relationships and cropping of works—seen in Untitled (Blood Pool) (1992), Untitled (Harpie) (2000), and Untitled (Lot’s Wife) (1994).

Although Brown’s exhibition thesis stresses what is on display here is Smith’s “independent” photographic practice, I found the most exciting moments in “I Myself Have Seen it” are revealed when photographic images are allowed to interact with the included videos, artist books, and sculptural installations. These moments of interrelation affirm Smith’s interdisciplinary practice and her use of photography for visionary rather than documentary means. Smith’s tendency to cannibalize her own artwork and experiences is demonstrated as she fluidly picks up one medium to probe deeper into another.

Installation view of "I Myself Have Seen It" at the Block Museum of Art.  Image courtesy of the artist and the Block Museum.


The photographic prints Untitled (Crow Wing) and Untitled (Crow Feet) (both 1995) image the original wax models of a crow’s body before being prepared for casting in the foundry. Rather than simply recording the casting process though, these wax works are displayed as still-lifes, drawing connections to other metamorphic works that include the avian wing and feet such as Smith’s Sirens and Harpies (2002). Drawing attention to the wings and feet of these animals, Jersey Crows (1995) is a collection of blackened bronze sculptures sprawled across a section of the gallery floor. Memorializing crows poisoned by pesticide in her hometown, this scene is eerily reminiscent of the recent in-air deaths of thousands of birds at the beginning of this year.

Above this sculptural installation, a collection of photographic prints also titled Jersey Crows (1997), reviews these sculptures redirecting the viewer's vantage point to ground level, alongside the fallen creatures. Here, the crows’ upward-reaching black feet and wings are accentuated against the white background, intensifying their fallen tragedy. The proximity of the photographic images with the sculptures, and the reappearance of crows throughout Smith’s work, shown within the small photographs along the exhibition’s perimeter, encourage the viewer to recognize Smith’s return to these creatures throughout her work.

“I Myself Have Seen It” provides an important addition to the understanding of Smith’s artistic practice by reintegrating the photographic practice long ignored due in part to media hierarchy. By declaring the centrality of Smith’s use of photography to her practice, art history’s understanding of Smith’s practice as just a sculptor or just a printmaker is consequentially disrupted. To paraphrase Smith, I really love the way exhibitions fuck up things unpredictably.


-Amelia Ishmael, Contributing ArtSlant Writer


Posted by Amelia Ishmael on 4/11/11

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20140219115531-mvi_6084a Congrats!
Fantastic review and in AS too. Nice job.

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