Artist Kiki Smith: A Profile

Artist Kiki Smith is known for her use of female imagery and bold experimental sculptures. Laura Sydell visited the retrospective of Smith's work that is traveling the country, and offers this profile.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

American feminist artist Kiki Smith is best known for her graphic sculptures of the human body, particularly the female body. She's not a conventional artist, but her work is now the subject of a major retrospective making its way across the country. It'll end up at the Whitney Museum in New York.

NPR's Laura Sydell has a profile of Kiki Smith. And a warning: some descriptions of Smith's work may be disturbing to some listeners.

LAURA SYDELL: Sculptures of human bodies and body parts in their rawest forms figures prominently in the Kiki Smith retrospective. There are arms, legs, hearts, teeth, full figures made of wax, paper or bronze. One piece had the distinction of being singled out during the culture wars of the 1990s by none other than the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who called it simply disgusting. It's a beeswax sculpture of a woman crawling along the floor with a faux tail of feces trailing behind her. The work is called Tale, T-A-L-E. And Smith says she didn't make it out of a desire to provoke.

Ms. KIKI SMITH (Artist): The Tale piece was about kind of shame and humiliation about something - like that you're dragging this sort of internal personal garbage around with you all the time. And also the shame and humiliation of not being able to hide it, that it's so apparent in one's own being.

SYDELL: In the late 1980s and early '90s, Smith was dealing with the death of her sister and many of her friends from AIDS. So the struggles of the body were on her mind. Still, she wanted her work to go beyond that.

Another piece in the show includes two sculptures of a man and a woman hanging on tall stakes. One is dripping semen on his legs, and the other milk from her breasts. Smith says it's as if their life giving bodily fluids were being wasted.

Ms. SMITH: It was about being thwarted. It wasn't so much that I meant it really in a physical way. You know, I meant it more in a kind of psychological, psychic, spiritual way.

SYDELL: Smith's work is unabashedly feminist. She re-imagines traditional images of women. For example, Smith's sculpture, Lot's Wife, is a sympathetic portrayal of the biblical character, her sorrowful head turned back, covered in part with real salt. It evokes empathy from the viewer for Lot's wife, even if God punished her.

Ms. SMITH: God comes and says, go away from your people and your past. And she looks back to her past and her people. And I thought that seem more appropriate, not to abandon.

SYDELL: Given the nature of Smith's work, it might not be much of a surprise that the iconoclastic pop singer Madonna is a collector. In certain circles Smith is well known and even managed to get a mention in Showtime's groundbreaking series about lesbian life, The L Word. The character, Bette, an art world maven, loses her job and considers selling her Kiki Smith prints.

(Soundbite of "The L Word")

Ms. JENNIFER BEALS (Actor): (As Bette) No. No. Uh-uh. No. I don't want to sell my Kiki Smith. They were the first prints that I ever - how much?

SYDELL: At 52 years old, Smith is something of an elder stateswoman for younger woman artists. She was among the first women to be picked up by the blue chip gallery Pace Wildenstein, yet her personality and demeanor stand in stark contrast to the provocative nature of her work. On this day, she is wearing a pink embroidered shirt and loose-fitting black pants. With her tangle of long gray hair and floral tattoos, she has a kind of earth mother quality.

As she installed her show recently at the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston, she walked around the gallery offering gentle yet decisive instructions.

Unidentified Woman: What would you think if the MOMA...

Ms. SMITH: Let's put that right there.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah. I think that could actually be beautiful.

Ms. SMITH: I think that's nice.

SYDELL: While Smith's work may seem to challenge tradition, it also is very much grounded in it. She takes an afternoon break to visit the nearby Menil Collection, a Houston museum that shows everything from contemporary art to traditional African arts.

Ms. SMITH: Look at that on that.

Mr. CARL FUDGE (Artist): Hmm. Is that just part of the stone?

Ms. SMITH: I don't know what it is.

SYDELL: Smith and her friend, artist Carl Fudge, are looking through the African part of the collection. There are figures made of stone and carved wood embellished with shells, metals and semi-precious stones.

Ms. SMITH: I copied lots of these things, putting shells in eyes on drawings, or cutting up little bits of things and putting mica or shells on drawings.

SYDELL: Smith is equally influenced by Western traditions. Raised as a Catholic, she has always been fascinated with European and Mexican religious iconography. Her father was the famous minimalist sculpture Tony Smith. Among his friends and regular visitors to her home were Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Early on in her father's career they didn't have money, and so they lived in an old, sparsely furnished house in South Orange, New Jersey. Smith says she didn't want to be an artist. She wanted to design things.

Ms. SMITH: I grew up in a house with no furniture and abstract paintings. You know, so like I was really interested in like flower painted dishes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: Things like that. You know, like things like - like it was - not novel or exotic but different than my upbringing.

SYDELL: Smith's varied interests are reflected in both the style and substance of her art. Her sculptures have been made in everything from paper to bronze. She's done prints, drawings, paintings and several books, one just out by Kelsey Street Press. Smith's work also breaks with traditional ideas of what materials can be used to make great art, says Siri Engberg. Engberg is the curator of Visual Arts at the Walker Museum in Minneapolis, where Smith's current show originated.

Ms. SIRI ENGBERG (Curator, Walker Museum, Minneapolis): Her interest in materials, I think, is just so key to an understanding of her work, to know that there really isn't in her mind any hierarchy of materials. So a bronze sculpture for her is no more important than something made out of newspaper, or something that's been made as a drawing or a print. There's no medium more important than another. It's just what she happens to be interested in at the time.

SYDELL: But increasingly, Smith has grown interested in the natural world.

Ms. ENGBERG: Here's how I'm thinking. It could be here.

Ms. SMITH: Oh, rather than - so sectors are out now.

SYDELL: Curator Engberg and Smith continue to discuss the installation of the show, standing near a lyrical circle of bronze crows on the floor. The sculptures were inspired by an actual incident where a flock of birds fell down dead from the sky in New Jersey, presumably because of pollution.

Ms. SMITH: I thought, oh, this is a bad moment that these animals are dying like this. But it also made my work switch from being predominantly figurative to being more nature oriented.

SYDELL: But Smith is still taking familiar imagery and giving it a new twist. She got interested in fairy tales and did several images of the wolf in Red Riding Hood. There is a little girl in a cape in the show. But look closer, says curator Engberg.

Ms. ENGBERG: Her face is covered in hair. And it was actually kind of her re-imagining of what might happen if the wolf and Red Riding Hood were to have a child. And there are a lot of these re-imaginings of traditional stories that we think we recognize, and then realize we don't recognize those characters at all.

SYDELL: As she's gotten older, Smith says she is growing more interested in the environment and the world around her.

Ms. SMITH: The older you get, the less you're involved in your kind of internal, personal, psychic trauma or something and you're more just sort of being out and about and seeing your interrelatedness to other beings and to your environment.

LAURA SYDELL: Smith says she would like to do more work that is present in public spaces, the way the Mexican artists like Diego Rivera were involved in their communities. Given the power of her work to provoke, it's interesting to imagine what Smith might contribute to the public square.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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