The speaker in this case is a middle aged witch, me, tangled on my two great arms, my face in a book, and my mouth wide open, ready to tell you a story or two.
-- Anne Sexton, Transformations (1971)
The New York artist Kiki Smith, whose graphic works and multiples are currently on view at MoMA QNS, is the art world's own vivisectionist. Her favorite subject is her own body, with its organs and fluids, more likely than not in some state of decay. But she also entertains questions of life and death, tales of the deep woods and ancient times, and visions of the stars and the cosmos.
Museum of Modern Art prints and drawing curator Wendy Weitman has filled the spartan galleries of MoMA QNS with more than 150 works in a broad range of mediums -- lithographs, photogravures, artist's books, posters, screen-printed fabric works and sculptural multiples. This potpourri of artistic activity is organized into five categories: early screenprints, anatomy, self-portraits, nature, and something dubbed "feminine contexts."
In the 1980s, Smith produced didactic protest posters, morbidly decorated scarves and dresses, and gory little artifacts like severed fingers cast in painted plaster and packs of cigarettes crafted from chunks of lumber. Many of these items were made for Collaborative Projects (Colab), the SoHo-based artist group that specialized in cheap, accessible, often political art. Though today they seem more like downtown activist kitsch than stuff that belongs in a museum, these pieces expose the humble roots to Smith's more subtle and compelling handcraft.
Smith's way with her materials can be seen in her cast glass works from the 1980s -- inadequately represented in a show that omits unique sculptures -- and in her etchings and block prints on fine papers. Smith has made a signature body of work on membrane-thin handmade paper, often with images and patterns that look crocheted or embroidered, a clear link to woman's work. Smith's distinctively strained drawing style is labored and girlish, reminiscent of sketches by the Pre-Raphaelite muse and nave painter Elizabeth Siddall (a figure who has been resurrected by feminist scholars).
"Feminine contexts" is a clumsy term designed to encompass Smith's interest in a pantheon of female archetypes culled from literature, history and fairytales. For instance, her "Blue Prints," a series of book-sized etchings, includes a disarmingly stern Virgin Mary, a Victorian child as prim as a Madame Alexander doll, and a mystified Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Oddly, the Wolf Girl, looking like Laura Ingalls Wilder under a curse, has a sweet welcoming smile. For Smith, the deformity that desexualizes her liberates her as well.
"Anatomy" is filled with lovingly presented images of severed body parts. Smith rejects the scientific sterility of medicine and empathetically represents our intuitive, often fearful and fascinated relationship to our bodies and their anti-social emissions and secretions. An early etching depicts an ovum covered in protective cells seen in a dense black void, while Untitled (Kidneys) (1995) shows two blue and red kidney shapes -- printed with pieces of cut potato -- floating in the center of a blank piece of Nepalese paper.
Tail (1997) is a palm-sized cut-glass multiple of a tail-bone that is as pretty and fragile as ice, while Finger Bowl (1986/1996) is a sizeable vessel made of layers of fingers cast in sterling silver. Even the leafy Kiki Smith wallpaper mounted in the hallway leading to the exhibition is eerily peachy and smooth, as if it was tattooed skin rather than painted fabric.
Sometimes, Smith's work takes on Wiccan overtones, seeming distressingly similar to earth-goddess fantasies. Moons (1993) is Smith's abstracted imprint of her breasts printed on crumbled Nepalese paper, and Untitled (Pink Bosoms) (1990-2) is a series of hot pink cartoon prints of nipples squirting milk. In Untitled (Doily Drawing) (1994), she added dainty vaginas to delicate lace-patterns, and in Untitled (Blue Blanket) (1994) she rubberstamped impressions of little blue vaginas floating with butterflies on a blanket of Nepalese paper.
In works like these, women's body parts are congruent with the earth. Similarly, even in the sentimental context of an embroidery sampler, Smith draws women's genitals as working organs, the hairy, practical products of nature.
The show also features Smith's drawings of animals. "I got tired of drawing people," she once said. Without coy or cutesy anthropomorphism, she intimately and respectfully represents a menagerie of familiars, from cats and birds to ferrets and peacocks.
It all falls apart, however, in the section devoted to her self-portraits. "It is endlessly amusing to make yourself horrific-looking," she said in the show's handsome catalogue. Now, ten years after Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth, Smith's self-portraits appear vulgar, childish and shrill. Smith, who is an attractive woman, crafts photographs of her body into a giant portrait of a worm, dangling a row of paper heads printed with her features from fishing wire. My Blue Lake (1995) is a nightmarishly compelling vision of her skin peeled and pressed out across the page, while the wall-size Banshee Pearls (1991) is an incoherent soup of imagery and emotion.
It is troubling that Smith reevaluates girlhood cultural icons with great insight but restricts her investigation of adult feminine identity to illustrating beauty insecurity. Artists like Hannah Wilke, Eleanor Antin and Tracey Emin also portray themselves in all their flesh-and-mucous reality. But their examination of beauty in contemporary culture reflects their moral, political and social awareness, whereas Smith seems like she is playing around with costumes and tricks.
"Kiki Smith: Prints, Books, and Things," Dec. 5, 2003-Mar. 8, 2004, at MoMA QNS, 33rd Street at Queens Boulevard, Long Island City, Queens, N.Y. 11101