In January of 2006, I went to see the Kiki Smith exhibit at SF MOMA. I found the experience enriching and enlightening. Smith is, perhaps, best known for her provocative depictions of the female body — both in anatomical fragments and in full figure. She has also explores a broad range of other subjects, including religion, folklore, mythology, natural science, art history, and feminism. Birds,deer and other animals are common images in her work.
Although born in Germany, Kiki Smith, is considered an American feminist artist. Her Body Art is imbued with political significance, undermining the traditional erotic representations of women by male artists, and often exposes the inner biological systems of females as a metaphor for hidden social issues.
In works of art such as Born, Smith moves beyond the body to incorporate a complex personal symbolism, which addresses the role of humans (particularly women) in the wider context of nature and the universe.
This work is a representation of a small deer giving birth to a life-size woman. By presenting such an unusual subject in a classically modeled bronze sculpture, Smith both creates and thwarts expectations. The traditional style, technique, and material are at odds with the decidedly untraditional subject matter. Yet, similar imagery can be found in the mythology, folklore, and creation legends of many cultures. The deer has a rich and complex symbolic tradition surrounding it as well. In Classical Greek mythology, a deer accompanies Diana, Goddess of the Hunt. The Panche Indians of Colombia believe that human souls pass into the bodies of deer after death, and in many European traditions, the male deer is a symbol of renewal
One reason Smith is major is that she is fearless when it comes to materials, no matter how despised or humble. And, as the exhibit at SF MOMA showed quite clearly, she employs beeswax, glass, clay, fabric and paper toward astoundingly expressive ends.
There are distinct reasons for body parts and full-body casts, for representations of body fluids and eventually monsters, myths, and magical beasts. Everything she creates has a demanding purpose.
Smith, who never went to Yale, or Rhode Island School of Design, or Columbia Teachers College, or any other art school, never felt the need for a proper studio and to this day blends living and working. And, of course, when required she works at foundries, residencies and workshops. You are not expected to pour your own bronze or blow your own glass. Sewing and drawing is possible at home, as it were, but other forms of making are more specialized, and you need furnaces and people with specialized skills. Minimalism made outsourcing a visible part of its aesthetic. Kiki inherits that, but gives it her own, handmade twist.
If nothing else, one of Kiki Smith's great contributions to art culture is this fact: artists don't need big clean studios. Perhaps we can bury that requirement once and for all. If you can't imagine how an artwork will look in a gallery without an ersatz gallery to see it in, then you shouldn't be looking at art. Too often, dealers, curator, and collectors require the perfect white-walled studio, or they do not take the artist seriously -- even though all it means is a mommy or daddy who can come up with the bucks.
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As a woman in the art world, Smith is indeed strange and dreamy, with her mane of silver hair; but her art is deeper than fashion. What other artist do we know who, since Joseph Beuys, has attempted so much? She is a shaman.