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ART : The Art of the Body Part : Sculptor Kiki Smith has found success in the art world without really trying with her defiantly feminist body politics

<i> Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar. </i>

There was much clucking of tongues last fall when the New York Times Magazine ran a laudatory profile of New York mega-dealer Arne Glimcher of the Pace-Wildenstein Gallery. There was Glimcher on the cover surrounded by his stable of talent--all of them solidly established male artists on the downside of 50. Pace, a notorious bastion of male chauvinism, built its foundation largely through representing Louise Nevelson during the ‘70s but hadn’t taken on a woman artist since Agnes Martin joined the gallery in the mid-'70s.

In light of that, it came as a bit of surprise last month when Glimcher decided to throw his weight behind 40-year-old New York sculptor Kiki Smith. Not only is she a woman, but she makes intensely emotional, defiantly feminine art that’s markedly at odds with the generally ultra-cool Pace aesthetic.

“Every so often an extraordinary artist happens, and Kiki’s one of them,” Glimcher says of Smith, who since 1990 has shown locally with the Shoshana Wayne Gallery. “Her work is resonating very powerfully in the culture right now because it’s intensely personal. . . . Kiki’s work isn’t the product of a system or school--it’s about her.”

Smith is inarguably the toast of the town at the moment, but all it takes is a brief conversation with her to deduce that she’s singularly lacking in the careerist instincts one assumes are mandatory if one wants to play hardball with the big boys in the upper echelons of the art world.

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“I’m just a hippie, and the work I make is totally sentimental and schlocky,” Smith cheerfully points out during an interview in the bar of a Santa Monica hotel. Smith, the subject of an exhibition at the University Art Museum at UC Santa Barbara on view through April 17, scored her first solo show just five years ago and seems to regard the fact that she’s currently hailed as one of the most influential artists of her generation with a mixture of incredulity and delight.

“I don’t know where my career came from--it’s a miracle,” says the artist, who reportedly decided to leave her dealer of 10 years, Joe Fawbush, and relocate to Pace on the advice of her astrologer. “I don’t even know that I wanted it--it just happened.”

Smith’s career is indeed happening--she was lauded as one of the few redeeming presences in last year’s otherwise much-maligned Whitney Biennial, and prices for her major works currently hover around $75,000. The reasons for Smith’s ascent are easy to trace. For starters, she takes the human body as her central theme, and at the moment the body is the subject in art (this could have to do with the fact that baby boomers, hard hit by the politics of abortion and the AIDS epidemic, are now middle-aged and are looking death in the face for the first time).

Exploring ideas concerning mortality and the body first introduced by Joseph Beuys and Bruce Nauman, Smith’s work presents the body as a politicized arena in which the great battles of culture and humanity are waged.

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Her sculpture, however, differs from most current militant body art by virtue of its unabashed lyrical edge; Smith is an unrepentant romantic, and whereas her colleagues cultivate a clinical edge in their art, she inflects hers with mysticism and the heavy perfume of Surrealism. In a sense, her art can be read as a reaction to dominant art-world trends of the ‘80s, when irony ruled supreme, money and power was the name of the game, and art was big, slick and often produced assembly-line fashion.

The mark of the artist’s hand is front and center in Smith’s sculpture, which is fashioned out of a diverse range of materials, including exotic papers, beads, salt, tin, beeswax, cloth, human hair, glass and bronze.

Ideologically, Smith’s work is painfully human, direct and free of irony. Her imagery, focusing on the body’s failures and traumas, as opposed to an eroticized idealization, has been described as morbid by some who squirm at evocations of bodily fluids, fetuses and mammary glands.

Included in the Santa Barbara exhibition, overseen by museum curator Liz Brown, is “Train,” a 1993 life-size wax figure of a female nude with a spray of red beads trailing from her vagina. A few feet away is “Zweite Auswahl (Second Choice),” a 1987 work of ceramic and bronze that is essentially a bowl of human organs, and “Untitled (Red Man),” from 1991, a life-size human form cast in paper; the arms and head have been torn loose and laid in front of the torso, which is tacked to the wall like a forlorn, deflated balloon. The room fairly pulsates with intimations of mortality.

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“My body has always treated me well--I’ve hardly been sick at all--but despite that, I don’t have a good relationship with my body,” says Smith, a tall, exotic woman who tends to dress in black, sports several tattoos and has an ethereal air that is at odds with the challenging art she makes. “I wasn’t raised to have a relationship with my body at all, and maybe it’s because I’m not very physically conscious that I make the work I do. I think of myself as sort of floating and have to make an effort to think about the body because I’m not in it enough.”

So precisely what is on her mind as far as thinking about the body these days?

“Well, certain body parts don’t hold as much meaning for me--I never really cared much about brains, for instance,” she says with a laugh. “There are other body parts that seem used up--hearts, for example; there are zillions of images of hearts around--so that’s something I avoid. As to what body parts are most compelling to me, that changes all the time.

“At the moment I’ve been thinking a lot about the back of the knee--it’s such a sexy spot--and I’ve been thinking about parts of the body where there’s no fat and the skin is very thin. The skin between the upper leg and the abdomen, at the back of the knee, and under the arms is very vulnerable and thin, and maybe people fly in and out of your body there--maybe those are entry points. These areas of the body remind me of Santos figures popular in the Philippines, where the trunk and extremities are carved out of wood and the joints are made of cloth.”

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Religious art--particularly the medieval sculpture of southern Germany--is a major influence on Smith, who was born in Nuremberg, Germany, and raised Catholic. More significant than Smith’s religious training, however, was the cultural milieu she grew up in. As the daughter of opera singer Jane Wilson and the rigorously pure proto-Minimalist sculptor Tony Smith, she was raised in a world where “art was never separated out from life--it was just part of it.”

Tony Smith, an internationally acclaimed sculptor credited with having served as a crucial link between ‘50s Abstract Expressionism and Minimalist art of the ‘60s, was also represented by the Pace Gallery before his death in 1980--which, coincidentally or not, also happens to be the year when Smith discovered the body as the ideal vehicle for the things she wanted to express in her work.

“Prior to my father’s death I was having a hard time committing to a career as an artist, but that’s not because of who he was--it was because of who I am,” she points out. “It’s true, though, that I felt I shouldn’t compete with him and that those feelings went away after he died. But I don’t see my work as diametrically opposed to my father’s--some people say it is--and I’ve never felt the need to metaphorically ‘kill’ my father or deny his existence. I love my father’s work and I learned a lot from him--the most important thing being that art is a practice of necessity. He absolutely had to do his work and it always came first in his life, and though I probably didn’t like that as a child, I’m very sympathetic to it now.”

Smith grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, the eldest of three girls. She describes her childhood as “not quite normal.”

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“I was raised to do nothing,” she says, laughing. “I don’t know what my parents had in mind, but I had no ambition whatsoever. I practically flunked out of high school, then enrolled in trade school and studied baking because I thought I’d do manual labor the rest of my life. After baking school I went to live in San Francisco, but it was too lackadaisical for me--everybody was smoking pot, which I never liked, and being from the East Coast, I wanted to do something. Lounging around in nice weather didn’t make sense to me, so I left after a year.”

From there, Smith enrolled at the Hartford Art School in Connecticut, but she dropped out after a year and a half. She finally rolled into Manhattan in 1976 planning to go to art school, but “after I dropped my portfolio off at the School of Visual Arts, I never went back to pick it up because I was afraid they wouldn’t let me in. Then a friend told me, ‘You don’t have to go to school--you can just be an artist,’ and that seemed more appealing than finding out whether I’d been accepted at school.”

From there, Smith embarked on the perfunctory series of odd jobs--she was employed by a factory where she airbrushed clouds and starbursts onto dresses, worked as a bartender, a short-order cook and an electrician--and hung out on the fringes of New York’s then-burgeoning punk scene.

“I had my hair cut off and wore ripped T-shirts,” recalls Smith, who plugged away at her art when she wasn’t at a day job. At the time she was making dolls and teapot cozies, life-size canoe sculptures and paintings of guitars. “For a year I drew a pack of cigarettes to teach myself perspective.”

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In 1979 Smith fell in with a group of artists known as Colab (short for Collaborative Projects) that includes Robin Winters, Tom Otterness and Jane Dickson, and began to make body-related artworks that were included in group shows. With the death of her father the following year, the themes of death and the body became increasingly prominent in her work, and she embarked on a course of research that included three months of emergency medical training in 1983.

“I’d been making things about the body that were totally subjective, and I thought it would be interesting to be in a situation where the agenda with the body was different,” she says of the experience. “What I discovered was that I basically wasn’t interested in the physical healing of things.

“I also went to some schools to look at dead bodies, but the more I did that, the more it distressed me. At first I was thrilled to get to see what bodies really look like, but then I began to be offended by the situation. Seeing people chopped up with their brains pulled out--yes, it’s interesting, and yes, I’ve used it in my work, but still . . . we don’t really know where consciousness resides. What parts could you lose and still think of yourself as yourself?”

With the AIDS epidemic gathering momentum during the ‘80s, the issue of mortality occupied an increasingly important role in art; it became all but unavoidable for Smith in 1988 when her younger sister Bebe Smith died of the disease. (Smith’s other sister, Seton Smith--Bebe’s twin--is also an artist and lives in Paris).

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“AIDS has critically affected my life, and yes, I have done work about it, but I don’t like to think of my work as being specifically about things,” Smith says in response to the fact that the critique that has developed around her work often pivots on the AIDS epidemic.

Reflecting on how she sees her work evolving, Smith says her interest in the body seems to have shifted “from a fascination with the inside of the body and internal processes to the outside of the body.”

“Having people accept my work has been really beneficial, and proved to me that a little bit of nurturing goes a long way,” she says. “My earlier work was much cooler and relied conceptually on language--I wanted to hide behind the idea that the work was about concepts as opposed to being about me. As I gain more confidence, I see my work becoming more true to my real nature and growing increasingly decorative--I’ve always loved decorative things and see my work as residing somewhere between decorative art and fine art.

“As to where it’s going next, I don’t know if I want to make work about the body for the rest of my life--an artist’s work is always changing, and I don’t have any control over the way it changes. My work has always been super-autobiographical, and it’s always the result of me trying to figure out some question that’s prominent in my mind--I don’t expect that to change. In fact, some pieces are so personal that it’s hard for me to put them out into the world. I’m a fairly secretive person in my intimate relationships with people, and the essential challenge of my work is that it forces me to expose myself. One of the things I keep learning from art is that it’s OK to put yourself out there and trust life.”

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Among the six new works included in the show at Santa Barbara (the bulk of the exhibition is drawn from California collections) is “Untitled (Roses),” a life-size cast-aluminum figure of a woman with a thicket of roses blooming from her spine.

“I’m terrified to show this work--it’s a highly sentimental piece about self-appreciation,” Smith says, “and it has to do with my belief that when a person is in love with you, they give you space to bloom in. I wanted to make something overtly romantic, but because of the roses this piece feels really vulnerable. For the last few years I’ve wanted to use flowers in my work, but artists tend to be punished for using flowers, probably because they’ve come to be associated with women.

“There’s so much deeply internalized hatred for women and for anything associated with the feminine in this society--it’s like this endless onion and you can just keep peeling back the layers of hatred. I’m often amazed that when I really examine something dismissed as unimportant to us as a culture, it turns out to be somehow associated with women.

“Women’s bodies have always been given an eroticized depiction in art,” she adds, elaborating further on her interpretation of the female form, “but I don’t present it that way, because unfortunately, that’s not as big a part of my life as it should be.

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“There’s this mythical history of legions of women who lounge around naked, and I wish I could do more of that,” she says with a laugh, “but I have to go feed the cat or do some work. So my work presents what I guess you could call a more realistic depiction of women’s bodies in the world.

“That seems like a worthwhile thing to do too, because it seems to me that ideally, the way art should function in society is it should make more space for people’s lives.”


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