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“I Myself Have Seen It”: Photography and Kiki Smith at the Tang; I (Too) Have Seen It, A Review

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Review of Kiki Smith’s “I Myself Have Seen It” at the Tang Museum

Photographic Representations by Kiki Smith

Kiki Smith: Untitled (Sleeping Witch)

Over the past three decades Kiki Smith has made a name for herself, making art in all forms, but she is best known for her sculptures and printmaking. She has been classified as a feminist artist, but her work’s subject matter spans a diverse array of topics as do her mediums.

Currently on exhibit at the Tang Museum is Smith’s I Myself Have Seen It, an exhibit of encyclopedic proportions, and the product of a decades-long collaboration with her friend and [exhibit] curator, Elizabeth Brown. The exhibit itself focuses on Smith’s legacy of work through photographic representation. And though photography has always been part of Smith’s working process, this is the first actual exhibit of her photographs.

The point of the immense undertaking was not to take staged portraits of her final products, but to transform the way they’ve originally been viewed. Covering thirteen walls of the Tang’s Wachenheim Gallery, continuing to the atrium, mezzanine and second floor print room, I spent over an hour immersed in the bewildering, but strangely enticing, artistic and photographic mind of Kiki Smith. Paired with Smith’s larger photos, which are strategically placed around the gallery, are over 5,000+ snapshots lining the bottom of the gallery’s walls. The majority of these are nature-based in theme, suggesting where Smith’s ideas derive from.

Kiki Smith: SirensFree of the constraints of sculpture or printmaking, the 100 large scale prints explore Smith’s working process, showing sculptures and projects at different stages and perspectives and blurring the boundaries between drawing, printmaking and sculpture.

Each area of the exhibit explores a different aspect of Smith’s work, encompassing a variety of themes – life, death and the natural world; fragility of the body (physically and mentally); vulnerability of childhood and the transition into adult sexuality, as well as the notion of narrative as seen through the recreation of myths and fairy tales.

The first series of photographs that caught my eye deal with a fairytale we all know: Little Red Riding Hood. In Smith’s case, think more Brothers Grimm, less Disney, but even in the Brothers’ story, the tale was much tamer. Two photographs – one of a blurry, red caped figure looking away and the other of little feet, the cape and a crinkled dress bring forth images of a beautiful and naive Little Red Riding Hood. But as a third photograph of chest hair will allude and a fourth of a freakish-furry face will confirm, the wolf didn’t eat Red Riding Hood, but the two have merged to become one. The photographs are of Smith’s 1999 sculpture, Daughter. Its name would suggest the sculpture is the progeny of the Wolf and Red Riding Hood. The relationship of Red Riding Hood and the wolf has long been examined, from being one based on rape and violence, with the wolf as the male and seducer.

On the other side of the gallery is another fairy tale recreation, Untitled (Sleeping Witch), in which Smith is the subject. She is cloaked in black, lying in a clearing of gold and green leaves; she is surrounded by an overturned basket of black apples, clutching one in her hand. Turning the tables on the story of Sleeping Beauty, has the witch consumed her own poisoned fruit?

Pool of Tears II (after Lewis Carroll) follows the Sleeping Witch, and the image drew me in immediately. Smith’s etching with watercolor seems to be inspired by Carroll’s illustrations from the long out-of-print, manuscript version of Alice in Wonderland (Alice’s Adventures under Ground). In the print, Alice is struggling in a pool of her own tears to get away from the animals. Birds of all kinds- including the dodo, ducks, a goose, owl, rat and monkey, follow closely behind. The 14+ birds and other animals included on the etching must have been fun for Smith to create, because I’ve done a little etching myself, and it would seem to be the perfect medium for completing the furry and feathery carvings.

Kiki Smith: Untitled III Upside Down BodyThe folktale interpretations took up only a small piece of Smith’s exhibit. Going back to the entrance of the gallery, you are promptly met with a sculpture in the middle of the room. A bronzed woman bent over, surrounded by a net of hundreds of silver beads make up the 1993 sculpture, Upside Down Body with Beads. In yoga, the move is called a Standing Forward Bend, but the bronze woman does not give off the sense that she is athletically bending, but doubled-over. The sculpture is paired with large-scale photographs of the sculpture’s blurred feet, a section of the beads and a portion of the naked woman.

The display I found to be the most interesting was entitled White Mammals. Seven small, ceramic animals lay individually splayed on a wooden board in a row, each with its corresponding etching above it. The three mice, rat, seal, plump rabbit and squirrel look like the subjects of a laboratory experiment. I did not find the images unsettling, but intriguing. In my opinion the majority of Smith’s exhibit and subject matter are just that – intriguing and require a second, or even multiple look. Upon first glance many of her images seem grotesque and while they are meant to produce such an emotion, what you see is not necessarily what you get. For example, one series of photographs (of Harpies) focus in on what looks like red, bloodied feet, surrounded by blood spatters. You can see that the feet and two heads in the background are indeed sculptures covered in wax, but the effect is still an eerie one.

Kiki Smith: HarpiesAcross from the septuplicate of mammals, the focus remains on animals. There is a small screen with a video looping of a dog, horse and deer in motion. The animations belong to English photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s 1870s photographic sequences, which were the earliest examples of stop-motion photography. Sharing the wall with the video are numerous photographs of animals and winter landscapes. Stuffed owls, snow rabbits, and an antelope stand frozen in their taxidermic state and natural habitats. A photograph of pink pelicans playing in water is paired with another of their feet tacked onto a board. The juxtaposition of life and death is palpable.

A nearby display case holds a glass crab and globe, just another example of the array of mediums you’ll see throughout the exhibit. As you follow framed photographs up the wall you’ll also see little black statues perched upon the gallery walls. You won’t see the Sirens at first, but once you’re aware of them, the human heads with bird bodies will follow you around the exhibit.

Through the careful photographing of her work, Smith can control where the observers’ eyes are drawn, and from there, individual interpretations can be made. Through the meticulously made choices of what to display, the exhibit is Smith’s conscientious survey of her entire body of work. It is by no means all encompassing but I think you’ll get the idea of who and what her art is about. Luckily the exhibit runs through December 30, because you could visit the exhibit three times and still find something new to try to decipher each time.

The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum, is open Tuesday-Sunday 12pm to 5pm and Thursday until 9pm.

Aubree Cutkomp is an Assistant Editor for The George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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