According to the blurb in the SU Art Galleries’ newsletter,
Artist Kiki Smith has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions worldwide, featured at five Venice Biennales, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among her many honors is the recognition by TIME Magazine as one of the “TIME 100: The People Who Shape Our World.”
She is a living legend in the art world, a kind of giant, a dichotomy of sorts because in person she really is quite delicate looking with slender features. Her hands in particular, which seem a stark contrast to the sort of macabre drawings they produce. Kiki Smith is my favorite artist’s favorite artist. I read that somewhere decades ago. Jasper Johns is famously tight-lipped to disclose the inner workings of his mind. Smith is similarly private. The language with which gallery director Domenic Iacono uses to describe Smith’s prolific career’s trajectory reminds me of this thing I read by a dating coach who insists women must keep men off-balance by speaking gibberish, like saying one thing and flipping it on its side to keep them guessing, lol. Not to say that his words are not an accurate portrayal.
Yes, I saw immediately via Smith’s slide presentation on Thursday evening, February 15, 2018 in the lecture hall adjacent to the gallery in Shaffer Art Building at Syracuse University how the work relates to life from birth to death and how that relationship is reproduced in a type of modern allegory. It’s just that the description gives the impression that the artist set out to make particular meaning in her work, that there was clear and deliberate intent to be a crusader of issues or whatever. And so, this presentation was like a breath of fresh air to me because it wasn’t what I expected at all.
There were around (or over) three hundred people in attendance, many of whom students searching for a road map to art success, a short-cut maybe despite their unique circumstances. Penny Santy, Laurel Morton and I had a different experience.
She said, “I don’t know” a lot. My friends and I responded to the realness of her being. Kind of reminded me of the Star Trek TNG movie where they time-travelled to meet the guy who invented warp drive. How they had studied him in school and expected him to be a type of god only to find him to have the same sort of trials and tribulations as any one of us.
Smith sat in a corner until she was introduced then raced up and got caught up in the microphone’s battery, which messed up her hair and caused her to flop into position and, while struggling with the technology, to utter, “I’m totally discombobulated.”
You can hear my laugh in a large group situation. I really should get a job sitting in the audience during the taping of TV sit-coms. It was this unexpected sort of absentminded normalcy that I fell in love with. Because Kiki Smith was not there to teach us to be like her or offer advice on the inner workings of the international art world or art super-stardom.
She was here to share her art. It was her focus on the specific and unique problem solving issues related to art material and rudimentary technique that propelled her journey, which if plotted probably resembles a scribble rather than a connect-the-dot drawing.
Some people think or expect that you should make the same kinds of art forever because it creates a convenient narrative…I want my work to embody my inherent contradictions.
Art, she said, is not meant to be permanent and neither are we. It is simply a thing we can do to make our marks. It passes the time. You can sell it or give it away to friends. This despite also indicating that 90% of her art is self-owned and in storage, which most of us can relate to, lol. She acknowledged that she was priveleged; she mentioned her father several times as well-known sculptor Tony Smith. She said she was a college drop-out who had an inkling to become a baker and chef but never really learned to cook. So she began to experiment with cheap or rather, non-archival art materials to sort of replicate the braid strands in challah bread and from that her artwork evolved through the evolution of several decades to sculpture, jewelry making, tapestry and stained glass via printmaking.
My father was a baker and chef so I was amused by this. The internet is littered with people who chastise her, thinking her success is solely attributed to her father’s connections and not to her talent, creativity and attitude. Had she and I been flipped at birth, I can safely say that her self-proclaimed lack of culinary skills would not be in jeopardy. Parents raise you – they do not do the work for you. Everyone knows that. You and you alone create your life.
Her journey has taken the New Jersey native around the globe – to Germany to paint on glass, Iceland where the tapestries take years to manufacture and, as mentioned, to Venice, Italy several times for the Biennales. She has even worked on and off as an adjunct professor at NYU and Columbia! It was a sort of Alice in Wonderland type story where help became available when needed. Experts in their fields there to assist in creating the vision so that she could maintain the integrity of her mark-making, revisit old drawings and turn, turn, turn leaving no stone unturned – flipping everything on its axis until an idea had/has been fully explored.
It was this part that I just loved. Naturally, the point to me is meaning. Not meaning in her work, more like, the meaning of my own life. I saw the seemingly disparate dreams I have come together. I saw my own path and how I got to where I am. I am a dreamer first and foremost. That is abundantly clear to me.
A writer, an artist, fashion designer, teacher, friend. And within these categories, sub-categories (in the case of my art, I am across the board with watercolor, collage, encaustic and all that). But I do see how it is all related and that is a beautiful thing.
I am so grateful I had the chance to meet Kiki Smith and selfie with her too, of course! It truly is all about our personal journeys. We are all exploring the body, the muse and the spirit in an experimental way. Smith relayed the bit about how her mother’s passing, as well as the death of a beloved cat affected her work while I have sort of been hibernating all winter, I guess you could say, dealing with my own thoughts of mortality.
Many of you know that I have been absent from work. I have another month of healing from a medical thingy and that includes slowly getting back to exercising in a couple of weeks and venturing outside my little corner of the universe. Before you get all freaky with the I’m sorry-ies, I am totally fine. Trying to be private and like, kind of forgetting that people have noticed that I have been out of the public eye. I mean, I put myself here so there it is.
I am discombobulated in my own way, but I decided that instead of hiding from the world entirely or walking around with a dumb old grimace on my face, I will choose to smile. Smith said sometimes she is thinking about some weird murder movie while making art. She doesn’t want people knowing what is going on inside her brain. I tend to agree with the limits of what should and should not be revealed. People are going to believe what they want to believe and say things about you and/or about your art and it really is not anything you can control. But you can/I can control my own experience and I choose happiness.
So grateful to her – an amazing artist – for coming to our neck of the woods to be herself in such an inspirational way. We are all here together, in the land of the living, and that is a precious thing. I appreciate the love I know I feel from friends, family, students and readers of this web-site. All of you have shaped my world and I appreciate you all very much. <3
Kiki Smith and Paper: The Body, the Muse, and the Spirit was curated by Wendy Weitman and is here courtesy of Oklahoma State University Museum of Art until March 9, 2018. Visit www.suart.syr.edu for more information about the SU Art Galleries including hours of operation.