Art review: Kiki Smith show is a peek into a mind, plenty of matter
Seattle's Henry Art Gallery offers a vast and varied exploration of a New York artist's work in "I Myself Have Seen It: Photography and Kiki Smith."
Seattle Times arts writer
'I Myself Have Seen It: Photography and Kiki Smith'11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Aug. 15, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle; $6-$10 (206-543-2280 or www.henryart.org).
Entering "I Myself Have Seen It: Photography and Kiki Smith" is less like visiting an art exhibit than inhabiting an artist's mind — an artist's hectic, multifocused, densely populated mind. There are, literally, hundreds of works in the show teeming across the walls and along the baseboards of the Henry Art Gallery's North Galleries. Photographs dominate, but sculptures, etchings and videos are also on display.
Smith is known primarily as a sculptor, working in a variety of materials: bronze, glass, ceramics, foam, paper, wax and even, in one instance, an unstable mixture of plaster and salt (depicting, aptly enough, Lot's wife). Most of "I Myself Have Seen It" concentrates on Smith's photographic explorations of her sculptural work in images that consistently employ unorthodox camera angles and focuses. As Henry Art Gallery Chief Curator Elizabeth Brown writes in her fine book that accompanies the exhibit, "Kiki Smith: Photographs" (Henry Art Gallery/Prestel, 207 pp., $49.95), Smith, rather than documenting her sculptural work, is "devouring and reprocessing" it in her photos.
Brown has done an admirable job of organizing the exhibit into thematic groupings: "Nature," "Narrative," etc. Each grouping is anchored by actual sculptures linked to one or many of the photographs in each group.
In one gallery, for instance, a photographic triptych, "Jersey Crows" (1997), takes as its subject Smith's 1995 installation of 27 life-size bronze crows, three of which are on display in the gallery. The birds are realistic enough in detail for them to read as "real" in the photographs, and Smith imparts additional life to the photos with a "jump-cut" effect she uses in each two-part panel of the triptych.
These split focuses and contrasting depths of field, however, make the photo-triptych "move" in a way that's in curious conflict with its subject — for the bronze sculptures depict crows that are lifeless. ("The subject was prompted by a news report of dead crows falling from the sky in New Jersey," Brown tells us.)
The contradictions between sculptures and the photographs they generate can be still more complex and ambiguous. Early wax castings of sculptures are, in a certain studio light and at certain lens angles, incredibly fleshlike. And even finished bronze figures seem to "acquire" a heightened emotional intensity when the camera's focus is on the eyes, lips or hands. Photos of taxidermy specimens in "natural" settings — a bunny in the snow, a young polar bear in an Arctic landscape — play just as skillfully with illusory lifelike effects.
Not every photo series or photo collage has a sculptural counterpart. One of Smith's most playful offerings in "I Myself Have Seen It" is her "Sleeping Witch" series: staged photographs, some in color, some in black-and-white, with Smith herself playing the witch. Clad in black, she slumbers on a bed of autumn leaves as her poisonous apples — a glossy black — roll away from her. Here and elsewhere, photo collages suggest the kinetic qualities of the subject at hand. ("I like implied movement better than movement, I guess," Smith has admitted.)
On a more visceral level, Smith's focus on anatomy — gristle, fat, sinews, splayed limbs — is a key element of the show. In her continual improvisations and intuitive associations, she goes from flesh-as-meat fundamentals to the dreamlike realms of the fairy tale with a click of the camera.
The most moving sculpture in the exhibit may be "Untitled III: Upside-Down Body with Beads" (1993). But Smith's photographs of it spin variations that are more eloquent still, emphasizing the figure's strength, vulnerability and more.
There's no way to cover all the facets of this show or the innumerable ways that Smith's photographs expand and toy with her work in other media. You simply have to see and get lost in it yourself.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com
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