During her packed talk at Kane Hall last Thursday night, feminist artist Kiki Smith joked that her new photography exhibition, opening at the Henry Art Gallery this weekend, has been more involved than anything else she's worked on. That's a pretty astonishing statement coming from a world-renowned sculptor, a MacDowell Medal winner who has been in the Whitney Biennial multiple times, and someone who has spent the last three decades collaborating with other artists, experimenting with a wide variety of materials, and orchestrating hundreds of installations in museums and galleries all over the world.
I Myself Have Seen It: Photography & Kiki Smith is the product of a decades-long collaboration between Smith and Elizabeth Brown, the Henry's chief curator, who called Smith up one night 20 years ago with an idea for a photography project.
It's a huge undertaking, and exciting that it's launching here in Seattle. "We're grappling with an entire body of work by a major American artist that hasn't been studied yet," says Brown, who estimates that the pair considered something like 80,000 pieces as they were putting the show together.
Smith is primarily known for her sculptures—some human, some animal, some a combination of the two—that have subverted the tradition of figurative sculpture. Although she's best known for creating new versions of myths and folk tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella), especially about women, in sculpture, drawing, and installation, she works across mediums (etchings, screenprinting on fabrics, metal work, glass), and advocates against the idea of a hierarchy of materials for art. Photography is part of this cross-material experimentation, and it has been a consistent thread in her work.
"I'm always interested in serial narrative," said Smith on Thursday, describing the way that photography interacts with her studio practice, and how it works in the show. "It's me photographing my own work, or snapshots I would put together like movies and send to friends."
These "ganged photos," including snapshots glued together to form a narrative, self-published books (one poetry book has a correction in blue highlighter: "this needs more work"), and collages, are probably the most personal and the most generous pieces in the show. Much of this work was made for friends, and in that sense we see the most essential and personal use of photography in her creative process.
The show is organized thematically, with each gallery representing a different way that photography has informed and interacted with Smith's work. Each gallery includes sculptures and etchings from different periods of her work, with framed snapshots along the floorboards and larger framed photographs on the wall. The photographs are arranged in a way that suggests Smith's process as she's creating her work.
For example, one of the corners of the gallery themed "studio practice: nature" has three sculptures from 1995's Crows. Above them are large framed photographs of the crow sculptures as they were being installed, along with as photographs of live crows. The sculptures of dead crows are scattered in the corner on the floor (as they were in the original show) and along the floorboard behind them is a row of snapshots: an old house, the artist in the studio, a man, crows, a Buddhist temple, pancakes.
In the center of the main gallery, there's a sculpture of a woman, bending over (this is from Upside Down Body with Beads, 1993). Smith's Sirens and Harpies (2002), figures of bird bodies with women's heads, are placed on ledges around the room, looking down on the installation. On the walls are photographs of these works in process—the birds' feet, the upside down body's legs, the plaster heads of the sirens, the artist herself.
This mass of more than 1,000 snapshots, etchings, prints, and sculptures shows the evolution of Smith's work over time in a way that a retrospective can't. It isn't just a matter of seeing a photograph that was used as a model for a sculpture, or seeing a record of her installations, though that's certainly part of it. Add to that snapshots of trips she took, people she saw, the studio, photos of works in progress. Walking through the galleries, you get a tiny sense, if that's even possible, of walking through the artist's mind.
I Myself Have Seen It: Photography & Kiki Smith runs through August 15.
(Kiki Smith photo by Robert Wade via the hankblog.)