Blue Girl (detail), 1998
Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York
Photo: Ellen Page Wilson
© Kiki Smith
Kiki Smith’s art runs the gamut of themes, from mythology and folklore to feminism, science, and the natural world. But in an interview with Art 21, it’s her discussion of the religion of her childhood that most grabs me, and not just because, like Smith, I was raised Catholic. I’ve long pondered the row of churches across the street from the Walker, and the “mysteries” that both art and religion ponder. And I’ve thought about how the object orientation of Catholicism had distinct parallels with the charged objects we show in the galleries (lining up in elementary school to kiss the bloody feet of a crucified ceramic Jesus during Lent seemed to suggest that the object isn’t what matters, just as a canvas slashed by Italian artist Lucio Fontanta is about the action as much as the embodiment). Smith (who visits the Walker on February 26 to open Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005) sums this idea up well:
It’s one of my loose theories that Catholicism and art have gone well together because both believe in the physical manifestation of the spiritual world, that it’s through the physical world that you have spiritual life, that you have to be here physically in a body. You have all this interaction with objects, with rosaries and medals. It believes in the physical world. It’s a thing’ culture.
It’s also about storytelling in that sense, about reiterating over and over and over again these mythological stories about saints and other deities that can come and intervene for you on your behalf. All the saints have attributes that are attached to them and you recognize them through their iconography. And it’s about transcendence and transmigration, something moving always from one state to another. And art is in a sense like a proof: it’s something that moves from your insides into the physical world, and at the same time it’s just a representation of your insides. It doesn’t rob you of your insides and it’s always different, but in a different form from your spirit.