Kiki Smith Kourai 2005
Frank Gaard‘s long history with the Walker began with his first solo show, Viewpoints–Frank Gaard: Paintings in 1980. Represented in the permanent collection by five paintings and a series of notebooks, his most recent involvement includes a 2004 commission to create a billboard in downtown Minneapolis. He agreed to share his thoughts on the new exhibition Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005.
I once heard of a collector who only collected things that were colored black. All the most famous artists had black works in their collections; indeed, when hard times came they made even more black-colored art. The painter who told me this story was an abstract painter who has horses to feed and has made quite a lot of black paintings. This is a preface to the Kiki Smith show at Walker, which is very black (and white), and it’s sculpture of a personal type, but still obviously well financed (bronze even, oi!).
I enjoyed the show and the company of my dearest love, Pearly, who tells me her dreams. As here with Ms. Kiki Smith, I was taken with a dreamy work at the very back of the exhibition. Five nude women carrying wolves over their shoulders, the piece is flat on paper from Nepal and is partly collaged and drawn with a marker of an indeterminate type (perhaps a felt-tip?). The images are curious, as they open a Pandora’s box of imaging. The image most Early Christians would have recognized as Jesus The Good Shepherd (a clothed man with a lamb on his shoulders ), this was how the Christ image was coded, and the reverse is true in the piece named Kourai where the shepherds are nude females and decidedly Pagan (check out the girl fur twixt these women’s legs, exquisite drawing, worthy of Georgia O’Keefe) and the animals are wolves not lambs or calves (as with Greek Kourai).
The return to the pagan world, the Pre-Christian era, is also in other art: Matisse and Picasso made hay on this conception of a Mediterranean new paganism. But Kiki Smith’s work herein speaks to an even earlier utopia, the Greece where the nude human figure appears as an ideal boy (or girl), (boys first because they were the ones most desired for fucking by the ancient Greeks), and where better to see these sculptures than in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (recently redecorated)? Maybe there were five women in the piece? The thing is, it’s a brilliant statement about the culture we arise from, i.e. Greek, and the paganism that has returned as terror. The destructive maelstrom of our world at this moment on a cold night in February, this work is the image of a truer past for our culture born of women and the wolf who becomes our/her child. In some ways this work is brilliant, utterly, even if the artist only sees my p.o.v. as an alternative interpretation; for me, it’s this idea of an alternative culture myth of origin that is exciting. What if instead of a sweet adolescent Jew with an errant lamb upon his shoulder, the new image was several nude women with wolves? Different outcomes from different myths of origin. Maybe we do inherit the wind and the poison of our war-making and our development model! Maybe every art work is a scream and a laugh; a pre-christian era–think about it, good spot for artists–invented architecture, painting, sculpture, theater, philosophy. All we are saying is give art a chance.
Kiki Smith is an artist who makes fabulous things and things more perplexing. Oddly it reminds me of myself (minus the color); this sort of genius or yo-yo, who can say? But my suspicion is when she’s on (insert musical metaphor here), she’s genius incarnate. But when she not, she’s not. This goes to an idea I think is rather in the mix of late that art-working is, as W.B. Yeats once suggested, a fragile mood, that what it is that makes creative action is delicate. And this runs through the work, this mood of creation (carving a pelvis from stone!). I like to see an artist, in this post-minimalist time, who has courage and let’s her feelings flow–and doesn’t depend on sentimentality; that’s where a lot of us fail. We get too obsessed with mortality, when it’s better to dance on the devil in the pale moonlight.
The black everywhere in the show is a key measure of the artist as sculptor. It’s not that she besmirches the Walker’s wedding-dress white walls but rather that she’s making the most of that whiteness. Kiki is smart; the woman thing was there for her at the beginning. That’s how I first saw her images in Avalanche (I think) but all the artists who liked Eva Hesse’s art, myself included, saw the other myth of creation, the juicy one, Babylon and the fires in Baghdad. De Sade is a philosopher as much as a fiction writer, and maybe the world is tumbling towards a new Babylon? Kiki Smith creates discourse, she opens the windows and lets in possibilities. Her limits are shown in the presence of her genius, she’s so fucking human. And she’s not finished; hell, she’s younger than me by 10 years.
Postscriptus: Hmmm, I don’t like sculpture very much (I’ve been painting since 1960). For a while I ran an organization called The Anti-Sculpture League. I’m just telling you this since the artist herein, Ms. Kiki Smith, is primarily a sculptor. I don’t hold it against her that she’s a sculptor, but I think it’s better to make flat things. They are easier to store. I guess I just don’t get sculpture. Why make a crow when they are everywhere already?