One of the most iconic artists of her generation, Kiki Smith makes work containing unflinching and often exquisite meditations on the body, myth, and spirituality that, as Walker director Kathy Halbreich says, “possess the power to bring one to a complete stop.” Smith exhibits great fluency with a wide variety of media, yet she has often gravitated toward humble materials such as paper, clay, and fabric that she feels relate to “women’s work.” Referencing these materials as well as her preference for creating art in her home rather than in a studio, she is a self-termed “housewife artist.” Thus, it seems fitting that the Walker’s latest acquisition by Smith is entitled Kitchen (2005).
This complex multimedia installation represents something of a departure from Smith’s body of work, which has explored ideas of the human form as receptacle for knowledge and belief, and themes of life, death, and resurrection. Originally created for a site-specific installation entitled Homespun Tales: Stories of Domestic Occupation, which was displayed in the 16th-century palazzo of the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice, Italy, Kitchen is now on view in the exhibition Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005.
Taking her inspiration from the foundation’s collection of paintings of domestic scenes by Italian artist Pietro Longhi, Smith filled the exhibition space with furniture and figurines that further this exploration of women in their home settings. Rather than the Baroque environments of Longhi’s paintings, however, Smith’s kitchen inhabits a world reminiscent of colonial America, complete with simple household implements, blankets, pottery, and furniture. Thus, they are rendered as timeless spaces lifted from their original context; the focus has been shifted to the individual, internal world of each.
Addressing the sentiment that infuses the work, Smith comments: “In the last couple of years, I’ve wanted to play in a space that’s not very popular. To make things that border slightly on the saccharine, and on love, in a kind of old-fashioned way. . . . Because this, too, is maligned territory. I realized it’s much more complicated to make sculptures of women and babies now; there’s uneasiness in making them. So the pieces that I am doing now for a show in Italy deal with representing that concern.” The female figure in Kitchen illustrates this; although she is cocooned in a room that is the heart of the household, her longing is clearly for the outside world, which—as the daily news indicates—is disquietingly different from the one she knows.
Kitchen includes numerous sculptural elements, including a wooden table, chair, and blanket chest, and an Amish-style rug. These occupy a room with stenciled walls filled with domestic objects such as terra-cotta jugs, pitchers, and bowls, ears of corn, porcelain eggs, rug beaters, baskets, brooms, and artificial flowers. Perhaps her most persuasive compendium of materials and installation strategies to date, Kitchen is Smith’s first major sculptural work to enter the Walker’s collection.