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Until recently, the American artist Kiki Smith didn’t have a studio. “I’ve always worked at my kitchen table,” she says. “But now I have a palace!” The palace in question is in Catskill, 123 miles from New York, a turn-of-the-century brick warehouse that has been rebuilt by her husband, a bee keeper.
Smith has always worked and lived modestly, creating pieces at scale with her environment — small things at home in an East Village apartment; larger prints at Columbia and NYU where she continues to teach; bronzes in two foundries she frequents in the US; glass works at a specialist in Munich.
A more recent pursuit is vast tapestries which are woven in Belgium. These begin with a full-scale collage, reduced to a smaller print on which she works with inks and watercolours, creating incredible detail in the human and animal figures that scurry and float across them. Thirty years ago, Smith saw the “Apocalypse Tapestry” in Angers (a 14th-century work narrating that biblical blockbuster in 90 scenes) “and it was shocking and amazing. I knew I wanted to make that kind of spectacle at some point.”
Her own subject matter centres on a different kind of apocalypse — the animals, plants and stars are reminders of the fragile state of the planet. “We all know we are in a precarious situation,” she says. “But I’m not saying I’m any better than you are. I’m just saying the natural world is important. The universe is a complete miracle.”
Now 65, Smith currently has exhibitions all over the place — at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford; in the genteel salon space at the Galleria Continua in San Gimignano; in a small Belgian gallery that specialises in prints. And then there is her first ever full-scale monographic show in Paris, which opens at the Monnaie de Paris this month.
“It’s an interesting setting for her work,” says the curator Camille Morineau, who included Smith in her exhibition devoted to female artists at the Pompidou in 2010. “It’s more like a palazzo in Venice than an institutional environment.” (The Monnaie de Paris occupies a fabulous neoclassical 18th-century building on the left bank.)
Smith has been a prolific producer of art since the 1980s, when her figurative sculptures in plaster, wax and glass often detailed the inner workings of the body — a uterus cast in bronze, a stomach made of glass. “I was just trying to look into myself,” she says. “Trying to make sense of it all.” Her 1980s engagement with the Aids epidemic wasn’t just activist, but personal: the 12 blood-filled jars of “Game Time” (1986) refer not just to the hysterical fear of contamination but the condition of her own sister, who died of an Aids-related illness.
By the early 1990s, she was making full-scale figures detailing the fruitier functions of the body — female figures trailing outpourings of excrement, urine or menstrual blood. These works, so visceral and, even in the words of feminist critic Linda Nochlin, “yucky”, threatened to eclipse anything Smith had done before or would do since. Owned by institutions, they are deemed too fragile to travel and won’t be on show at the Monnaie de Paris. (Though Morineau fleetingly implies that taste might have prevailed in the Monnaie de Paris’ reasoning too.) “I didn’t mean them to be sensational,” says Smith now. “I was just thinking about the cultural phobias around the body.”
Instead there will be other key works, balanced with new pieces. Of the former, “Rapture”, a bronze made in 2001, is one of many derived from her then frequent forays into fairy tales and mythology. It shows Little Red Riding Hood stepping out of the stomach of the big bad wolf, the sleek, fresh female figure emerging with power and pride. But Smith bats away specific readings. “People bring their own experience,” she says. “I don’t have a big agenda about them thinking one thing or another.”
In the context of Paris, however, it will be hard not to see her late-1990s works of Sainte Genevieve as something of a homecoming. Genevieve, after all, is the patron saint of the city, who is said to have saved it from Attila and the Huns. “I just saw a picture of her with a lamb and a wolf, and I had a really close friend called Genevieve,” says Smith. “So I started to cast her and draw her, and she said you can do anything but put extra hair on me.” Smith, who likes to work with family and friends, calls it “ancestor worship. It’s nice to make a drawing of someone you love. I give people wrinkles, I like wrinkles.”
In Europe, Smith might seem like a consistent though not overwhelming presence, appearing in Venice Biennales (2005, 2017) and many group shows. Her work has an illustrative and made quality in which craft and process seem to loom large, rather than deep emotional turbulence.
“I think people project the idea of naivety onto women artists,” says Morineau. “Just because Kiki isn’t crushing you with knowledge, doesn’t mean she isn’t intellectual.” Smith herself sees these solo exhibitions as a way to move the goalposts. “When I make shows, I’m interested in cutting out simplistic readings through new juxtapositions,” she says. “In one room I placed a wax Virgin Mary near a sculpture made of worms. It’s up to you to look for the meaning.”
In the US, Smith is more of a star. The artist Francis Alÿs invited her to be carried through the streets of New York on a palanquin, when he devised a procession to mark the move of PS1 from Manhattan to its temporary Queens outpost in 2002. “It felt a little too good,” she laughs of the experience. “It was beautiful to be high up like that. I thought, this is my real nature.”
It is also in her role as a teacher that Smith has real artistic clout. A professor at both Columbia and NYU, she runs a hugely sought-after printmaking course with fellow artist Valerie Hammond. “It’s a miracle to teach. And printmaking is more relevant than ever to the students now they can connect it to digital practice,” she says. For herself, she continually pushes the medium to new limits with every passing year, toying with new techniques, paper types and materials.
What she really wants to do, she says, is keep on shifting the possibilities in her new studio, where she can walk outside and see a world she describes as “elemental and completely incomprehensible, of trees and plants and pollinators.”
October 18-February 9, monnaiedeparis.fr
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