New York

Kiki Smith

Fawbush Gallery

Kiki Smith’s art finds the public within the private; it strips us down to our primal biological ingredients. In the mammoth ductlite iron Digestive System, 1988, the fragile terra cotta Ribs, 1987, or the delicately rendered Uterus Drawings, 1988, we escape the vulnerable, empty feeling of nakedness with the tacit understanding that there is yet something hidden, some deeper emotion or significance that cannot be exposed because it is deeper than our bare flesh and bones. These pieces are enigmatic precisely because their meanings, and even their raison d’être, are hermetically buried within layers of the artist’s personal associations. Like silent strangers who hypnotize us with their mute presence, they do not tell us why they have come to be. Most likely, Smith finds them beautiful indeed, for she seems rid of our culture’s guilt-ridden, puritanical body-filth ethic. Beyond her devotion to the body’s hidden beauty is her obsession with its infinitely intricate workings—with the architecture of life. Smith introduces these systems to us in the company of a drawing of seventy-five fetuses (All Souls, 1988) and 11 empty glass jars, each one engraved with one of the following words: Blood, Tears, Pus, Urine, Semen, Diarrhea, Saliva, Oil, Vomit, Milk, and Sweat. We meet these fluids, and the anatomical parts of her other work, as if some familiar acquaintance were being formally introduced for the first time—with an odd mix of awkwardness and friendly recognition.

An untitled piece suggests Smith’s metaphor for art. A bronze figure stands before three x-rays. The x-rays reveal something in the heart of the bronze figure; they show us something in the artist’s heart we cannot see ourselves, something that can never really be shown, only represented in a different medium. We can only look at the pictures and believe that something is there. Smith’s biological inspiration brings to mind a scientific esthetic all but lost in the arts today, one that recalls the laboratory sketch books of the Renaissance masters. There, the intensity of the anatomical drawings belies much more than academic studies—the pieces are lyrical infatuations of themselves.

What illuminates Smith’s vision is an intense fascination with the science of the human body. This fascination is as cold and clinical as a surgeon’s eye and as warm and intuitive as an artist’s hand. To miss seeing both sides of the art is to miss the dialogue Smith conducts between body and soul. There is a hint of the metaphysical here, of the body alchemic. Smith’s art is conceptual in a way we are not accustomed to, in a way that is refreshingly non-intellectual, more physical and earthy than cerebral. It is an unmeasurable esthetic quantity that, when distilled to its essence, amounts to an aura of artistic faith.

Smith’s art has been coming into sharper, more brilliant focus in recent years. While her work continues to be every bit as enigmatic in its personality and elusive in its meanings, what has increasingly become clearer is its true nature. Gradually, the visceral queasiness it induces in less-biology-oriented, hospital-shy gallery-goers recedes enough to reveal the work’s poetic elegance. One is left wondering if this remarkable peculiarity, so arresting in its eerie presence, is not in fact the most natural of artistic expressions.

Carlo McCormick