New York

Kiki Smith

Pace Wildenstein

Despite the fashionable critical discourse about the body that has surrounded her work in the past few years, in many ways Kiki Smith remains an old-fashioned sculptor whose work invites comparison to that of Medardo Rosso and Rodin—if not to more strictly academic 19th-century sculptors. One need only recall Paul Thek’s rather gruesome corporeal fantasies to recognize that Smith’s dissolutions of the body are relatively tame, her sculptures essentially conservative.

Even when larger-than-life, her figures, with their mottled, handworked surfaces and tenuous poses, are always human in scale. In some ways her most deeply satisfying works are the smallest: in this exhibition, two blue, hand blown glass eggs, embedded in a wall, peered out like a pair of eyes, transforming that broad white expanse into a kind of face. Working against her tendency to exploit the most intimate formal interactions, Smith seemed determined to meet the challenge of the gallery’s spacious SoHo quarters. Perhaps to offset the threat the site posed to the sculpture’s introspective sensibility, Smith opted for a “scatter” piece, of sorts, to formally unify what would otherwise have been a disparate assembly. It worked. Deposited over the floor were the 27 cast-bronze birds that comprise Jersey Crows, 1995, stiff with rigor mortis, each with a very separate and interesting torsion. Ironically, the dead crows vitalized the entire installation, including unrelated wall figures: a big, translucent, gesturing, resin-and-fiberglass man (Ice Man, 1995); a brown-paper woman, doubled over so that her mop of black hair hung straight down to her feet; and a jet-black Lilith with inset glass eyes, who crept down the wall like a spider. The dynamism of the dead crows foregrounded the vitality latent in these human figures, even when impaled like specimens. (Too bad Smith included the woefully inert Sector, 1995; this multipaneled drawing of variously sized stars took up nearly a whole wall, but seemed gratuitously decorative.)

At their best, Smith’s figures frame their interiority in this way: through paradox. No matter how inert, or morbidly passive, they are animated in subtle ways by the materials from which they are made. In Honeywax, 1995, the female figure, curled-up in a fetal position, eyes closed, seems at first to be asleep, but she rests somewhat stiffly on her undersized pedestal and her legs do not fall as they should. Her honey-colored surfaces are touched with pink at lips and fingernails and toenails, as well as in streaks along her arm and at her wrist, as if to articulate the subcutaneous circulation of blood. These markings, along with her pose, give her body a quiescent tension, pointing to the heat within the figure—its animating principle or, one imagines, a mental state. This ongoing indexing of interiority can grow wearying, turning contemplation into a melancholic self-absorption that is the dark side of bourgeois privatization.

In another turn to the animal kingdom, a ledge, placed above eye level, was lined with pewter animal skulls, burnished to varying degrees and embellished with white-gold leaf. Smith’s handling of materials grows ever more virtuosic, downright splendid in this exhibition. She seems to luxuriate in it all: pewter, wax, gold, and palladium leaf, bronze, resin, paper. Smith’s use of color, as well, is essential to her expressive strategy. Lure, 1995, a nude female squatting on a high ledge, might have seemed blandly academic were it not for her distinctive auburn coloration and the bright-red string from which she dangled a hook. Such attention to the formal and sensual properties of her materials, where present, serves to liberate Smith’s work from the drearier essentialisms of gender and body politics to which it is prone.

Faye Hirsch