New York

Mimi Smith

Anna Kustera Gallery

Cross Meret Oppenheim with Barbara Kruger and you come real close to the acute feminism of Mimi Smith’s art of apparel. A welcome reprise of the excellent survey curated three years ago by Judith Tannenbaum at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, this recent exhibition of Smith’s sculpture and painting from the ’60s to the present began with her “teacups,” early sculptures that have so often served as textbook examples of “feminist art,” and that were to overshadow the next thirty years of her career. (Oppenheim suffered a similar fate—until the Guggenheim’s recent survey proved how extensively her oeuvre went beyond the 1936 fur-lined object.) Bringing Smith’s reputation up to date was one of the accomplishments of this recent gallery show.

Smith’s most famous work, Steel Wool Peignoir, 1966, deserves a place of honor in some museum’s permanent collection. It comes, like a sleeping beauty, with its own soft vitrine in the form of a clear vinyl garment bag. This nightmare nightgown, stitched from nylon and lace and trimmed at the arms and throat with steel wool, looks like it could have been made yesterday; not only because it’s in such good shape, but because it so clearly anticipates contemporary work by Maureen Connor, Beverly Semmes, and Jana Sterbak. Most of Smith’s apparel doubles as protection, pliant hardware for a critical body. There is a monstrous girdle, made of rubber bath mats, and a vinyl maternity dress, The latter, a sci-fi vision of woman as test tube or “gro-box,” boasts a plastic observation window (recycled from an old washing machine) projecting from the midriff. It anticipates another Smith staple, the widely exhibited Knit Baby Kit, 1968, which comes with instructions “so that every woman (or man) can knit her own baby.”

In a noteworthy work from the ’70s, Smith outlined on a wall a fully furnished house using knotted thread and measuring tape. On view here were the stairs, fireplace, and telephone, all drawn to scale. In the ’80s, she turned from spatial to temporal measurement, producing a group of works based on wall docks. The faces bore messages about lives abbreviated by AIDS, guns, or nuclear holocaust, but lacked the subtlety that makes much of her other work so compelling. Clocks were put to better use in a later piece, which also marked a return to much of Smith’s early imagery. The 1991–93 assemblage Slave Ready (Corporate)—a woman’s pinstripe suit with steel-wool trim (the “corporate” peignoir), an odd little “computer screen” painting with the message “Slave Ready,” and a clock whose face begs for “one more minute”—suggests that hewing to the career path is as misguided as following the mommy track.

Smith’s own career can hardly be said to have followed the straight and narrow. Though much of her work is considered not only powerful but germinal, Smith has supported herself primarily by working as a graphic artist, receiving little backing from commercial galleries. Perhaps in keeping with this history, her art seems to function as a shield, not only for the absent bodies it evokes, but against some of Smith’s deep-seated rage. Her sculptures can be seen as a series of responses, a wry acknowledgment of pressing issues. As if in anticipation of an atomic blast, Smith recently stitched up a group of handy coverings for the postnuclear body: steel-wool mask, chaps, and wigs. Medications for breast cancer patients have been tooled into sexy undergarments. Taken one body of work at a time, Smith’s art may seem to lack the continuity on which commercial success depends, but this collective debut showed that it has never lacked bite.

Ingrid Schaffner