New York

Kiki Smith, Untitled (Pink Bosoms), 1990–92, 4 screenprints with gouache on paper, each 20 11 /16 x 32 11/16".

Kiki Smith, Untitled (Pink Bosoms), 1990–92, 4 screenprints with gouache on paper, each 20 11 /16 x 32 11/16".

Giuseppe Penone/Kiki Smith

Various Venues

Fable I: “Giuseppe Penone: The Imprint of Drawing.” In the anteroom of the Drawing Center, a giant barred the way, buried up to his eyebrows, from which his colossal forehead, its worry lines traced by thorns, emerged aboveground. Never mind the crown of thorns; for me that gargantuan tracery called up Briar Rose’s thicket. For it was hard to see the forehead for the forest of finger-pricking points. Indeed, it wasn’t until later that I knew Penone’s Spine d’acacia (fronte) (Acacia Thorns [Forehead]), 2002, was a forehead at all. Stand to the side, as I did, approaching gingerly, and all you saw was that spiky copse, daring you to touch, to feel instead of see, and then fall under the somatic sway of a world in which you were suddenly so impossibly small as to be blind to the gestalt of everything around you. You became like a fly, crawling across a spine-sprouting surface so expansive as to require a map for its traversal—except here the surface was its own map and the fly could not read it. Stepping away from the side, you began to grow and see something develop: not forms, nor directions through the prickly maze, but a cursive swoop here and a springing arc there—gradually you became aware that those linear fragments might be huge, stray hairlines. Step farther away and orient yourself less sidelong to the spiky surface, and growing more you began to be aware of openings, clearings, paths through the spiny woods: the fissures between rows and clumps of thorns, the spaces that helped to define lines as lines, gaps that were the negative of those lines, broken-off trails of not-line that meandered on either side of strings of thorny line starting and stopping here and there.

Step back farther, grow larger and stand squarer to the plane of the false wall, and then, like a cartoon character standing on what she thought was a harmless mound of inanimate matter but was really an enormous beast about to awake from its sleep and shake the minute irritant from its back, you noted the massive extent of that surface and began scanning it to take in whatever patterns there were to be discerned among the thorns and the weave of shadows cast by them. It became less evident that they were sharp protrusions that might puncture your skin if you got too close and bumped into them. Backing away, you knew in a flash that you were facing the top of the head of a giant who couldn’t quite see you . . . yet.

Quickly you skirted the colossus and entered the atrium. There you found, on the left, Palpebra (Eyelid), 1989–91, dark clouds of eyelids with shards of a repeated profile caught in them. All nose and unseeing eye, its gaze canceled out by an inked fingerprint in place of a pupil, that reiterated part profile was oriented sidelong to its surface, as if you were to be encouraged to come so close that your own cheek and nose touched the feltlike fiber of which it was made, and your own eyelids brushed up against it without your eyes being able to see it. Your eyes felt as if they felt the felt, instead, and found it slightly hairy, not wrinkled as you thought from a distance.

On the back wall was Impronte rilevate sulla matita durante l’esecuzione (Prints Left on the Pencil During Execution), 1975/2004—four giant fingerprints where some huge humanoid had dirtied the wall with smudges left by the giant pencil stub held between his giant fingers. Then, turning to the right, you found yourself held in the mammoth hands of another Gulliver-like personage with hands so large that the whorls of the ten fingertips became channels, gutters and troughs, tree rings and spiraling whirlpools, surrounding you in your once again Lilliputian dimensions. The hands of L’impronta del disegno (The Imprint of Drawing), 2002–2003, were so large that where their prints began was invisible to you, and where they ended disappeared off the horizon. You were a tiny body whose particularities—among them your body’s sex—were too diminished to be perceived, or to be of much account to anyone, including yourself. Nonetheless, you were a body, encompassed by a much larger one, and neither of you could see each other’s outlines: You were much too small, and he—I don’t know why, but sexless though he was, it must have been a he—was much too large. What you could see were ten closely grooved labyrinths, with radial marks notching their spreading wave patterns and pulling irregularly at their circumferences like drawstrings. Roughly at the center of each of these was the fingertip’s eyeball: the same thumb and fingerprints that marked the eyes of the sightless, near-peering profiles on the opposite wall.

Here was a fable of embodiment, turned away from the iconic sightedness of the image back to the indexical touch of the drawing body, its imprint, its projection, and its enlargement. Never mind arte povera, from which the artist had emerged back in the late 1960s; the time was an expanded now, and the sign of the time was a black-and-white photograph. Rovesciare I propri occhi (To Reverse One’s Eyes), 1970, showing the artist, more or less his actual size, with mirroring contact lenses, on which the reduced image of the photographer was caught twice, creating the effect of a cat’s slitted pupils, transforming Penone’s gaze into that of a preternatural being, touched in the blinded eyes, the retinas turned inside out to confront the internal dark of the body to which they belonged. Then there was Fronte (Forehead), 1997, with the same creased forehead, from which dirtied tape had been peeled away to make an imprint, through which light had been shone, turning imprint into screen projection, growing it to the size of the wall, and transforming the negative of the skin crease into the positive of the line and back again into the negative of the light-traced space, emerging between the trails of the drawing hand. Blinded drawing and sighted photography (and vice versa), screened through the physical weave, the warp and woof of the imprint, each the inside-out of the other, negative-positive, each to each other the inverted residue of the skin of the body where it comes into contact with the sooty matter of the world. And then traced with thorns, and the spaces between them, that turned the puncta of sight into the punctilia of touch.

When you leave the giant’s realm, you are in touch, for a while, with the matter that you are and the matter that rubs up against the fingertips of your gaze. You are a rubbing of the world, and the world is a rubbing of you. And you are, for a while, desexed. Or at least, your sex does not much matter anymore.

Fable II: “Kiki Smith: Prints, Books & Things.” Once upon roughly the same time, you entered a quite different world of fairy tales, in which you were resexed with a vengeance. Here were paper and fabric stories of the body, its internal organs, and its zoology. Here you entered a book of hours populated by characters from Aesop, Grimm, Perrault, Lewis Carroll, and the Great Goddess of My Body, My Self, owls mingling with cats, bats, birds, butterflies, and babies, with Red Riding Hood and the wolf, with dead heads, dead monkeys, and dead frogs, with pink bosoms, self-replicating vulvas, brains, and kidneys, with bluebeards and spinning spinsters, with doilies, moons, and masses of matted hair, with Dorothy, Alice, and Emily D., with the Virgin, the Wolf Girl, and a girl devoured by a lion. Here was a world of proliferating iconography, derived from drawing, photography, and “nature-printing,” in which photogravure, lithography and photolithography, woodcut, etching, aquatint and drypoint, silk screen, collage, monotype, and rubber stamping commingled. Here was a zone in which the inside and outside of the body were equally available to the eye—laid out on the diverse, tactile surfaces of handmade Nepalese, Japanese, Thai, and Indian paper, with other materials thrown into the mix. Here you swam with the birds and the bees, with creatures large and small, with organs, animals, infants, and fabulous personages. Here you were larger and smaller than, close to and distant from the multiplied body, all at once, for that body was scattered all over the wall that you stood looking at and the floor upon which you stood looking. And in this magic universe, at once elegantly decorative in its materiality and gutterally literal in its imagery, size did not matter, but sex did.

This was the domain of feminist parables, after all. Where a face with eyes turned inside out was the indexical marker of the kingdom of the giant, here in this queendom the ultimate icon was that oxymoron, the vaginal signifier. Not the imprint of the body itself most of the time, but the imprint of the pictograph, first drawn naively as a kind of folded mandorla that contained nothing but itself, and then multiplied in a fertility cult of the image as prolific as the mass culture of the mechanical reproduction with which it disseminates itself. And the riddle of this Sphinx was this: how to make an essential sign out of the anti-sign, the nothing-to-see, the sex-which-is-not-one, the hole in the scopic regime? And why?

When you leave the goddess’s realm you reenter the patriarchal everyday, discomforted. Essentialism is so embarrassing; why should bodily difference make such a difference? Isn’t it vulgar? And how can it be so Judy Chicago indecent and so Pattern and Decoration pretty at the same time? The insistence of those questions left me longing for a return to the giant’s realm. Yet wondering why, if that giant’s body was so unisex, did it feel so inevitable that his was the body of a he-giant? I had wondered if his hands could be the hands of Alice grown large as she went through the looking glass. But then I knew that they couldn’t be. Shape-shifting as she is, Alice is different; she divides us. Gulliver holds us all in his huge hands. Perhaps we need voyages to both realms, on either side of the normal imaginary that our bodies inhabit, disappearingly.

“Giuseppe Penone: The Imprint of Drawing” was curated by Catherine de Zegher, director, Drawing Center. “Kiki Smith: Prints, Books & Things” was curated by Wendy Weitman, curator, Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, Museum of Modern Art.

Carol Armstrong is professor of art and archaeology and Doris Stevens Professor of the Study of Women and Gender at Princeton University.