Kiki Smith

For the exhibition “Homespun Tales: A Tale of Domestic Occupation,” Kiki Smith occupied a Venetian palazzo, decorating its third floor as an American Colonial home that paralleled the former residence of the noble Querini Stampalia family below. Among the opulent eighteenth-century furnishings and Renaissance paintings of the historical second floor the artist placed thirteen porcelain figurines—delicate white apparitions peering from behind the glass of dark wood cabinets or perched on top of fireplace mantels. These mythical creatures—some of which resembled Smith—included an Eve metamorphosing into her own serpent next to another pondering the apple, a sort of undressed Red Riding Hood mounting the wolf, naked girls frolicking sensually with bears and lions, and some barefoot Alices in Wonderland.

Upstairs, one felt like Alice, suddenly growing bigger or smaller by turns: The eight rooms were filled with strange female inhabitants of various sizes and in different mediums. An aluminum woman sat on the edge of a canopied bed; a life-size bronze reclining nude gestured from a too-small bed. Twenty-three porcelain characters, taken from paintings downstairs by Pietro Longhi depicting bourgeois life in eighteenth-century Venice, looked lost out of context on a bare table without the requisite props—one had fallen asleep resting on her elbow. They also referred to the precious French porcelain figurines—including the Triumph of Beauty, 1796, made for Marie Antoinette—in the period dining room below. In Smith’s kitchen, in place of the 244-piece Sèvres dinner service and elaborate neoclassical stucco ornamentation in the Querini Stampalia residence, were earthenware pots and walls stenciled with a simple pattern of leaves, birds, and flowers. A table with a plaid cloth held bowls filled with eggs and a witch’s broom, signifying one of the artist’s personae; underneath was a dollhouse-size replica of the room. A series of blue etchings depicted female archetypes, among them a middle-age angel entitled Melancholia, an anxious Dorothy with dog Toto, a whiskered Wolf Girl in a lacy cap, and a bereft Virgin Mary (all 1999). In contrast, Renaissance paintings on the floor below included a triumphant Judith with the head of Holofernes, 1520–30, by Vincenzo Catena, and a serene Mary in Presentazione di Gesù al Tempio (The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple), 1460, by Giovanni Bellini.

What Smith created here was the image of a feminine collective unconscious, in which the decorative objects were personal and particular yet universally familiar and meaningful. By reinterpreting childhood heroines in erotic postures with animals, she accentuated our ambivalent relationship to traditional feminine stereotypes. In turn, the odd historical layering served to illuminate the obscured relics of the cultural legacy we have inherited and recast to function in our own context. In Smith’s living room the barely controlled wildness underlying domestic isolation and confinement—which started in the kitchen with a photograph of a madwoman on the wall and some plastic rats lurking in the corner—broke loose: Cast-iron Bo Peeps slept with their sheep scattered about the floor among paper leaves; a pile of worms sat on a woven chair seat; drawings of flowers done in pencil and blood hung askew on the wall; and women peered from the depths of dark large-format Polaroids, barely visible, as if appearing from the past. This was not a livable space but rather a representation cluttered with contradictory things that didn’t quite add up and yet suggested a coherent whole all the same. I imagined that the inhabitants of this female ghetto would converse and argue at night, just like the spiritual artifacts furnishing my own mind. And it seemed that the little porcelain Sphinx in the cabinet had all the time in the world to get the right answer to her riddle.

Cathryn Drake