New York

Kiki Smith

Kiki Smith’s “Sojourn” is an ongoing site-specific installation, brought to Brooklyn in its fourth iteration (following stints at the Museum Haus Esters in Krefeld, Germany; the Kunsthalle Nürnberg, also in Germany; and the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona). Overflowing the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, this adaptation intervened in two adjacent period rooms, all part of the museum’s Major Henry Trippe House, built in Maryland circa 1730. This was apropos in that “Sojourn”—a meditation on mortality, inspiration, and cooperation in women’s lives—emerged from Smith’s encounter with an extraordinary eighteenth-century embroidery, Prudence Punderson’s First, Second, and Last Scene of Mortality, 1776–83. On loan from the Connecticut Historical Society, this was the first work one saw on entering Smith’s show. It depicts a white woman seated at a parlor table, sketching leaves on a large sheet of paper. To her right stands a coffin with the initials P.P. on the lid; to her left, a child in a cradle is minded by a black woman. And therein lies the problem with Smith’s otherwise evocative project: In pondering the conditions under which aesthetic expression is or has been possible for women, “Sojourn” never acknowledges that image of the slave whose labor frees the lady to make art.

Comprising sixty-four individual works, Smith’s installation unites large-scale drawings on translucent Nepal paper; sculptures in alumi- num, bronze, glass, wood, muslin, and papier-mâché; wood-block prints; flower paintings on antique glass that Smith has mirrored; and a video of an abstracted, leaflike pattern, projected onto twinned papier-mâché figures in the Trippe House “hall,” or reception room. Smith’s materials compose a palette of cream, silver, gray, and gold, with textures suggesting skin, crinolines, books, bandages, bedsheets, feathers, foliage. Central to her iconography is a spry old woman in pants, her hair shorn. Appearing in multiple drawings, this character seems to signify both the artist dreaming the exhibition, and a demiurge bringing a vision to the other women who populate the works. Most of these are young. Some are pregnant, or have children. Tattooed girls in bras and jeans play hipster Marys to the old woman as a grandmotherly archangel, a dove at her command (Touched and Teaching, both 2007); in a kind of auto-pietà, a young avatar rises from the lap of the supine and perhaps dead elder (Coming Forth, 2008). In the sculpture Heute (Now), 2008, a raw-wood coffin rests on a matching drop-leaf table; clear glass flowers grow inside the box. These ghostly symbols of beauty and possibility rhyme with motifs suggesting illumination—stars, lightbulbs, spangles of glitter, more doves. In woman-to-woman Annunciation, it seems, the mystic link delivers creative permission, albeit tinged with loss.

This is rather lovely. Yet how can a viewer avoid thinking that Smith has sabotaged her own idea by explicitly evoking race and class as woven into vatic communication across time, but then failing to take up the proposition? Should we assume that her figures are ahistorical ciphers, like the nearly featureless papier-mâché puppets who infiltrate the Trippe House hall, along with its red-curtained bedroom and graceful staircase? No—the faces of the old woman and her cohorts in the drawings glow with personal and social specificity. Should we read the whiteness of almost all these personages as neutral, “transparent”? No—a few notionally Asian features appear, and a single light-skinned black woman is part of Second Assembly, 2009, a group portrait of contemporary urban types. So what does “Sojourn” say about gender, power, and revelation? Do we not imagine that Major Trippe—identified in museum wall text as “a gentle- man landowner”—might have owned slaves? Who haunts his house? Why make Prudence Punderson’s domestic pair the show’s keynote, and then avoid their intimate predicament?

Frances Richard