Kiki Smith, Cathedral, 2012, jacquard tapestry, 116 1⁄8 × 75 5⁄8".

Kiki Smith, Cathedral, 2012, jacquard tapestry, 116 1⁄8 × 75 5⁄8".

Kiki Smith

“Kiki Smith: I am a Wanderer” coincided with another, larger Smith show at the Monnaie de Paris. Featuring nearly one hundred exhibits and including a generous number of large sculptures, the Paris show would have been the destination of choice for aficionados of Smith’s sculpture. Modern Art Oxford’s exhibition, loosely designed to link the narrative and mythological elements of Smith’s work with the city’s historic museums, featured only small three-dimensional pieces, along with an absorbing selection of virtuoso prints (for example, the tense, strange, powerfully memorable photogravure lithograph My Blue Lake, 1995, in which the artist’s face is photographically morphed into a form resembling an ancient Mycenaean mask). The light-filled Upper Gallery held the project some might judge to be the real apex of Smith’s oeuvre: her 2012– series of digital jacquard tapestries (the full set of twelve was on view here, whereas the Monnaie showed only six).

Drawing on imagery from medieval and Renaissance Books of Hours and Labors of the Months, Smith’s tapestries mark a partial shift of emphasis in her practice’s polemics: somewhat away from feminist body politics and toward environmental concerns—although the topics evidently overlap. Talking to Petra Giloy-Hirtz, curator of both “I am a Wanderer” and the 2018 Smith show “Procession” at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, Smith commented that we live on “a murder planet,” the phrase connecting interestingly with the tapestries. Mingling landscapes, cosmological diagrams, predators (owls, eagles, humans, corvids, spiders, a fox, a wolf, a snake) and their prey (moths, rabbits, fawns), these works celebrate and mourn the sustainable cycles of birth, growth, predation, death, and decay that the current world order is destroying. Subtly colored and beautifully orchestrated in formal terms, the tapestries also recall deep histories of cultural production and tradition—another crucial part of life jeopardized by climate change, although the subject gets nowhere near the attention it deserves.

Machine-woven jacquard tapestry has strong potential to be actively nasty, in a way similar to that of cheap wood-veneer furniture: repulsively fake and shoddy. So it’s a brave choice of medium; but Smith’s tapestries, developed from handmade collages with the assistance of specialist technicians and a state-of-the-art loom, utterly transcend tourist-shop horror. Close up, their cotton weave presents a scintillating, pixilated field of coloristic subtlety and variety, while looking canvas-tough, even abrasive. From farther away, the fabric looks velvety soft, trapping and diffusing the light as if the textile had a pile. This material and optical uncertainty lends Smith’s evocative imagery (tree roots, spiderwebs, stars, stone, skies, lichen, earth, fur, and feathers) an otherworldly, quasi-hallucinatory quality. So far, so good, but, putting it brutally, Smith’s tapestries made her accompanying small sculptures feel prosaic and invited an unavoidable question: Might some of the key drives apparent in her work—the purposeful reenchantment of art objects with mythic depth and folkloric power, and the synthesizing of the kaleidoscope of museological and other imagery that she has absorbed from a lifetime of voracious looking—be better served in two dimensions than three? Predators ourselves, we are equipped with stereoscopic, front-facing, killers’ eyes that readily diagnose the general substance and inanimate status of sculptures; it’s hard (not impossible, but really hard) to unsettle the rational, instrumental brain when it’s sizing up three-dimensional art objects—especially relatively newly made ones—in physical space. The more ambiguously embodied act of “reading in” to the two-dimensional feels as if it necessarily opens doors onto different, less secure, maybe more visionary areas of perception and cognition. Or, at least, so it seemed while looking at Smith’s show.