kiki smith, “sojourn”, the brooklyn museum of art

(left to right)  Annunciation, 2008, Cast aluminum
Visitation III, 2007, Ink, graphite, colored pencil, mica and collage on Nepal paper
Visitation I, 2007, Ink, graphite, colored pencil, mica, glitter, and collage on Nepal paper

Kiki Smith’s new exhibition, “Sojourn,” which opened 2/12 at the Brooklyn Museum of art posits female images of domesticity, the cycle of life and creative awakening as significant, richly contextualized history.  Working in various media, Smith’s narrative weaves back and forth through the cast of women and their interrelatedness with time and one another:  babies, daughters, mothers, elderly women.  Moving around the pieces, themes begin to present themselves–aging, intimacy, grace, beauty, nature, rites/rituals,  inspiration, dedication.  The rooms are filled with her tribe, engaged with one another and separately, pictorializing their physicalization of oral storytelling, capturing their metamorphoses.  Describing her own cultural history and identification as that of an artist making the art of “middle-aged, lower east side of manhattan, middle class white woman”, she illustrated the complexity of marginalization, the reductivism that permeates discourse and criticism.

(left to right) Singer, 2008, Cast aluminum
Given, 2007, Ink, graphite, colored pencil, mica and collage on Nepal paper
Touched, 2007, Ink, graphite, colored pencil, mica and collage on Nepal paper
Teaching, 2007, Ink, graphite, colored pencil and collage on Nepal paper

In speaking about her relevance to the Sackler Center & feminist art in general, Smith chided the museum a bit for boxing her in–“people like me like to take up a lot of space”, (my favorite thing she said)–but emphasized her process as an artist is the same as a man’s and essentially passive in the early stage of gathering ideas prior to beginning the works but, afterwards, it is her chosen content that differentiates and engenders her work, and injects the didactic component.  She spoke of her distillation of her roots (family of artists, catholicism), eastern philosophy and religion, the fluid ethos and manipulation of materials she learned from the 60s, women’s cultural history, and info/technology into her own iconography, translated through motifs, symbols, and materials.  She contextualized her appropriation of imagery of the annunciation, the needlepoint that was the springboard, and the history of Sojourner Truth and ideas of the pilgrim:  charting the arcs of women’s lives as wanderers, workers, spiritual beings.

Closed Coffin (on table), 2008, Ink on Nepal paper with graphite and lithographic crayon
Heute (Now), 2008, Wood, lamp glass, coffin, drop-leaf table, 10 dandelion puffs made of glass
Mortal, 2007. Suite of woodblock prints on Tanbo paper

Criticism I’ve read of the exhibition mostly revolves upon a certain “preciousness” and mock-gentility that her more subversive earlier works, centered around the fluids and functions of the body, or her body, lacked. But it’s missing the point to dismiss this as a merely pedestrian reconfiguration of female humility.  What Smith has here done is to take the ideas of divination, pilgrimage, community, and the life cycle and removed both god and men from the processes, the point belied by the imagery of flowers, bright colors, and light bulbs–like a young girl’s confection of pastoralism replete with glitter, animals, and pretty faces.  But these women are sitting enraptured undergoing the moment of inspiration, traveling, living together and sharing their knowledge, with the time and space to discover, create, retreat into and finally to die in their own interior worlds, their sacred spaces.   They are marked up, pierced, proud of and showing their bodies, confident in their confrontation of their audience, self-important, endeavoring in their own pursuits into old age.   Workers unto themselves, not a doll’s house.

(left to right) Chair, 2008, Papier-mâché with glass glitter
Untitled (Flower Blanket), 1992, Nepal paper
Coming Forth, 2008. Collage and ink on Nepal paper
Tethered, 2009, Ink on Nepal Paper

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