When Kiki Smith moved to Catskill a few years back, not only the town (where I live) but our entire region filled with artists was suddenly all abuzz about saloning with her, showing alongside her in local shows and deciding whom to fill the table with as dinner guests. Smith, however, is like the rest of us up here: private; wanting a clear separation between her private and public lives; busy. That makes the public session this Thursday, November 3, a dialogue with students at Skidmore College’s Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs, extra-special.
Smith’s current show at the Tang – her first local exhibition, other than the inclusion of a single drawing in a recent “Cowgirls of the Hudson Valley” extravaganza at Brik Gallery in Catskill – is a massive undertaking. Titled “I Myself Have Seen It,” it is a retrospective of Smith’s work in photography, but it also provides a glimpse into her cross-media working process, as well as what it is in this woman’s art that has made her resonate so well with our times.
Throughout her work, Smith investigates a variety of themes: the fragility (both psychological and physical) of the body; the deconstruction of fairy tales and myths; the transition from childhood to adult sexuality; the notion of narrative; and the relationship of the art object to the artist and to the viewer. The exhibition reveals ways in which this influential artist, with a camera as a constant extension of her vision, responds to her environment: preserving felicitous combinations of textures, recording unusual decorative motifs or capturing telling animal behaviors.
Set up in what feel like distinct installations in several of the Tang’s large ramble of rooms, larger C prints and several sculptures, prints and drawings (the media in which Smith has gained the most fame) are lent coherence and a hint of narrative from a running bottom border of 5,000 snapshots – or small-scale prints – mounted on board and designed to suggest “how Smith thinks visually,” according to the exhibit catalogue.
Artworks, in this show, sit high above sightline at times, hovering near the Tang’s high ceilings. Other pieces clutter the floor, or exist apart from everything else. The only consistency is both a constant reworking of the various themes for which Smith has become known as a “feminist” artist – from wicked fairy tales and their subtext of sexual vehemence to death and decay, the body and its illnesses, as well as the tropes by which women’s physicality has been warped over the years.
We witness how the artist casts herself as a character throughout her art, and get a sense of the means by which her darker qualities get leavened and complicated by humor. And by dint of the exhibit’s unique layout, there’s a distinct physicality to viewing all that’s here, from the craning of one’s neck to catch high-up pieces to many instances where one ends up on hands and knees, trying to soak in those seemingly endless snapshots – each one of them a gem in itself.
Born to a sculptor father and opera-singer mother, whose wedding was attended by Tennessee Williams as best man, Chiara Smith emerged as part of the Punk-inspired Colab art movement of New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She had her first solo show in 1982, and rattled the art world with her body-centric works later in that same decade, after which she seemed to demand her own aesthetic mixing concept and representation, myth and physical reality in her own way. It was as if her years growing up in an artistic household paid off in her complete immersion into culture as an entity complete unto itself.
“I think my work is in a different realm. It’s not a naturalistic realm. It is in another realm,” she told her longtime friend and occasional collaborator, writer Lynn Tillmann of the University of Albany, a few years back. “One of my favorite stories is Abraham playing with his father’s idols: His father was an idol-maker. Abraham breaks one and the father comes home, and he’s angry that it’s broken. Then Abraham says that one of the statues did it to the other. His father says that they’re just statues, and Abraham talks about believing in one god. But I always liked the staticness of the statue: maybe something like playing freeze tag, or playing statues when you were a kid.”
Or as she told another old friend, the critic and curator Carlo McCormick, “Sometimes I like thinking about what all this new technology means, and at other times I’m investigating more spiritual terms or dealing with gender and sexuality. Besides it being about these horrible things like oppression or death, our experience of the body is also what brings us some of the greatest pleasure in our lives. That’s something that I probably haven’t dealt with as much, and would like to try to think about more.”
It’s something that one sees at play in this show at the Tang – known as a key teaching museum – and can hear in this Thursday’s talk. It’s something that we expect at play in Smith’s move to our area, and to result from her incorporation of our lifestyle here – maybe even our long winters and prying eyes, let alone private ways.
The Tang is open Tuesdays through Sundays from noon to 5 p.m., Thursdays until 9 p.m. For more about the Teaching Museum at Skidmore College, located just off Broadway to the north of the Spa City’s downtown stretch, call (518) 580-8080 or visit https://tang.skidmore.edu.