Kiki Smith exhibit promises much, delivers more


For viewers who are sometimes left wanting more from exhibits that promise great things, you’ll be impressed and grateful for the sheer volume of work in Kiki Smith: A Gathering 1980-2005 at Walker Art Center. Featuring pieces from the last 25 years, Smith’s exhibition satisfies the intrigue it elicits at the start. The variety of her artistic medium is fresh for those who are familiar with her work and engaging for those are who not.

The first time I saw a Kiki Smith original was during a rainy Thursday night art crawl in the trendy Pearl district of downtown Portland, Oregon. In a small gallery filled with discerning patrons viewing large electric-lit boxes and gorgeous abstracts was a sprinkling of other artworks from the gallery’s inventory. Included was a Kiki Smith print of a curiously drawn wolf on a 4’ x 7’ tapestry of hand-made paper. That chance encounter with Smith’s artwork was both serendipitous and humbling, especially considering her wide range of interest and influence.

Kiki Smith, who’s been called a “feminist” artist focuses her work on the human organic form through abstraction, interpretation and self-portraiture. Since moving to New York in 1976 at the age of 22, she has been identified as being wildly prolific and unabashedly true to the pursuits of her work. Her art draws associations between the biological, social and political contexts of body image, suggesting an esoteric personal identity which defies basic physical functions, and does so with a range of expression and diversity of medium rarely encountered.

Although there are 125 works at this Walker, that’s none too many. At the start, organic themes greet the viewer. “Digestive System,” a piece of winding ductile iron manipulated to resemble internal organs, and “Shield,” a painted plaster sculpture of a pregnant belly, highlight individual parts from a whole human body. This amputation considers the exclusive roles and symbolism of individual body parts. Another piece that centers on the dismembered is “A Man,” which features several variations of body parts and organs printed on a large tapestry of handmade paper.

One of the more intriguing pieces is an untitled sculpture of a squatting figure laying limp, outstretched arms on the floor at the top of the stairwell leading into the Wells Fargo gallery. The face of the figure is cast downward, and like many of Smith’s figures, it possesses a sense of self-consciousness and depleted embarrassment.

There are several pieces in which Smith visits the symbols of wolves and women. “Rapture” is a life-sized bronze sculpture inspired by the story of St. Genevieve. A smooth female figure stands upright with one foot on the ground, while the other escapes from the belly of an overturned and mangled wolf carcass.

Near the ceiling, about 20 feet from the ground, is a piece which encompasses a central theme of Smith’s imagery, but deviates in style from all other works on display. It is a sculpture of the words “All Creatures Great and Small,” alight in green neon. This simple phrase serves as a mantra for Smith’s work, so much of which is inspired by human and animal life. ||

Kiki Smith: A Gathering 1980-2005 is on display through May 14. The Walker Art Center is located at 1750 Hennepin Ave., Mpls. 612-375-7600.