Kiki Smith: Fantasy and Desire at the Neuberger

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Kiki Smith, Tapestries. Photo © 2012 Virginia Raguin.

Kiki Smith, Tapestries. Photo © 2012 Virginia Raguin.

It’s always a world—Kiki Smith’s installations of drawings and pasted fragments on unframed paper, textiles, hanging objects, floor-based sculpture, relief, or glass. It’s a world that intersects with our bodies, suggesting a communion with primeval forces as well as companions we might meet in the day’s occupations. In a generously apportioned gallery, the Neuberger Museum of Art displays Visionary Sugar: Works by Kiki Smith and a journey in space and in time. To one side, three large tapestries, Earth, Underworld, and Sky anchor the suspended sculptures of Crescent Moon, Shooting Star, and Moon, Stars, and Cloud. Annunciation, a seated figure in silver holding up a single hand in welcome from 2008, acts as a complement for a series of circular-form wall reliefs sprinkled with color, entitled Harmonies. Outside the glass doors we perceive three green-gray reliefs of Moon (1, 2, and 3).

Kiki Smith Blue Moon III, 2011. Bronze, 49 x 49 x 2 1/2 inches Cast 1 of 3 Edition of 3, © Kiki Smith/ Courtesy The Pace Gallery. Photo courtesy of Melissa Christy / Walla Walla Foundry

Kiki Smith Blue Moon III, 2011. Bronze, 49 x 49 x 2 1/2 inches Cast 1 of 3 Edition of 3, © Kiki Smith/ Courtesy The Pace Gallery. Photo courtesy of Melissa Christy / Walla Walla Foundry

A cluster of earlier works acts as a key to the intensity of the ensemble. Much as the eighteenth-century needlework by Prudence Punderson, “First, Second and Last Scenes of Mortality” served as a conceptual frame for Smith’s Sojourn of 2010 at the Brooklyn Museum, here works on paper address the nature of sight. Juxtaposed to the radiating aura of Smith’s light bulbs, a perennial of her recent work, a series entitled Vision presents silver topped rays emerging from disembodied eyes. With remarkable exactitude Smith illustrates Plato’s seminal belief that in the act of seeing, fire within the eye speeds outwards as a visible ray that strikes the object, thus capturing it for the viewer’s mind: “a gentle fire that should become the proper body of each day.. . . whenever there is daylight round about the visual current [rays from the eye], this latter flows forth, like to like, and coalesces with it and forms into a single homogeneous body” (Timaeus 45B and C., trans. John Warrington, New York, 1965, 44). Smith’s desire of the eye is visualized as a passionate, tactile gesture.

An alluring interplay of surface textures, materials, scale, and color responds to the eye’s yearning, infantile and adult. The very glitter sprinkled across an air-brushed snake’s body recalls our childhood canons of beauty. But these moons and stars, animals, and people, grow ever more complex as we see their trajectory and interdependence. Materials contradict—thus liberating an image from verisimilitude. Are we looking at stars or flowers, objects within our fingers’ reach or unimaginably far; do they bloom for a day or burn since the universe came into being? The ephemera of paper complements the solidity of cast metal, objects and space shifting, reflecting one of Smith’s observation of religion addressing “transcendence and transmigration, something moving always from one state to another.”

Smith’s working methods are projected onto the viewer’s reception.

About the author

Virginia Raguin

Virginia Chieffo Raguin, Ph.D. Yale University, is professor of Art History at the College of the Holy Cross. She has published widely on religion, stained glass and architecture including Stained Glass from its Origins to the Present with Abrams (USA) and Thames and Hudson (GB) in 2003. A member of the International Corpus Vitrearum, she has co-authored Stained Glass before 1700 in the Midwest United States (Harvey Miller Press, London, 2002). Most recently she edited Art, Piety, and Destruction in the Christian West, 1500–1700, Ashgate, 2010. Her museum exhibits have included Glory in Glass: Stained Glass in the United States: Origin, Variety and Preservation 1998-99, and Reflections on Glass: 20th Century Stained Glass in American Art and Architecture, 2002-03, at the Gallery at the American Bible Society, and, most recently Pilgrimage and Faith: Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam a traveling exhibition to appear in Worcester, Chicago, Richmond, and The Rubin Museum of Art, New York from 2010 through 2011. She also wrote the catalogue essay for Kiki Smith’s recent exhibition in the Pace Gallery, New York: Kiki Smith: Lodestar, 2010.

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