Feb 28, 2014 – Mar 29, 2014
Kiki Smith’s work in recent years has developed a trajectory of landscape. In the Neuberger Museum of Arts’ Visionary Sugar: Works by Kiki Smith of 2013, the tapestries, sculptures, and drawings suggested a journey in space and in time. Her new exhibition, Wonder, at the Pace Gallery continues this direction with sculptures (pedestal, wall and suspended), tapestry, glass paintings, and three-dimensional leaded and painted glass sculptures. There is a wealth of glass.
Smith’s previous installation at Pace, Lodestar, gathered a sequence of glass panels, each with a drawing of a character. The series paralleled her earlier works on paper, but allowed the figures to move from the walls into space and to assume a gathering that evoked familial identity. The links, however, avoided the linear, mixing ages, stages of life, and context so that the whole achieved a transcendence of the human condition. The images were monochrome, familiar from late-medieval and Renaissance roundels, perhaps best expressed as drawing on glass (the paint, however, always subsequently fired). In Wonder, Smith adds more colors. The series of eagles (Raptor I and Raptor II) incorporate the dark neutral of the traditional vitreous paint with warm browns and silver reflections from enamels. The glass panels with their painted creatures lie flat on the wall, yet achieve a solid, corporeal presence. The eagles soar in a deep field evoked by the clear glass. Their freedom becomes a complement to another wall-sized glass piece, Prelude, with its claustrophobic massing of felled trees. The piece is complex, ominous, suggesting an exhausted, pillaged land.
Smith has been drawn to the motif of stars during the past decades. They appear consistently in her work – somehow making a link between the radiance produced by the mundane of a light bulb and celestial bodies. They often evoke the mythological and the fairytale, when a crescent moon sculpture connects with a star. Constellation, a sculptural installation of 1996 consisted of two dozen small glass animals and almost 70 stars scattered across a blue-toned floor. The same year, Smith created lithographs of a human face strew with zodiacal markings reminiscent of medieval manuscripts.
At Pace, a room has been given over to Smith’s Rogues Stars, who have decided to invade the earth. They march along briskly intersecting with human company; in fact, they are composed of human company. The stars consist of segments cut from clear class and from panels painted with images; we glimpse a series of toes, fingers, strands of hair, a sliver of a face, or a texture of a garment. Like much of Smith’s work, the stars bristle with emanations that stretch to a long past. After iconoclastic destruction of medieval church windows in England, fragments of glass, including figural elements but more commonly decorative borders, were often leaded together in an almost “crazy quilt” pattern. Smith’s rogue stars seem as if the windows are on the march. They suggest life, often shattered, but reassembled. We are given a fragmentary glimpse of self, as in the twinkling of star light that illuminates only partially, and sporadically.
The installation continues the success of a public commission by the Art Production Fund, installed May through September, 2012, in The Last Lot project space on 8th Avenue and 46th Street in New York. The brilliantly colored stars that made up the installation, Chorus, were a tribute to Josephine Baker, the African-American entertainer who became “la Baker”, and the toast of Paris in the 1920s. Smith’s interview with Priscilla Frank of the Huffington Post (05/30/2012) expressed the artist’s delight in glass: “I have been working with stained glass for about 25 years. I have rarely had the opportunity to make it in an architectural context simply because nobody had asked me. . . . I was excited to be working with color, endless color.” The setting of Times Square embraced the intensity of color. In the room dedicated to Smith’s Rogue Stars, she returns to her earlier work in earth-tones.
Smith’s tapestries continue the work she showed in Visionary Sugar. In that exhibition, the subjects of Earth, Underworld, and Sky attested to Smith’s play with mythology but also the classical tradition of seeing the world constructed of four basic elements, earth, air, fire, and water. Smith’s tapestries, unlike those produced by her colleague Chuck Close, do not work in parallel with her previous imagery. The artist is highly sensitive to line, and has produced a compelling series of prints and drawings. Her sculpture, likewise, presents form via contour. Her complex tapestries are the works that more closely approach painting, allowing overlaying of imagery and dense and subtle shifts of color. Recently Kiki Smith was an artist in residence at the University of North Texas. Her resultant exhibition, Transformations (January 29 through February 27) include five large tapestries, woven at Magnolia Editions, Oakland California, with whom has collaborated on previous works in the medium. The Jacquard loom, which made this possible, is of particular interest to us today because in 1801 it introduced the use of punched cards, a vital step in the development of computers.
The subject matter of the tapestries at Pace, however, echoes many of Smith’s deeply considered expressions; the eliding of the human form as product of, or at least a possessing symbiotic relationship with, nature. In one of the tapestries, like the character Rima, from W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions, the pubescent form of a young woman rests among small animals, a bat, several squirrels, owls, and spotted fawn. Blue and white streams of light silhouette the figures. In others, spider webs entrap a multi-hued radiance as butterflies roam untethered; a deer apparently contemplates the seed pods of autumn strewn like a mille-fleur pattern; blue stars descend to earth. All seems calm and all seems magically inviting.