Body and Soul
The human body has been on the minds of many Houstonians since February, when "Gunther von Hagens' BodyWorlds 3: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies" opened at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Driving our cars down the highway, we've been greeted by its billboards featuring images of flayed corpses holding their own skins aloft. Watching our televisions, we've seen commercials with staring human carcasses displaying their organs, inviting families to come see the show. And come they did: Nothing fascinates us like ourselves.
Artist Kiki Smith shares this fascination -- the human body and its organs and systems have inspired some of her best-known work. Where "BodyWorlds" blended information with tasteless corpse staging, Smith explores the idea of the body, addressing its biological, psychological and cultural aspects. Essentially her sole subject matter from the '80s to the mid-'90s, the body is the basis for the strongest pieces in "Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005," a 25-year survey of the artist's work at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston curated by Siri Engberg of the Walker Art Center.
Smith has modeled the body in paper and cast it in wax, plaster, bronze and resin. She has sculpted its organs and depicted its fluids. She's made drawings and prints of it. One of the most engaging aspects of her art is her deft hand with a variety of materials. And while her body-oriented works have their visceral, icky moments, they're overwhelmingly imbued with a poignant beauty and poetry.
Smith started out exploring individual organs and appendages. Her Uro-Genital System (Female) and (Male) (1986), cast in bronze with a green patina, hang on the wall. These roughly modeled bas-relief sculptures of the reproductive and urinary hardware of a woman and a man have a linear, organic, almost plantlike look. But the weighty hard metal is the antithesis of soft, malleable tissue, and the sculptures are as far removed from a clinical diagram as one could imagine.
Her 1987-90 series of silvered glass water bottles explores the more fleeting aspects of the human body. Each vessel has the name of a different bodily fluid etched on its surface in gothic letters. The piece alludes to the ancient concept of bodily humors, but instead of the traditional four, Smith has come up with 12, among them pus, urine, vomit, semen, sweat, tears...I'll bet most of us have never sat down and tried to list every fluid our bodies produce. The range is amazing -- and nauseating. But the incongruously labeled silver bottles look purposefully elegant sitting on their pedestal in a neat row -- ready to contain, collect and quantify the fluids of the body.
Smith fabricated 230 sperm of glass and made the fluid sculptural in an untitled 1989-90 work. Each one is individually crafted and about ten inches long, from head to wriggling tail. Smith has set the frostily transparent bodies against a square of black rubber, arranging them in a giant circle so they seem to all be swimming in toward a central unseen target. It's a really beautiful piece inspired by the most unlikely of subjects -- compare this to the desperate, squiggling, tadpolelike stuff of biology-class films. It's also a rare instance of an artist doing something interesting with glass, a marvelous material that's rarely used, and even more rarely used well.
One of Smith's early works dealing with the exterior of the body is From Heart to Hand (1989). An arm hangs on the wall, connected to a lumpy heart by a strand. Crafted from gampi paper and coated with deep red ink, the surface is crumpled like wrinkled flesh and feels just as frail. You know it's only paper and ink, but it feels as visceral as raw meat.
In another untitled 1989 piece, the bloodiness is bleached away and only the frailty remains. Here, cream gampi paper is pasted together to create a husklike lower half of a woman's body, which is suspended from the ceiling. Between her legs, a cord dangles down with a tiny infant attached. You could imagine a cord dangling from the infant as well, with its own child, the life cycle continuing indefinitely in a connected chain.
Smith cast whole figures in wax for an untitled 1990 work in which a nude man and woman hang from metal stands. Pigmented in fleshy tones, their features are blurred to anonymity. Their heads hang forward limply, and they're painted with milk streaming from the woman's nipples and semen dripping from the man's penis. Here the fluid is futile, frustrated, neither nurturing nor fertilizing.
Moving beyond a fascination with the biological, the body in Smith's work increasingly becomes connected with stories, myths and fairy tales. In Lilith (1994), a figure of a nude woman crouches upside down on the wall like a lizard. Aside from her placement on the wall, the bronze sculpture seems fairly conventional -- until you see her face. A pair of frighteningly lifelike glass eyes with ice-blue pupils stare out from a dark, impassive visage. Standing next to her, you expect them to blink like the eyes of some painted mime. The figure can be read as ominous, but there's a kind of eerie tragedy to it as well. The eyes impart the feeling that someone is trapped inside and peering out, pleading with you to help her escape her bronze prison.
In the past decade, Smith made a transition from her primarily body-oriented works, shifting her focus to nature, animals in particular. Daughter (1999) is a synthesis of the two. A small papier-mch figure of a girl wears a hooded cape of red felt like Little Red Riding Hood. Around four feet tall, she stares up with glass eyes, ringed with fine little lashes, set in her white-paper face. But it's obvious who fathered her; long wolfish strands of hair grow from her face. The work was a collaboration with Margaret De Wys, who created a haunting audio track on a motion sensor. It's pretty great, but the audio made me want more staging and theatrics from Smith's usually spare presentations.
When Smith turns her hand to animals, as in her Black Animal Drawing (1996-1998), a 36-foot etching of a collection of animals -- a deer, a wolf, a peacock, etc. -- the images and ideas are just as good, but somehow the pull they have on the viewer isn't as strong. They don't have anywhere near the impact of her body-focused works. The thing is, people are absolutely amazed by themselves. However much we might adore animals, they don't rivet us the way seeing our own kind does. A "BodyWorlds" filled with bear, dog and bird carcasses might be interesting, but it would never have anywhere near the same attendance records. Smith's survey shows us the work of an interesting and talented artist who has moved on from her most intriguing subject.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Houston.