Written by Daniel Mariotti
“I THINK A LOT OF MAKING ART IS LISTENING TO YOURSELF” -Kiki Smith
Kiki Smith was immersed in art from the beginning. Her mother, Jane Lawrence, was an American actress and opera singer who was part of the New York art scene beginning in the 1950s. Her father, Tony Smith, was an American sculptor, visual artist, and architectural designer. Her parents would have their friends such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Tennessee Williams, and Barnett Newman over the house all the time. As well as the decor of the home being filled with paintings of contemporary art. And maybe that’s why this overload of abstract and minimalist art like air to her is what made her make more figurative work.
Polaroid of the storefront of “Times Square Show” by Colab
While Kiki did start Art school at Hartford Art School in Connecticut she later dropped out and learned art making on her own. She then settled in New York and became part of Collaborative Projects, Inc. (Colab). In 1979 Colab put together the “Times Square Show,” which took place in what used to be a massage parlor, now just a 4 floor abandoned building. Labeled “the first radical art show of the ‘80s”, it was a revolutionary DIY art exhibition exhibiting over 100 artists. Kiki exhibited her first anatomically derived work. For many of the artists, the burned-out, bankrupt and destroyed New York of 1980 was the inspiration for the exhibition.
Several years later her and her sister Beatrice started training to become emergency medical technicians. Though never completed, this fueled her interest in anatomy and the human body and can be seen as an influence in her wax sculptures and etchings. Her work “Possession is Nine-tenths of the Law” shows a suite of prints of anatomically correct human organs, laid down and loosely covered with excess ink. Smith’s vision of the body as an “open vessel,” is paralleled by her open-ended movement between and manipulation of materials.
“Possession is Nine-tenths of the Law”
Kiki’s work began depicting sculptural works of the body influenced by Catholicism.
“Catholicism has these ideas of the host, of eating the body, drinking the body, ingesting a soul or spirit; and then of the reliquary, like a chop shop of bodies. Catholicism is always involved in physical manifestations of [spiritual] conditions, always taking inanimate objects and attributing meaning to them. In that way it’s compatible with art.”
“I grew up in a family with lots of illness. There was a family preoccupation with the body. Also, being Catholic, making things physical, they’re obsessed with the body. It seemed to me to be a form that suited me really well – to talk through the body about the way we’re here and how we’re living.”
Her Father died in 1980 due to a heart attack, her sister, Beatrice, died eight years later of AIDS.
And her work started to speak towards examining death as a subject matter. She also fully dedicated herself to art after her father’s death.
The loss of family has had an ever-lasting impact on Smith’s art. And it transcends into the nature of things. She uses animals and the human body together to create metaphor for everything in between life and death. We worked on a piece for her called “Birds and Shamrocks”. It shows 5 birds perched on squares, flowers, and stars. The squares remind me of the checkered pattern of a chess board being ethereally lifted from the board trying desperately to hold on. And the birds seem very calm with stars on them as if they have the answers to the questions we are asking. I guess in this metaphor we are the checkered pieces being lifted from the familiar board, struggling to leave. And that’s a good reminder when our lives feel overwhelmed with change. That we can (and should) count on our community and friends (the birds) to help us.
Though Kiki doesn’t have a personal website you can find her work literally everywhere including our PORTFOLIO PAGE
I’m also including two interviews with Kiki that I thought encompassed her personality and her views on her own work and the history of her work: