I went to see the “I Myself Have Seen It” exhibit by Kiki Smith at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art. Smith is primarily known as a sculptor but this particular exhibit focused on her lesser-known photographic works over the past two decades or so. While there were a number of photos portraying real life subjects, Smith’s sculptures mostly took center stage as represented through her photographic lens. This raised some interesting points on the linkage between different mediums of artistic expression and how they often inform one another rather than detract from the overall artistic message.
Credit: Block Museum of Art
Smith is often identified with the feminist movement of art, and her work does reflect this tendency. However, it would be incorrect to merely assume that this is the only concept she is concerned with. Erotic representation compromises a large part of her work, as evidenced by the photograph above. The look on the sculpture’s face, the deep black of her eyes, the way the lighting reflects off of the eyes, and the vulnerable position in which she lays, and the ruby-red lips all inform this sensibility. The fact that this is a sculpture allows for Smith to have full control over the look, positioning, and the minute details that are often so hard to achieve with human models. The use of sculptures like the one above suggests a number of possible interpretations. Using sculpture could represent the exploitation of women’s bodies in major media photography as something created rather than realistically portrayed. It could also be a way to escape this rather negative idea as well. Both her physical artwork and photographic representations are unquestionably dark in tone (in message rather than color, though this applies as well) and this leads me to believe that her subject matter is not completely celebratory of the female figure. Nevertheless, there is a very particular beauty in what Smith attempts to show, straddling the line between morose and exultant.
Credit: Seattle Times
In the photo above, where Smith portrays a real human subject, the major ideas sprouting from her work remain the same. It is a legitimate question if the figure is deceased in a bouquet of greens, yellows, and oranges, which are heavily contrasted by the dark clothing of the model. The fallen basket of fruit raises some biblical allusions, another concept Smith has become known for throughout the years. The dark depth of the forest suggests a foreboding element present in the rest of her work, but this particular image stood out to me because it was one of the rarer examples in which Smith used a human subject to continually represent the concepts present in her sculpture work. It was chilling to see this figure with eyes closed, sprawled out hazily while surrounded by a melancholic setting where darkness is contrasted with the dying leaves of autumn. Again, there is a celebration of female form that also questions the merits of it at the same time.
Credit: Chicago Art Magazine
The exhibit will remain at the Block Museum of Art until mid-August and I would certainly like to attend again to try and understand even more of Smith’s fascinating work. The ideas behind sculpting a model to photograph gave me many ideas of cross-referencing different artistic mediums, especially because I am mostly a musician and rather new to photography. I will elaborate upon these ideas further in another blog post.