Kiki Smith came to prominence as an artist in the early 1990s with sculptures that accomplished the seemingly impossible: They took the oldest subject in art, the human body, and made it over in a strikingly contemporary way. In her slumped, crouching and introverted figures made of beeswax and bronze, Ms. Smith broke not only from the lineage of the heroic human figure, but also from the example of her famous father, Tony Smith, who worked in an austere, Minimalist vein. In doing so, Ms. Smith aligned herself with artists like Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse, whose deeply personal sculptures had been absorbed into the new feminist art canon.
The early 1990s were also the height of the AIDS crisis in this country (one of Ms. Smith’s younger twin sisters died of AIDS in the late 1980s), and various ideas about the human body, particularly in response to the new epidemic, were circulating in and around the art world. The Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva, influenced in part by the earlier texts of the rogue surrealist Georges Bataille, wrote about the “abject,” a cast-off horror that one has to face (like a corpse, or an AIDS-racked body). This idea, as well as Sigmund Freud’s idea of the “uncanny,” an eeriness attached to inanimate, anthropomorphic figures, were popular concepts, and both were linked to Ms. Smith’s work. At the same time, ’70s feminism, informed by film theory and other academic developments, was evolving into something that would be called post-feminism.
Much has changed in 20 years, and so has Ms. Smith’s work. The human figure is no longer the focus of her output. And while contemporary art theory leans more toward the political, the economic and the social — particularly in recent months, with the Occupy movement inspiring many artists — Ms. Smith has become more ethereal and spiritual, a kind of earth mother/artist, producing drawings, tapestries and sculptures suggestive of talismans instead of aesthetic objects.
On the whole, the recent and new works in “Visionary Sugar: Works by Kiki Smith,” at the Neuberger Museum of Art of Purchase College, aren’t as arresting or powerful as her earlier ones, although they feel very personal. Like Ms. Bourgeois, Ms. Smith has created a lexicon of animals and images that conjure, if not a fully developed cosmology, a view of the world as magical, mystical and full of wonder. Some of the best works are jacquard tapestries, which are made on looms and end up looking more like upholstery material than carpets. Three tapestries made in 2011 — “Earth,” “Underworld” and “Sky” — include large nude figures floating in fields of birds, flowers and plants, as well as a few sections that resemble famous and beloved European works on view in the New York area, like the unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Along with these are drawings of plants and full-length self-portraits of the artist done on delicate, fibrous Nepal paper; sculptures cast in aluminum with gold leaf and suspended from the ceiling like giant tree ornaments, like “Moon, Stars and Cloud” (2011); and a 2008 sculpture titled “Annunciation.” Harking back to Ms. Smith’s earlier days, “Annunciation” is a cast aluminum figure with a disproportionately large head, seated, with a hand raised in a gesture often found in Christian works, when Mary’s miraculous, immaculate conception is announced by a messenger angel. There are also reliefs cast in bronze with gold, silver or palladium leaf, representing wolves, birds or a cascade of stars, as in “Starbows” or “Teaching of the Snakes I” and “Teaching of the Snakes II,” all from 2011, which suggest many tribal and spiritual traditions. Some of the art is so new that it was just being added to the museum’s checklist of exhibited works when the show opened.
A statement accompanying the show describes the work as “embracing the vitality of an animistic, spiritually-charged universe,” and includes a quote by Ms. Smith saying that her work originates in a personal narrative about “how imperative it is at this moment to celebrate and honor the wondrous and precarious nature of being here on earth.”
Those words echo much of what has been written about Native American art, particularly in its attempt to link humans with nature and the universe. Ms. Smith’s sculptures and works on paper approximate some of these practices — the wolves and birds and “teaching” snakes — but with their consciously naïve rendering, they also resemble outsider or folk art. There is a distinct move away from the skillfully rendered figures of her earlier work into a kind of self-imposed regression.
In some ways this is fine: artists from Matisse to Monet became freer with color and line as they got older, to the point where many contemporary viewers found their work almost unintelligible. But Ms. Smith’s recent work feels a little too precious. While it clearly draws on folk art and American Indian art, the animism and spirituality of the latter was vital to its being: it was imperative to communicate with the spirits, not as an aesthetic gesture or a form of escape from the world, but because existence — yours, and that of your ancestors and descendents — depended upon it. Ms. Smith’s current work feels like a flimsy, flighty escape into New Age vagueness, through shiny, glittery images and objects, rather than a journey in which essential connections are established between humanity, nature and the universe.
One would not want to return — or force Ms. Smith to return — to the moment when her work seemed most vital. And yet there is no question that the sculptures created in that distinct and tragic moment resonated deeply with many viewers. She is a revered artist because of her work from that period, which is the reason this show is being mounted. Were the same viewers to discover her work now, in its current incarnation, it is doubtful that Ms. Smith would have developed such a large and devoted audience.
“Visionary Sugar: Works by Kiki Smith” runs through May 6 at the Neuberger Museum of Art of Purchase College, 735 Anderson Hill Road, Purchase. Information: neuberger.org or (914) 251-6100.