Pace Galleries

The Bizarre and Beautiful World of Kiki Smith

Walking up to the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, you can't help but notice the current main attraction: the building's impressive Richard Meier/Renzo Piano-designed white facade is splashed with colorful posters advertising the huge "Picasso to Warhol" exhibit. MutualArt recently visited the prestigious institution, but our appetite that day wasn't for more Picassos and Warhols; we were looking for something different, more unique, more... "out there." Luckily, as the leading art museum in the Southeast and one of the most visited in the world, the museum has something for everyone and in particular, another new show on view that could satiate our palate. We journeyed downstairs to the lower gallery, exploring Rituals, a solo show of Kiki Smith prints. Talk about out there - Kiki Smith is recognized as a feminist, politically oriented artist whose wild works have been known to send a shiver up viewers' spines. From weird and warped fairy tales to dissected portraits that look like something out of a "Bodies" exhibit, Smith's work is an exciting contrast to the typical modern masters on view upstairs. The exhibition at the High showcases the institution's recent acquisition of 56 Kiki Smith prints from collector Stephen Dull, which have made the museum a major national repository for Smith's graphic work. Check out our interview with Michael Rooks, the High's Modern and Contemporary Curator, and Seth Thompson, the Curatorial Assistant who curated the actual show. After the Q&A section, follow us down the rabbit hole as we take a more in-depth tour through the bizarre and beautiful world of Kiki Smith's creations. MutualArt: How/why did the High Museum become a repository for Kiki Smith prints? Michael Rooks: I think we would like to be a repository, so we just started! One of our strategies of the collection is to collect in-depth, where we have an opportunity to do so. So if you go upstairs to the Skyway level you'll see a few large works by Anish Kapoor, a gallery dedicated to Alex Katz, pieces by Ellsworth Kelly, Richter...Our thought is, museums always try to fill in the gaps and we'll never be able to fill all the gaps - we can't keep up. So one thing we can do is collect in-depth and provide that sort of experience to viewers, which is a more generous way of presenting art, instead of one of each. And for people who are not familiar with art, it's kind of confusing to see this, and then move to that, and then to the next thing, instead of being immersed in someone's career. MA: Besides the prints existing as a former private collection - is there another theme presented by the exhibition? Are all the works from the acquisition on show in this exhibition? Seth Thompson: For me it came together as a collection, and then I organized it based on my understanding of her work and the space that we have. Everything [from the acquisition] was included, and I laid it out initially, so I first thought about doing a timeline - life, death and resurrection - but that didn't work out so well and I had to actually think about the space as well. So with the [first room] I thought about having a nice, calm feel to it with the animal [prints], since she can get kind of...intense with her work. MR: I think what's great about how you [Seth] organized it was that you let the themes and subjects in the collection emerge and present themselves; you recognized that and played on that really well." MA: What are the major ideas that run through Smith's work? ST: Kiki Smith was born in Germany and was raised in New Jersey and her father was the sculptor Tony Smith, and her first experience with art was making these geometric models for her father's sculptures; and she was raised Catholic, so she has this influence from both of that. Her whole body of work is this combination of life, death and resurrection and she uses animals, spirits, mythology and organs to manifest that. So for example, when I saw this one (top image)- I don't really like worms - but then I realized she's saying that when you cut a worm in half they regenerate, and that'sher, and she uses herself in a lot of the work. And she uses a lot of mythology, she loves the "Little Red Riding Hood" story; we had these (below) before we acquired the 56 prints from Steven Dull - all of this was his collection except Jewel. MR: I would say she's one of the most important women in the last 30 years. She emerged in the early '90s and was known then for her sculpture and sculpture installations; she was known then, and perhaps still historically, as a feminist artist. And the kind of fairy tales she seems to be interested in are more old-world, where there's violent plots and transformations, where there is a heightened sensibility and characters who are eaten up. MA: What are your favorite works? ST: My favorites are My Blue Lake - it really freaks me out just because it's a photograph; and I like Sueno and Fawn- I just love that one (see further down in article for more). MR: I like the kitty cat, that's my favorite one; it's so naughty looking because its fangs are sticking out, but he's lying in this playful way, but then you see this little bird skeleton next to it; it looks so feral. MA: What do you hope people walk away with after seeing the show? ST: Generally speaking, just to get to know Kiki Smith as an artist - because I wasn't that familiar with her work to begin with, and the more I researched and studied her work and listened to what she had to say, I just fell in love with her work and her as a person, the way her mind processes things. And I love her unique take on spirituality and on art and spirituality as this common bond and I think that's rare in the art world; people aren't so aware of themselves, they just make work. But she seems fully aware of herself and her work and her physical body, and that comes out. MR: We brought a big Lynda Benglis show in the early '90s, we did the first big exhibition of her work. She's also one of the very important feminist artists that preceded Kiki Smith, so we have a history with exploring these pioneering women artists. But I think we need to do more of that, and I think this exhibition marks our renewed efforts at collecting and exhibiting art by women who've made a difference. So for the audience, [the goal is] to get to know Kiki Smith, because she is such an important artist; the whole marketing campaign for the big Picasso to Warhol show is "get to know Picasso, get to know Warhol"; and so on a larger scale, we've been trying to get to know Kiki Smith, and get to know Anish Kapoor upstairs, and get a sense of who these other people are because they've made a really important contribution as well, and they are women, they're people of mixed backgrounds. There's just great variety of work to see, from knock-your-socks-off Picasso to knock-your-socks-off Kiki Smith! Kiki Smith: Rituals is on view until January 22, 2012. The artist is coming to the High in January to do a talk with Michael Rooks, chief curator David Brenneman, and Robert Brown, master print maker at Savannah College of Art and Design.
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