Internationally-recognized, German-born, New York based artist Kiki Smith, is widely acknowledged for her early 1980s sculptural expressions of the female body. Often shown as anatomical fragments - which were powerfully conveyed via objects and drawings based on human organs, cellular forms and the nervous system – Smith’s overall sense of the fragility of life and a heightened awareness of mortality reflected the cultural mood of the time. Staying true yet evolving, the recurrent subject matter in Smith’s work has been the body as a receptacle for knowledge, belief, and storytelling while further incorporating through the years, aspects of Nature such as animals and birds, as narrative expressions of ancient myths and folk tales. Smith’s distinctive language often communicates in thematic ways – anchored in a kind of sacred triad – where life, death and resurrection speak to the human condition and the cyclical nature of all things.
Well-respected for her multimedia studio practice and broad sense of experimentation, Smith’s ongoing creative vision and exploration of a range of techniques has made the medium of tapestry an inspired vehicle for the artist’s language. While tapestry itself is rooted in the Medieval - a visually ripe medium in which to convey ancient narratives for Smith – it is the current contemporary mode in the evolved Jacquard weaving process (established in 1804), which employs the digital sophistication in order to produce the artist’s compelling tactile surfaces. Smith begins with collaged layouts for her suite of tapestries which involve an endless variety of techniques and media, with glitter, colored pencil, watercolor and a myriad of printed materials including cut Nepalese paper in a landscape of widely diverse textures. She then sends a large-scale collage on paper to the noted Magnolia Editions tapestry studio, often accompanied by various smaller etchings and drawings. These components are then scanned and photographed at high resolution and then combined and manipulated digitally by the artist. After each digital revision, Smith and the studio print large-scale proofs on paper so that the artist can continue to work directly on their surfaces with more watercolors, ink, and other media. “This way,” Magnolia Editions’ Donald Farnsworth points out, “the artist’s reaction is physical, in her studio; she’s not just reacting to a computer screen.” Each tapestry edition undergoes dozens of steps and versions on its way to completion, from large collaged paper drawings to digital files; prints to reprints to reprints with over-painting and more collaging; painting, weaving, and reweaving until each detail, texture, and color meets exactly with Smith’s specifications. In some cases, the weavings take several years to reach its last incarnation. This final weaving of each mixed-media amalgam into a single textile-object carries within it, according to the artist, a metaphoric message of a complex layered world revealing an abundance of interwoven threads which further suggest in symbol, a pervasive spiritual connection. Smith’s woven editions are united further by the series of horizontal bands that pass through each tapestry, as if to suggest that within each ‘realm’ there exists the same strata of sky, land, and underground, where all humans, plants and animals share existence as equals.
Within the process of making editioned work, such as textile or printmaking, Kiki Smith conveys that for her the act of repetition is a powerful tool, both visually and behaviorally, and that she uses repetition to express spiritual or ritualistic feelings throughout her artwork. She states that the process “mimics what we are as humans: we are all the same and yet everyone is different. I think there’s a spiritual power in repetition, a devotional quality, like saying rosaries.” The artist also suggests a theme that is common to all of the tapestries is an absence of boundaries, in keeping with animistic spiritual traditions and myths. Smith shares that the presence of plants, animals, and heavenly bodies in the series suggest “how imperative it is at this moment to celebrate and honor the wondrous and precarious nature of being here on earth.”
Kiki Smith’s work has been the subject of numerous one-person exhibitions worldwide including over 25 solo museum exhibitions, including the retrospectives Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which traveled to the Walker Art Center, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, Kiki Smith: Sojourn at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum (2009), and Kiki Smith: Prints, Books, and Things at the Museum of Modern Art (2004). She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is the recipient of several awards including the 2012 National Medal of Arts, conferred by Hillary Clinton; the 2010 Nelson A. Rockefeller Award, Purchase College School of the Arts; the 2009 Edward MacDowell Medal, and the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture in 2000, among others. In 2006, Smith was recognized by TIME Magazine as one of the “TIME 100: The People Who Shape Our World.” She is an adjunct professor at NYU and Columbia University.