A trio of showcases for ‘highly influential’ artist
Eldridge St. Synagogue anticipates Kiki Smith-designed window
BY STEPHANIE BUHMANN
In these final days of spring, New York quietly showcases the work of the highly influential contemporary artist Kiki Smith. Though Smith (who has enjoyed major international recognition since the 1990s) frequently has her works included in museum exhibitions and collections, it is unfortunately rare to find comprehensive installations in her own city. Thankfully, three current projects provide a fragmented but enticing mini-survey of her work.
Smith was born in 1954, as the daughter of the famous American sculptor Tony Smith — but in many ways, she has remained as mysterious as her work. Over the years, she’s explored a large variety of mediums to express a wide spectrum of ideas — but ultimately, Smith explores the world by exploring herself. This thought lingers after visiting and thinking about her current New York projects, two of which are rather personal meditations on the interior and exterior lives of women.
“Kiki Smith: Sojourn” (through September 12th, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn.)
The Brooklyn Museum is the final destination for “Sojourn” — after having traveled to museums in Germany and Spain. It is situated in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, bordering on Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party.” The content was inspired by an 18th Century needlework by Prudence Punderson. In “The First, Second, and Last Scene of Mortality” (1776-83), Punderson addressed various stages in a woman’s domestic life. Though Smith traces similar chapters, she adds a focus on a woman’s need for creative expression. Not far from the exhibition on the same floor, the museum displays its collection of 18th and 19th Century homes and interiors. These historic rooms are often intimately scaled — and so are the segments Smith establishes in “Sojourn.” Her installation consists of so-called “rooms,” which are dedicated to different facets of a woman’s life.
In the first “room,” several drawings feature versions of the same woman as she is seated near a window. The figures are rendered in black and white. Rare hints of color only accentuate the ordinary, such as shoes and shirts. These scenes are followed by images dedicated to motherhood. Mothers are shown with young children or while holding babies — but the most striking image portrays a pregnant woman holding her belly in an expression of protection and awe. They are intimate scenes that also contain a blend of conflicting sentiments. The obvious sense of tenderness is infiltrated with the weight of motherly duty.
There is imagery that recurs throughout the exhibition, including light bulbs and flowers. Rather than posing a riddle, Smith’s symbolism appeals to our imagination and individual interpretation. While the light bulb might be synonymous with enlightenment, the flowers could be a reference to Punderson’s time, when the arranging of flowers was one of the few everyday creative outlets a woman could enjoy in the context of her home. On one wall, several works feature collections of flowers painted on reflective silver surfaces. As visitors observe each still life, they become part of the work, emphasizing the individuality of the self and of the reflected flower arrangement.
“Sojourn” ends with what is the final stage for all — death. A wooden casket culminates the exhibition. Set on a table, it is only slightly open. Upon close inspection, one realizes that instead of holding a figure, it contains something more surreal and poetic: a group of delicate flowers made of glass. One is reminded of symbol of the blue flower in Romanticism, a symbol of love and desire, which only grows in the most remote places and can only be discovered by those who are gifted and inspired. Smith’s flowers of glass also grow in the shadow of our conscious. They are fragile and yet determined signifiers of the creative spirit.
“Kiki Smith: Lodestar” (through June 19th, at The Pace Gallery, 545 West 22nd St.)
“Sojourn” inspired Smith’s exhibition “Lodestar” at The Pace Gallery — which is comprised of one sole work, “Pilgrim.” A lodestar is a bright, easily found star that can be used to find direction, and in the context of Smith’s recent body of work this exhibition indeed does provide us with such. The works in “Sojourn” and “Lodestar” are intertwined and their narratives often seem to run parallel — but despite the obvious cross-references they also stand apart. Consisting of nearly thirty hand-painted stained glass panels that are each held by a standing steel frame, “Pilgrim” makes for a very different viewing experience.
Installed cohesively in one open space filled with natural light, the panels are arranged in a large field. Through the panels’ translucence, Smith’s drawings can be seen frontally, but also in a more faint version from verso.
While Smith’s focus is again on the cyclical journey, some of these compositions are outlandish. One of the most disturbing scenes shows a woman giving birth — her belly painfully swollen and her child appearing between her legs, its eyes still closed. It is a blatant depiction of the mother-child connection, which is rooted in intimacy and pain. Grimmer subjects are balanced with scenes of hope, including scenes of group support and mutual empowerment. As in “Sojourn,” the themes of birth and death function as the definitive bookends for the female experience — but the storyline in “Pilgrim” is less linear. If “Sojourn” unfolds like a book, ”Pilgrim” suggests the structure of a jazz song.
Eldridge Street Synagogue (12 Eldridge St., btw. Canal and Division Streets)
Contemplating the spiritual aspects of Smith’s works, it seems fitting that one of her creations will be permanently installed at the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Since the fall of 2009 — when the Museum at Eldridge Street commissioned Smith to design a new monumental east window for the synagogue — magazines, newspapers and online sources have been abuzz with anticipation. The installation of the window, which is scheduled for October 2010, will mark the final component of this organization’s 20-year restoration project.
Built in 1887, the Eldridge Street Synagogue, which is one of the earliest, surviving synagogues erected in the United States by Eastern European Jews, is a testament to New York’s history of immigration. It was not only a haven for Jewish immigrants, but a point of reference in a new world. As a central focus point, Smith’s window will have a significant impact on the overall mood inside the space. She has envisioned an array of five-pointed stars — an existing motif painted on the sanctuary’s wall, swirling toward a central Star of David.
Smith’s take on spirituality is of an independent and creational nature. Considering the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s diverse cultural program, which includes musical performances and lectures, Smith’s window design avoids literalism and instead evokes a wide spectrum of cultural and spiritual references, ranging from the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “Magic Flute” to Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”
It is Smith’s strength to create works that appear contemporary but timeless. It is her gift for emotionally evocative storytelling that makes her work shine. The more thoroughly one explores her work, the more obvious it becomes that Smith sets the stage, establishes the tone, leaves the room and then lets us explore her realm — one body of work at the time.