Visual Arts

Kiki Smith's Photography Engages With the World at SMOCA

"I wish Kiki Smith had been my biology teacher."

That's what I can't help thinking as I take my first enthusiastic looks around "I Myself Have Seen It: Photography and Kiki Smith" at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

The experience of entering the first of three rooms (and the one most concerned with nature themes) is not unlike walking into a biology teacher's classroom — one who's been around long enough to have a menagerie of empty mayonnaise jars filled with things, glass gallon jars holding in liquid the entrails of some invertebrate, a curiosity cabinet filled with insects with pins through their thoraxes, taxidermied animals.

But this is a contemporary art exhibition, not biology class, and what's on display here is not captured in jars but captured in photographs. In fact, more than 1,000 photographs, some formally staged and some informal and improvisational, illustrate how photography has played a role in the development of Smith's visual language and in the creation and repetition in her art.

There also is this palpable, obvious interest in the biological workings of the body — especially the female body — and the cycle of life and regeneration. Making drawings and objects about organs and the nervous system, all of which has me a caught up in this fantasy of what it would be like to have Kiki Smith leading lectures on life and origin and living organisms. Somehow incorporating her interests in fairy tales and myth, like mixing Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth with the biology of the human body and a bit of the Addams Family thrown in for good measure. What a great class that would be!

This show gets the imagination swirling, even if it is an odd duck. If you are familiar with Kiki Smith's work, photography is not the first thing that comes to mind. She probably is best known for her sculptures and printmaking. And though there is some of that included in the show, don't come expecting a lot of it. This is foremost a photographic exhibit. The strength of "I Myself Have Seen It" is that it is a survey of an artist's visual language through photographs. It explores how photography becomes part of Smith's creative process and how she uses the photographs as reference points.

Circling the perimeter of the gallery space just above the baseboards is a row of 1,300 four-by-six-inch photographs — birds, trees, flowers, fruits, scenes of domesticity, and religious iconography. These photographs are extemporaneous in tone. They are, in a way, like a photo diary or creativity boards that Smith might go to for inspiration.

Arranged in vignettes on the walls are formally framed chromogenic prints. Some of the photographs are of Smith's own sculpture. Smith, who photographs continuously as part of her art practice, made all the photos using a traditional 35-millimeter camera.

The range of photographic work is like seeing an inventory of images that Smith intuitively revisits, mixes up, and reuses. The images become like underlying narratives. Smith has said, "Art is something that moves from your insides into the physical world." And one of the best reasons to see the show is this sense that you are getting a glimpse into her creative mind-set and visual ideas.

To that point, I wish the four-by-six snapshots had been displayed more densely in a couple of large arrangements rather than in a single line across the baseboards. They were so low to the ground that it made them difficult to look at closely unless you crouched down. More important, it would have been easier to make visual connections between and among them if they had been arranged in larger groups or clusters.

In other parts of the exhibition, Smith's use of photography serves other functions. In the second room, a sculpture of a female form (Smith's character of Genevieve) is bent at the waist. Smith is known for using the same form over and over. She reworks the model, casting and recasting. In this way, by making her sculptural pieces like characters, they get to appear again or have more than just one representation. It is a paradigm of infinite use. Photographs taken from the beginning of a project appear with the sculptures they inspired.

Likewise, Smith's take on fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty and Red Riding Hood are photographed through a sequence of staged narratives. Smith is exploring the reappearance of certain themes and associations. Also on display are hand-pulled lithographs and prints that seem the most autobiographical of the work.

Claire Carter, coordinating curator for the show at SMoCA, says, "Really, all of the work in the exhibition is an example of Smith's process — her engagement with the world, her inspirations and muses, the process of documenting the various states of her drawings, carvings, sculptures." See the show to get your own visual associations flowing.

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Sativa Peterson
Contact: Sativa Peterson