She was in the middle of an utterly extemporaneous talk on printmaking as her favorite art form, in large part because of its low status in the hierarchy of mediums. This talk on printmaking was happening despite the fact that she does not like to give talks: "I basically don't have any necessity to talk in my life. I just do it when I'm asked." And despite the fact that her new show at the Henry Art Gallery is not about printmaking, it is about Smith's relationship to photography (I Myself Have Seen It: Photography and Kiki Smith, organized by Liz Brown and opening tonight—Smith described the show in the talk as "slightly endless"). It might have been nice to hear about photography, but the discussion about printmaking was an intentional block, an intentional misbehavior by an artist who is always being accused of misbehaving and clearly now intends simply to play the part.
She was simultaneously flip and fuck-you-commanding, saying things like, "I just put these [slides] in randomly; I have nothing to say" and "Oh, those are, um, some sculptures" along with "I dismantle hierarchical notions of what is good subject matter and good materials...I embrace the thing at the bottom of the barrel because it's not culturally used up, so it has a lot of heat."
"I do have very clear agendas," she announced, addressing the criticism of her work that it's too eclectic and not pointed enough, since it ranges from prints of sleeping women with animals on top of them to crinkled papers representing seeping mammary glands to bronze sculptures of raging women crouched on the wall, ready to pounce and destroy. "I do not want to be owned by art history," she boomed. (Although, it really has to be mentioned, she speaks with the undeniable intonation of a leprechaun.)
The disorganization of Smith's talk felt genuine and pointed, but her I'm-just-one-of-you lines felt like affectation.
"You can tell me when to stop talking," she said repeatedly.
But nobody tells Kiki Smith when to stop talking. They, instead, line up for autographs. The line after this talk included a trio of barely pubescent boys who asked her to make a drawing on their papers: she responded with a sullen X.
I had mixed feelings. I resonated deeply with some of what she said, and I like some of her work very much. (The murderous bronze woman on the wall, Lilith, never fails to knock me over.) She is clearly wise with age, and at several points in the talk, you could tell she was directly addressing the younger female artists in the room (several of whom showed up later, refreshed and inspired, on Facebook). If a talk by Kiki Smith makes female artists keep working rather than giving up, then I'm all for a talk by Kiki Smith.
Smith has made what she wanted to make. That included a lot of stuff thought to be "feminine": animals and girls and "spirits" on delicate papers, sewn into blankets, made out of glass or girly-crafty beads. (What a response to her father's Die.) Her materials have political implications.
"In the 70s, as feminists we said, 'I am not nature, I am not spirit, I am not unintellectual,' but we realized that not only was it in our best interests but in the best interests of the planet to align ourselves with nature and spirit, and we embraced that flip," she said. "That's the great thing about art. You can keep exploring different aspects of consciousness, and they don't have to hold for the entire rest of your life."
That seemed the wisest thing Smith left the artists in the audience with—the sense that your ideas are not weaker for being subject to change. What's lurking on the edges of what you're comfortable with, that won't go away but that doesn't seem to fit in?
All in all it was quite a night at the theater. And the show hasn't even opened yet.