When Kiki Smith gave a talk for her new show I Myself Have Seen It: Photography & Kiki Smith at the University of Washington, the house was packed, but the slides weren't even in focus. She didn't bother pretending she'd prepared. She alternated between self-deprecating and authoritative, saying things like "I'm, like, a super-goofy person" 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" and "I do have very clear agendas. I do not want to be owned by art history."
Girl is nobody's bitch, was the point. And plainly, Smith intends to occupy all positions at once, to claim herself as actor and director, kook and intellectual, underdog and reluctant princess (she is the daughter of minimalist/modernist sculptor Tony Smith). Maybe occupying all positions at once is her radical move, her feint against the inherent vulnerability of being a female artist who not only works with the figure and with animals, but also had to clear some space for herself in the art world outside the shadow of her father. But for all Smith's bristling against the establishment, she is not the best poster child for feminist struggle: The art world so many female artists still fight to enter was her birthright in many ways.
Smith has made what she wanted to make, including 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 six-foot black cube, 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 was the wisest thing Smith left her Seattle audience with—the conviction that your ideas are not weaker for being subject to change. That's a feminist idea. It's also the absolute heart of I Myself Have Seen It, probably one of the best and most truly representative shows of Smith's art ever organized (I certainly haven't seen them all, but this unlocks Smith for me in ways more conventional showings utterly failed to do).
Smith herself described the show as "slightly endless," and there are so many photographs in it that the Henry is holding a contest for the person who can come closest to guessing how many are mounted, like a ribbon, along the baseboards of the galleries. In addition to those small photographs are larger ones above them, scattered all over the walls in all sorts of formations and sizes. There are also sculptures and large prints (ephemera, too: One is a print reading, "I was the one who copulated with my fist"); Smith is known as a sculptor and printmaker, but this show easily proves that photography is vital to understanding her. The artist has been showing photographs at least since 1992, but this is the first examination of how and why.
The curator of the show, Henry Art Gallery's Elizabeth Brown, wrote her doctoral thesis at Columbia University on the photographs of Constantin Brancusi. Those photographs constitute the only real record of Brancusi's studio, which has been assiduously re-created as a popular tourist stop in Paris. Long before installation art, Brancusi arranged his sculptures in, essentially, installations just for the camera. The photographs became new and definitive works in themselves, coming to redefine the identities of the sculptures, which are seen far less often than the easily disseminated photographs. Brancusi used photography as a form of control.
Smith uses photography to catalyze chaos. She does not photograph her works in order to make them look good, or to look any way at all: She photographs them so that they do not look one particular way. To the considerable study of the relationship between sculpture and photography that's taken place in contemporary art over the last decade, this exhibition adds an important chapter, one in which photography simply unmakes sculpture. It breaks it down from one—one object, right there—into a "slightly endless" cycle of images. They're easy friends because sculpture never was just one object anyway: Unlike two-dimensional work, you always have to walk around it, taking in various views. It's always a time-object, not just a space-object.
Watch closely what happens as you walk through the galleries in I Myself Have Seen It (the title gives you instruction). The photographs that line the baseboards relate to the photos, drawings, prints, and sculptures directly above them. How they relate is different in the different corners and regions of this vast country. A Zen monk made of foam with pencil marks on its surface is seated in front of a wall of photographs of Smith's other sculptures in various states of being, his hand raised as if in witness. He's telling you, the visitor, what to do; he's your avatar. But there are other levels, too. The foam monk is a pattern that was used to cast a bronze sculpture. A single, small photo on the wall to his left (the only photo on that entire wall; you can easily miss it) is a snapshot of the bronze monk. Time has gotten scrambled: The "final" bronze is contemplating his earlier version, a figure that's meanwhile busy contemplating a hundred other photographic moments.
In some cases the photos present perspectives meant to expand the iconography of the "final" works in distinct ways. There's a penetrating-the-labia shot of a wax model from the Harpies series (which, interestingly, hangs in the exact spot on the gallery wall where Nan Goldin's contested penetrating-the-labia-of-a-young-girl shot was in 2006). Pictures of spiderwebs encasing a row of teeth are morbid and melancholy. Sometimes these molds sat in the studio, languishing, and they may not exist at all anymore. The meaty, raw-steak-colored artist's wax in a photograph may have burned away—a form of cremation—in the casting. The photographs are memento mori.
In the same way that the exhibition refuses to value large photographs over small ones, or clear ones over blurry ones, or sculpture over photography, the book that goes with the exhibition is not just a document but an exhibition and a sculpture in itself. Four pieces of accessible, expansive writing by Brown are sandwiched between five photo essays by Smith. There are images in the book that are not in the show, including a harrowing vision of Smith's bronze Lilith when she was in orangey wax form, with glowing, gaping holes where her wild glass eyes—one of the most killing, penetrative stares in art history—would come to be. The fact that this easy-impact image didn't make it into the show is a testament to the fact that the exhibition was not assembled with simple impact in mind. That's why it rewards so much looking. You could never finish looking at it.
In the end, that's what you feel about Smith herself as an artist after I Myself Have Seen It. This show may be closer to a genuine retrospective, more Kikiesque, than one surveying her hits in their "finished" states. What a triumph for this woman who has repeatedly cast herself in her work as a crone or a witch, a postsexual, postfertile—but not postpleasure—creature. She has avoided the trap of selling her body, or of advertising her body as a factory for products of any kind. She's spun off into something more like an exploded divinity, always moving, but always right there.