Speaking during a preview the day before her latest exhibition, Sojourn
, opened at the Brooklyn Museum
's Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art (through September 12), Kiki Smith
explained the origins of the show's title. "I've always liked Sojourner Truth's name," she said, "not only because it's a terrific name, but because she chose it, she made it. For a woman to choose her own name seems to me an incredible thing." Smith continued: "But I'm also drawn to the idea of a sojourn, of taking a vacation from oneself, from one's life."
Moments before delivering these thoughts while leaning casually on a gallery wall, Smith was adding pencil lines to the faces in one of the exhibition's biggest works, a roughly 30 by 8 foot drawing of life-size female figures on paper. For Smith, clearly, there are very few vacations. Now 56 and at the height of a career that really took off in the early 80s, she's perhaps the most important American female artist from the generation that followed immediately on the heels of the radical feminist artists of the 60s and 70s. Her multi-pronged practice, at once playful, contemplative and very ambitious in what often seems a strangely subdued way, is often categorized as feminist art, though as this show attests, its reach is must broader.
Walking through her long installation in Sojourn
, which extends over seven rooms and into two of the museum's period rooms, one does get the feeling of being transported into another life, of taking a break from the present to walk through someone else's timeline. Smith's installation, now in its fourth and largest evolution after stops in Germany and Spain, takes its inspiration from the obscure silk work "The First, Second, and Last Scene of Mortality
" created by Prudence Penderson between 1776 and 1783. Presented at the entrance to the exhibition, this prescient artifact portrays the life of a woman artist (a practically non-existant figure at the time) in three stages: infancy, adulthood and death. Smith builds on this tryptic to unfold the stages of life into seven rooms, inserting frequent allusions to the Annunciation
—the scene from Christian mythology when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus Christ—not as that moment when a woman finds out her life is subordinate to that of a more important man, but rather as an analogy for artistic inspiration. Throughout, drawn and sculpted figures (all of whom, however androgynous, are women) reach skyward tentatively, as if amazed and a little afraid, towards birds, lightbulbs, older women and projections of their own spirits.
The first room, then, represents youth or childhood. At its center, "Annunciation", the seated aluminum statue of a girl in Smith's trademark stylized aesthetic—head a little oversized, details of physique and dress minimized to focus attention on face and posture—stands near a drawing of a window, and extends a hand towards "Messenger III", the golden leafed aluminum bird suspended above her amidst refracted prisms of light. Following galleries depict visions of motherhood and adulthood, Smith's figures taking on more sharply defined facial features and markers of personal style.
In the most magical of these spaces two wide drawings, each featuring three of her life-sized female figures rendered with many expressive yet precise marks of ink, pencil and graphite on crinkly Nepal paper, face each other on either side of the room above which hangs a set of twenty or so glittering papier-mâché light bulbs that might be exploding or just shining very bright. Many of these figures, like those in the other rooms, hold colorful bouquets of flowers, the most prominent flashes of color in an exhibition dominated by grays and blacks. These and other motifs, including chairs, glitter, evocative textures and textiles, stars, tattoos, windows and mirrors, are the foundations of a visual lexicon that Smith deploys, re-works and disassembles throughout Sojourn
's immersive vacation from ourselves.
After passing a sultry adult version of the aluminum figure reclining on a chair in a negligée, surrounded by bouquet-adorned mirrors and with the bird of inspiration perched on her hand, viewers round a corner and enter the exhibition's late-life stages. Here, a middle-aged aluminum figure stands upright, extending the bouquet to visitors as if passing along her wisdom and ideas. This is the closest Smith comes to self-portraiture in Sojourn
. In nearby drawings, female figures of various ages, races and classes stand side by side, their pencil-marked bodies evoking at once the tortured physiques of Egon Schiele portraits
and the almost cartoonish, classical illustration style of Marcel Dzama
Looming immediately beyond are a set of coffins, some drawn in heavy black ink, another constructed from wood and housing the wilted bouquet, now rendered in ethereal glass. This room, the installation's last, is its most moving, not only because of the narrative closure it provides—the space is very literally a wake, with papier-mâché chairs set about the room and the coffin lid propped open for viewing—but also for the immense variety of exquisite artworks it contains. A series of six woodblock prints of corpses in hospital beds, their features defined with thin, fine lines amidst stark black backdrops, is particularly gripping, and evokes the grim beauty of Kathe Kollwitz
prints. Smith contrasts these weighty visions with the scintillating life-size female figures nearby. These are composed of collage, ink, graphite and glitter, their tentacle-like dresses fluttering and glinting across the walls, the spectacular fabrics a marked change from the muted fashions everywhere else in the show, their eyes partly covered with eyelid-like pieces of paper decorated with lashes. Somewhere between life, death and dream, these liminal figures bring the themes of Annunciation and inspiration full circle, substituting these angelic characters for the birds perched throughout the installation.
Taken as a stylized, symbolic life cycle, Sojourn
's epilogue (or prologue, depending on when you see it, just make sure you do) is a series of giant puppets and small paintings on antique glass installed in two of the nearby period rooms of the Major Henry Trippe House. These puppets, articulated, mâché cousins of the aluminum sculptures in the main exhibition, have an immediate emotional impact. They appear more embodied and frail, all the more so for their theatrical hanging in the stately period home. With their loose straps of fabric—the puppeteers' implements for manipulating the large bodies—they suggest the angelic visions from the life-cycle's final room come down to earth.
These works round out an impressively rich, simultaneously dense and expansive exhibition, Smith's first major museum show in New York since a 2006 retrospective
at the Whitney. Almost all of the works here date from less than five years ago, and suggest another transformation in Smith's career from sculpture towards drawing, and an aesthetic movement away from heavy, dark and massive shapes, towards light-filled, airy and practically ghostly figures. Constantly reinventing and reexamining her art, whose very subject is the shifting of forms in, through and around time, Smith's work is a moving model of constant change. Or, as she put it to her rapt preview audience: "We're still in a period when we need radical change." Sojourn
is proof of an artistic practice always taking vacations away from itself whenever it gets too settled.
(image credits: copyright Kiki Smith, courtesy PaceWildenstein, photo courtesy the Brooklyn Museum)