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.