Kiki Smith's Sojourn in Brooklyn

02/17/2010 4:00 AM |

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)