About six years ago I was at the De Young Museum in San Francisco with my son who was studying at the California College of Arts, where I had once taught. Between my time there and my son’s, they had deleted ‘and Crafts’ from the name - probably en route to replacing it with ‘and Tech’. Which I consider a travesty. We were looking at the art glass. I didn’t spend much time in that room before my son decided to become a glass blower. As we looked at the glass, I saw shadows moving on the floor. I looked up and saw a mobile suspended high above. I went up to investigate.
It was a piece by Kiki Smith called ‘Near,’ created specifically for the Museum. The largest element of the piece is a boxlike bronze structure with a copper silhouette of two human figures.”I noticed that there are an awful lot of homeless people in San Francisco, living in cardboard boxes” Smith said. The boxes were personal, too. Her family lived in her father’s parents’ home. When her father died, her aunts claimed the furniture, which she and her sisters then replaced with boxes. The two copper silhouettes refer to “The Mason Children” a 1670 painting by an unknown artist. The silhouettes are the two sisters. David, their brother is missing, hmmm. And the mobile that first attracted my attention - is 250 blown-glass droplets hanging at varying heights. They refer to San Francisco’s fog and since Smith associates San Francisco with “gender politics, gay liberation and hippies,” (who doesn’t?) the glass droplets are coated with stannous chloride “to make them a little bit rainbowy.'
So, as my son’s college moves away from crafts, Smith embraces them: 'I've always used glass and ceramic, materials associated with craft,….trying to bridge or subvert cultural hierarchies of materials.'https://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/They-re-more-than-glass-drops-and-a-crumpled-box-2669177.php#photo-2142909
Smith works with paper, wax, plaster, porcelain and tapestry, too in her quest to be inclusive. So now you have an iceberg’s worth of references to one work, which, while not in this exhibition, gives you a clue about the variety of ideas floating around Smith’s head and in her work.
The exhibition at the Musee de la Monnaie to which we now turn moves neither chronologically nor thematically but rather, according to Smith, “from hot and cold, plain and fancy.” It is certainly unusual to upend the traditional ways in which exhibitions normally unfold. Which doesn’t worry Smith at all. She has an active and wandering mind and she wants you to use your active and wandering mind as you interact with the pieces she has selected for this exhibition. But chronology is important and if you look at the dates of the pieces as you move through the exhibition, you can trace Smith’s trajectory. She began sculpting parts of the human body, (organs, tongue, hand, ear, tears, etc.) then moved on to the (female) body (Virgin Mary, etc.). She moved next to women interacting with animals (fairy tale heroines/victims like Little Red Riding Hood, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz). Currently she is exploring the cosmos, with humans as a very small part of a much grander whole. While Smith says that she’s not religious, she thinks that Catholicism has the best iconography (who could disagree) and “it’s one of my loose theories that Catholicism and art have gone well together because both believe in the physical manifestation of the spiritual world”.
The exhibition begins in the grand Salon Dupré with a piece called, “Sleeping, Wandering, Slumber, Looking About, Rest Upon.”
As Camille Morineau, Curator of the exhibition notes, in a space formerly dedicated to the great men of La Monnaie de Paris and where previous artists chose monumental and vertical works to introduce themselves, Kiki Smith starts with a work that is horizontal, feminine and animal. Three bronze women accompanied by three sheep. Neither imposing nor monumental, women and animals coexist in peace. They are half asleep, half awake, slightly larger than life. (dossier_de_presse_-_kiki_smith_x_monnaie_de_paris_fr.pdf) This group was intended for a landscape setting, a children’s play area. Children love climbing over things, their mothers initially and then anything that stays still long enough. This arrangement of sleeping women and their gentle companions is quiet and reassuring. How might another artist have responded to the intended placement? Well, the humans would have been men, for sure. I’m guessing that the men would be depicted running, brandishing weapons - bows and arrows, shot guns, knives, who knows. And the animals (not sheep, maybe bison, now nearly extinct, thank you Buffalo Bill) would be fleeing or sinking to the earth, wounded, defeated, dead.
Since I don’t want you to think that I am a feminist always looking for ways to celebrate the matriarchy, I will only mention that peaceful, pastoral matriarchal societies were overtaken by the aggressive Judeo-Christian patriarchy according to Merlin Stone in her seminal work, When God Was a Woman. And it is probably better that I don’t discuss the Gnostic Gospels which, according to one of my heroes, Elaine Pagels, included positive female imagery and prominent social roles for women, that allowed female participation in sacred rites which the early Church Fathers found ways to subvert and destroy. And I will only refer to Marina Warner’s investigation of how Mary, Mother of Christ was transformed into a Virgin or how Mary Magdelene, beloved of Christ, became conflated with a prostitute, but it definitely could enhance your appreciatation of Smith’s choices with this piece. But, if you’re interested ……
A piece entitled, ‘Pyre Woman Kneeling’
from 2002 is a real show stopper. A nude woman, in bronze, with outstretched arms, kneels on a stack of wooden planks. The sculpture began as an entry in a competition for an outdoor sculpture. At the time, Smith was making “drawings of drowned witches, of them floating with their hair in the water.” She had also become fascinated with an anonymous collection of 1890s photographs in a notebook that she had purchased. “(T)his person made these incredibly wonderful collages—of a woman kneeling on a pillow—and then he collages that with a pyre…” Smith decided not to enter the competition, she didn’t want to make public sculpture for other people’s agendas. “I couldn’t do that. I can only do things that come from my necessity.” And that’s when she decided that women on pyres should be commemorations for witches, which she thought should be set up in towns all over Europe. As Smith so rightly notes, “(t)here was a tremendous amount of killing, and there’s little commemoration of that..… No town has commissioned one so far,“(b)ut you know, I just make them anyway. Their arms are out, like Christ saying, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ .” ( https://art21.org/read/kiki-smith-learning-by-looking-witches-catholicism-and-buddhist-art/
The sculpture make me think of Joan of Arc and the Salem Witch trials, too. And while commemorative statues acknowledge the wrongs done to both Joan of Arc and the women (and few men) of Salem, centuries of women who were accused and condemned as witches in Europe as early as the 15th century, have not. The best remedy for ‘uppity’ women, historically and currently, the best way to take away their power and their property, is to accuse them of being witches. In the last decade, according to the United Nations, there has been a rise in women killed for witchcraft across the globe. In India the problem is particularly well-documented, with older women being targeted as scapegoats or as a pretext for seizing their lands and goods. And only four years ago, images of Hilary Clinton in witch’s hat and robes were used to effect.(https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/07/cursed-from-circe-to-clinton-why-women-are-cast-as-witches
Another piece in the exhibition is the Virgin Annunciate
(when the Angel Gabriel tells Mary that she is with Child) from the permanent collection of the Fondation Louis Vuitton. This sculpture is so far from traditional iconography that if it had no title, you would never connect it with the Annunciation. An androgynous figure, with one arm outstretched, wearing a ‘contemporary’ man’s suit, sits on a chair. On the figure’s tiny feet that don’t reach the floor, are delicate slippers, one slipping off a foot. According to Smith, a chance encounter with a short haired woman artist, dressed as a man reminded her of the self portrait by Frida Kahlo.
The seated statue is startling, especially given the title.
There are many other pieces that will attract your attention. One is the sculptural piece called ‘Rapture’ from 2001,
that serves as the poster for the exhibition. A nude woman emerges from the stomach of a wolf, a reference both to the story of Little Red Riding Hood and to Ste Genevieve, patron saint of Paris, who domesticated the wolf. In addition to monumental sculpture, there are drawings and photographs and tapestries, twelve of them that she created between 2012-17. According to the catalog, the iconography of the tapestries “combines primordial elements of the great Indo-European cosmogonies in a holistic vision.”
The more I learn about Kiki Smith, the more I admire her work and her bravery. I have seen works of hers on several occasions in group shows and she seems always to have asked what other pieces would be shown in proximity to her own because she always seems to set up a dialog between her work and the work of other artists. She is interested in everything, she questions everything, she is her own person.
You are in for a treat if this is your first trip to the Musee de la Monnaie. It is a beautiful 18th century palazzo spread out along the Quai de Conti. It was built under Louis XV to manufacture (strike) coins. It was Paris's first manufacturing establishment when it was built, it is now the last still in operation. In addition to the temporary exhibition space, there is a permanent collection, more like a series of workshops, that takes you through the process of striking coins and medals. An American angle for the Mint? Sure. After the American rebels won their war for independence, both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson called upon the Mint for medals to commemorate both American and French war heroes and the Royal Mint served as inspiration for the U.S. Mint. A few works by Kiki Smith can also be found in this section since, not surprisingly, she is collects coins and took a real interest in the museum itself.