Kiki Smith in Her Natural Habitat


Opening a Kiki Smith exhibition at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art seems like the obvious choice for the Brooklyn Museum, being as the artist is the reigning queen of feminist art in America. On Thursday night, Smith accepted yet another crown, graciously welcoming an understated group of fellow artists including Mark Seliger, Fred Wilson and Susanna Moore to celebrate the opening of her new exhibition, Kiki Smith: Sojourn. Building on the increasingly alluring (and eerie) period rooms surrounding the contemporary galleries, Smith transformed the white halls of the museum into an ethereal, intimate domestic space using over sixty pieces in a range of media including cast objects, unique sculpture and works on paper. The mood was best exemplified by Pat Steir who, when confronted with the camera, turned to Clifford Ross, who wrapped his arms around her so that she wouldn’t have to face the lens by herself, straight on.

A number of guests at the event, including a few saintly children, were models for the subjects in Smith’s works. They were jarringly lifelike in comparison to their spectral renderings in ink, graphite and colored pencil on the wrinkled and cindered folds of Nepal paper pasted to the walls. Dispersed throughout the rooms were sculptures that moored the outer walls of the exhibition with their physical presence. In Singer (2008), a silvery young woman seems to offer a papal benediction, one arm held above her head and the other gripping a bouquet of flowers, as if to christen the audience into the fading spiritual world framing the real space in which they moved freely. (LEFT: KIKI SMITH. PHOTO BY BRIENNE WALSH)

The exhibition expanded into two 18th-Century period rooms, where the ghosts in the well-lit galleries stepped out from paper and landed, bloated and pale, in the ersatz domestic space. Although it is difficult to unsettle more than Yinka Shonibare’s headless children, installed in similar rooms at the museum in 2009, Smith’s papier-mâché and muslin sculpture are uncannily harrowing, the stuff of Brothers Grimm fairy tales and Charles’ Dickens’ ghost stories. The androgynous figure in Walking Puppet (2008) slumps on the landing of a dimly lit staircase, legs askew and unravelling, its body held upright by a single thick thread suspended from the ceiling. If the works in the galleries are waking (if imperfect) dreams, then the figures in the period rooms are those emerging in the depths of night, from a sleep that is never-ending.

Sojourn is inspired in part by the reproduction of an eighteenth-century needlework by Prudence Punderson entitled The First, Second, and Last Scene of Mortality (1776-83), which charts the course of a woman’s life in juxtaposition, from birth to death, with a rending of an independent young lady engaged in creative pursuits. Smith realizes a space at the Brooklyn Museum where both aspects of the lives depicted in the needlework are possible for a contemporary female artist, although the nature of the works, spectral and ethereal, seem to imply that such a life may be just beyond grasp, existing but not of this world.