The Way of All Flesh

Kiki Smith's Untitled (1995), at the Whitney.Photo: Courtesy of the Whitney

In Kiki Smith’s work, naked women curl up in the fetal position, hang from the walls, and droop lifelessly from posts. A papery infant floats in the air, suspended by an umbilical cord, which dangles from a pair of legs. Tears cannot escape from eyes. The Virgin Mary is stripped raw. Dead crows lie scattered in a corner. Little Red Riding Hood has wolfish whiskers. A rib cage sags on a wall. The flesh is not just weak or unreliable: It’s viscera, meat, offal. Before seeing “Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980–2005” at the Whitney, you might suppose that the feelings borne by such material—however you judge the art—would be outsize and feverish. But that, strangely, isn’t what happens here. Instead of anguish, disgust, shock, or desolation, Smith’s work conveys a childlike disappointment.

Smith, who is now 52 years old, came of age in a rarefied environment. She was from an art family (her father was the well-known sculptor Tony Smith) and in the eighties lived downtown. During this period, feminist critics fiercely analyzed what’s become known as “the male gaze,” mounting an assault on the way male artists traditionally presented the female body. At the same time, consumer culture was churning out images of women with perfect bodies and aids was ripping through New York. During the past 25 years, thousands of Western artists (including many men) have mortified the body with monkish fervor. English artists, in particular, have become ideological connoisseurs of the visceral. This vision of the body—this counter-gaze—represents an effort to expose the suppressed. Spit truth into society’s lying face: That was the dream.

The paradox is that today the raw is also highly refined. Not only is art-shock almost impossible to create in a sophisticated audience, but high culture regards the unbeautiful body through the lens of academic criticism and social analysis. These filters greatly reduce heat and immediacy. Smith may be a strong representative of in-your-face, but she is also plugged-in, thoughtful, and successful. I eavesdropped on some earnest people walking through her show, which was organized by Siri Engberg for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and none appeared even mildly taken aback. They spoke with a seminar accent, drawing conventional social messages, morals, and lessons. They reminded me of people discussing the sermon after church and before lunch.

Yet Smith’s work also has an idiosyncratic tang that transcends the sermonizing of our time. Her “disappointment” seems to derive less from an abstract analysis of society’s false public face than from the private disenchantments of childhood—that erosion of faith in the magical power of animals, fairy tales, and religion. Her animals have been forced from the picture book. Her figures have wandered out of their fairy tales, driven to despair by the daytime nightmare of adulthood. (The eyes from which silvery tears drop from long threads could belong to a princess.) Her grisly shapes suggest the fetishlike power of relics in the Roman Catholic Church. Her drawing has a naïve quality, and much of the sculpture recalls the way children work with clay.

Many critics prefer Smith’s work about the body to her more recent art, in which she wants, in her words, “to make things that border slightly on the saccharine and the sentimental, and on love, in a kind of old-fashioned way.” The new images often represent children and domesticity, a subject that (like the ungainly body) she views as a “maligned territory” that disturbs and embarrasses. The new subject matter marks a natural evolution from the child-haunted dreams of her earlier art. Smith has a knack for exploring those dreamy areas of experience that should be blissful but often aren’t. Future historians will no doubt wonder why our grim culture, seemingly so liberated from the hang-ups of the past, approaches both the body and children with such unease.

Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980–2005
Whitney Museum of American Art. Through February 11.

The Way of All Flesh