I Myself Have Seen It: Photography & Kiki Smith at the Henry Art Gallery


Since I got to Seattle I've been trying to survey the local museums and galleries and see what is happening around here. So far it seems like the leading art institution around here is Washington University's Henry Art Gallery. I mean, yes, there is the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), which is nice and it has an interesting display of their recent acquisitions. One of the highlights was definitely Do-Ho Suh's Same/One, a large scale sculptural piece in the shape of a jacket meticulously assembled with stainless steel military dog-tags. Other than that, the SAM  seems to rely heavily on blockbuster travelling exhibitions. This is understandable given that they need to keep their programs sustainable and Picasso and Warhol will only drive membership forward. But this continues to present a problem in that it obscures its curatorial direction and it blurs its identity as an institution.

Same/One by Do-Ho Suh

The Henry Art Gallery however, not only seems to have a much more interesting program, but also a heavy emphasis on photography, which I like. In the past months alone, there has been an exhibition of Thomas Ruff's portraits, a slick selection of photographs from the Monsen Family Collection and a large exhibition on Kiki Smith and her relationship with Photography. Additionally they have a permanent installation of a  James Turell skylight.  I must say I was very excited to go see the Kiki Smith show so I caught it on its last week. I have mixed feelings about it, I wish they allowed me to take pictures so I could better illustrate my thoughts, but here we go.

Kiki Smith
Lets start by saying that I'm a HUGE fan of Kiki Smith's sculpture work. It is dark, and heavy and completely messed up. It reminds me a lot of one of my other favorite sculptors, Louise Burgeois, may she rest in peace. I was curious to see how photography informed this great three-dimensional artist and how the mysticism and twisted nature of her work translated onto something so immediate and "true" like photography. I was torn by what I saw.
The show consisted of 6 very large spaces that displayed an array of her work, with a very heavy focus on her photography, of course. Photographs, sculptures, documents, books and installations were all part of the show. It was very helpful to have the three dimensional work present in the rooms to provide context and give weight to the photographic material. The images consisted of photographs of her studio, self portraits, narratives, straight documentation of her work, collages, composites, candid shots and inspiration sources. Every space in the gallery was lined with a continuous row of small photographs alongside the baseboard.
Installation of I Myself Have Seen it: Photography & Kiki Smith at the Henry Art Gallery
Photo by Richard Nichol
This exhibition was a great insight into the mind of one of my favorite sculptors. The process of documenting work in progress is something that is so personal, and to be able to enter the world of Kiki Smith was fascinating. To see snippets of her daily life, alongside documentation of her work process and photographs as visual instruments for concept development was very helpful in understanding her as an artist. However, I did have some problems with this show. When you are dealing with an artist like Kiki Smith, you are dealing with work that is so powerful; it is so specific in its physical nature and yet so ambiguous in interpretation value. This work speaks for itself, it is exquisitely subtle and yet brusque. For that reason, a tightly curated, more modest exhibition would have been much more powerful. 
Photographs by Kiki Smith

Kiki Smith is known as a sculptor and print maker, not a photographer. Photography  plays an important role in her work and I agree that an exhibition dedicated to that aspect of her work is a genius idea.  That being said, this show was treated as a massive retrospective. It was quite overwhelming and the strongest works got lost in the mix. The spaces dragged on and at certain point the aesthetic went from "a powerful insight into the tangled mind of an eccentric artist" to "a bunch of pictures of random stuff disorderly place on a wall, and another wall, and another wall, and another wall." 
Photographs by Kiki Smith

The colossal nature of this show makes sense given that it was organized by Sylvia Wolf, the Henry's new director, previously a Curator of Photography at The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The Whitney Museum of American Art presented a 25 year retrospective of Kiki Smith's work in 2006, which most likely set a precedent for this show and Ms. Wolf's history and relationship with Kiki Smith. I'm all for monumental exhibitions of artists I love and respect, especially in a smaller city like Seattle, but in this case I think the work was hindered by it. 
Amongst all of the work, though, there were some pieces that were particularly haunting. Upon entering the galleries, there is one particular room that I revisited twice. This room featured several large photographs, primarily dark in nature featuring close ups of plaster faces with dark eyes (above), underwater scenes and photos of remains of dark raw materials. In the center of the room sat a variation of a previous piece titled "Annunciation," an over sized plaster human figure of strange proportions sitting on a chair with one hand raised in front of him. Off to one side of the room an empty chair, I sat on it and observed the figure's profile surrounded by the photographs. Upon standing up from the chair, a single minute photograph is revealed on the opposite wall, which was covered by the figure's large head when you sit down. The photo is a simple shot of the sculpture from a different angle and it is placed on a vast empty wall by itself opposite of the empty chair, with the sculpture in between. The very moment in which your body is lifted from the chair -eyes still on the strange figure surrounded by the dark photographs- and the tiny photo reveals itself in the distance is ephemeral and overwhelmingly surreal. 
Annunciation by Kiki Smith
Like this, there were several "moments" throughout the exhibition that made it worth it, and some of that unfortunately got lost in the crowd. Another set of work that stood out to me were some exquisite miniature figures and photographs referencing fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and the witch from Snowhite (photo above). Overall the exhibition was successful in providing a more holistic insight into the world of Kiki Smith; some remarkable subtleties reveal themselves along the way and her signature character carries through onto the photographic works. On the other hand, the unnecessary abundance of work and unwarranted extent of the galleries distracted from the truly engaging works, which got lost in a sea of what felt like Kiki Smith's left overs. It felt as if the staff tried too hard to create a blockbuster show out of something that would've rather benefited from a little more direction and intimacy.