Pee Body, 1992. Wax and 23 strands of glass beads, 68.6 x 71.1 x 71.1 cm. Photo: Michael Nedzweski, © 2004 President and Fellows of Harvard College, Courtesy Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museum.

Kicking Out the Boundaries: A Conversation with Kiki Smith

We are in a living room filled with candelabras, sculpted birds, and female figures. Birdy, the 15-year-old dove, contentedly watches the rain through a back window. Kiki Smith is leaving for Italy tomorrow to open a show and then travels to San Francisco to install a 25-year retrospective, yet she calmly draws as she discusses her career. Seated in front of two giant stacks of watercolor paper, Smith holds a pencil in her left hand and a photograph of her deceased mother in her right. Although I am eager to discuss the dark, bewitching roles she sometimes assumes in her self-portraits, as well as the irreverent ways she uses the body and its parts as potent metaphors, Smith has ways of shielding her artistic persona. In conversation, she uses the first, second, and third person. She occasionally talks looking into my eyes, but usually she gazes down at her drawing.

Smith’s retrospective, organized by Siri Engberg at the Walker Art Center, opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in November 2005 and is currently at the Walker. It will also travel to the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. The show reveals the myriad avenues of Smith’s creative process, her array of materials, and historical and personal perspectives. According to Engberg, “With the body as its center, her work has drawn inspiration from art history, literature, decorative arts, and her own biography. Her process is one of constant reinvention—she never closes doors for herself.”

Jan Garden Castro: I loved the images of women and domestic space in colonial America from your installation for the Querini Stampalia Foundation (summer 2005). A portion of this work, Kitchen, is part of your traveling retrospective. What are the processes and themes behind this installation?
Kiki Smith: The Querini Stampalia asked me to make an exhibition that would be up during the Venice Biennale. They are a house museum with a collection of many Pietro Longhi paintings of 18th-century bourgeois domestic life in Venice and a contemporary art space on the top floor. I began thinking about that and about domestic life in New England at the time people were colonizing this country. I was reading books by Laura Thatcher Ulrich, who wrote about colonial women’s lives, and I was making a piece for the de Young Museum at the time—they have wonderful colonial American paintings in the Rockefeller Collection. This got me thinking about colonial American things, and I thought it would be interesting to play in some of those languages.