Printmaker relates engraving to artistry, personhood, nature

Courtesy of Nina Subin via Wikimedia Commons

It was a dark and stormy Wednesday afternoon. Well, not exactly stormy, but misty, the gentle spray of  raindrops that does not quite warrant an umbrella but is enough to leave you damp. But it was a gray 3 p.m., and students flooded into Taylor 203, every seat and free aisle space packed.

If the world outside was mundane, Kiki Smith was the opposite. With long white hair brushing across her shoulders and a pair of cat-eye glasses delicately balanced on her nose, Smith spoke about the beauty of process and accepting the free fall that is life.

A renowned printmaker, Smith’s creates otherworldly work. Many of her prints are whimsical, yet deeply physical; take, for example, one piece that depicts human intestines, the familiar zig-zag shape both abstract and deeply visceral. Smith can even make a diagram of digestive organs delicate. Reality grounds but does not constrain her. 

In another print, a woman hangs awkwardly like a doll while a lion sinks its teeth into her torso, both attached to her body and entirely separate from it. The two forms hang suspended in the blank air, the perfect human form contaminated by the vulgarity of untamed creatures.

“I got obsessed thinking about how many, many, many things leave the planet being eaten alive,” Smith recounted during the talk. Heads snapped up in the audience, all of us intrigued by this incongruous statement. “It was about the spiritual agony of being here and having to get out—what frees you of yourself. How do you get free of yourself?” Suddenly, something as random and sudden as being eaten alive was as universal as having a body.

Smith’s work is tethered somewhere between heaven and earth. Her figures often hang in white space, not quite terrestrial but caked in an organic quality so as to avoid divinity. She cited the Holy Ghost as inspiration. It is this spirit that lies amidst much of Smith’s work; even when playing with the tangible—organs, bodies and animals—there are little crumbs of the inexplicable.

“We’re always tethered between heaven and earth, we’re something in between: neither of the earth or of the sky. But when you die, you actually get to be the earth,” Smith said when I asked about the presence of death in her work. “You get to have this other life as a body in decomposition. It’s fascinating.”

A sense of process belies this philosophy. Etching is a result of many marks layered on top of one another. This abrasive physicality of process contrasts the intangibility of Smith’s work and philosophy. Lucy Brown ’22 commented on the unique emphasis on creation rather than completeness of art.

“What I really liked is she focused so much on the beauty of the struggle, and not in the pretentious way of the struggling starving artist, but more like finding progress and growth, and all the richness and nuance from making mistakes,” she lauded.

The project gallery in the Loeb is currently exploring process through etching. The exhibit, titled “Metal, Acid, Line,” features a variety of etchings, including one of Smith’s prints, “Bird with Stars.” The gallery was co-curated by Curator of Academic Programs Elizabeth Nogrady and Assistant Professor of Art Christina Tenaglia, who told me the exhibit considers the physical and structural facets of art.

“The show is really, in a broader way, about mark-making. How to make marks through the process of etching and how that can lead to a vast variety of subject matter and imagery,” Tenaglia said.

Smith’s print in particular violates the boundary of two-dimensional prints, using separate plate cut-outs to bring an element of sculpture to etching.

“It really does have a three-dimensional feel to it, it takes the paper into account, and relates a lot to the way that she works, which is to think in two dimensions and three dimensions at the same time,” Tenaglia said of Smith’s print.

“Bird with Stars,” is both cartoonish and brimming with life. The bird is stagnant, but it is poised to fly away, while the stars seem to jump out of the print. It’s celestial and simplistic, reflecting the offbeat lifestyle of its creator, who said that she lives in a free fall, not tethered to a particular direction.

“I’m not trying to stick to the right mind, or walk the center path. I just go wherever anything tells me to go,” Smith said. “You don’t need reasons for anything you do in your life, you just have to trust and have faith in where life is taking you. And just to show up.” 

As I walked outside after the lecture, the mist finding its way into my hair and onto the lenses of my glasses, I saw Smith meandering across the Quad. She had a Dunkin Donuts cup in hand, headphones in her ears. Somehow, she had transported a roomful of students to another realm, a dreary Wednesday suddenly illuminated by something unseen, metaphysical.

“What Kiki Smith really talked about was the practice of being an artist,” said Loeb Curator Mary-Kay Lombino. “How to live in the world as an artist and how your studio practice can govern your life. In some ways it can make it seem less intimidating to have a career as an artist.”

It wasn’t just the intimidation of being an artist, but of being a person. She spoke on the reality that everything is a process, a culmination of many marks that require effort, a willingness to fail. The grounding notion that after all of it, we are all just dirt.

“Metal, Acid, Line” will be on display in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center until Saturday, April 12.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *