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Exhibit captures sculptor's journey through the human form

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SAN FRANCISCO - It's 11:15 a.m. and Kiki Smith is running late.

I'm sitting in an austere white conference room in the belly of San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, waiting to interview the artist whose work I've followed and admired for more than a decade.

Smith is in town installing "Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005" a 20-year retrospective of the New York-based sculptor's work that opened Nov. 19 at SFMOMA. The exhibit, organized by Minneapolis' Walker Art Center, has been in the planning for four years. SFMoMA is the first stop for the more than 85 sculptures, prints, installations and objects that aim to give the public a taste of Smith's remarkable body of work.

Smith's oeuvre stands almost alone in contemporary figurative art as something unique and full of paradoxes.

She addresses the human body and all of its functions in a riot of mediums not commonly employed in traditional sculpture. Her use of materials is poetic - who else but Smith could so beautifully represent a pool of blood as a spill of red glass beads? Who else would have the courage to depict some of the body's most intimate functions and make it achingly familiar as well as intensely feral?

Indeed, some of her works have the potential to stir a bit of controversy. A female figure sliding out from the birth canal of a deer will most certainly shock a few museum patrons.

Smith has stealthily traversed the physical and spiritual landscape of the human form for more than 20 years, creating intense work that continually challenges viewers.

I can't think of another living artist that inspires me more.

But it's now 20 minutes past 11, and I'm starting to squirm. I've been told Kiki has to be across town at 12:15. Precious minutes are slipping by. Suddenly the door opens. Kiki wants to speak with me in the gallery. Things can't get much better than this.

Stepping through the exhibit door, I'm greeted by "Nervous Giants," a series of four large muslin wall panels depicting the human nervous system in a tracery of delicate stitches. Packs of blue-gloved assistants bustle about moving crates, gesturing into space and swarming around the artist. Josh Shirkey, SFMOMA curatorial associate, gives me an impromptu brief and highly informative tour of the show.

There's "Womb," Smiths' hinged bronze sculpture of a large moon-round womb, open on a riser like the most fantastic jewelry box. "Dowry Cloth," Smith's felted and sewn human hair and sheep's wool blanket, sits folded up in a bundle. "Lilith," the soot-black bronze sculpture of Adam's first wife, crouches in the middle of the gallery, her piercing ice-blue glass eyes boring into me. There's a sheet of acetate with the silhouette of Lilith's tense form mounted on the wall, waiting for the placement of the arresting piece.

We're introduced and take off around the gallery, talking about her artwork and her passion for vegetables (the leafy green kind). The 51-year-old Smith is laid-back and giggly, even as she stands surveying the gallery.

When you first see Smith's work, you can't help but be stunned. Smith uses the human body as a springboard into the universal - exploring nature, life, death, rebirth - in the language of flesh, story and myth. The daughter of Minimalist sculptor Tony Smith, Kiki grew up around artists. Art-making was "probably the most revered thing in my household when I was a child," she says.

Until the age of 18, Smith worked for her father and credits the experience as instilling a work ethic that is at the heart of her art. She says she works "just to see what happens - to see what happens when you do it."

"You know," she adds, "you don't wake up in the morning wondering what to do. You have a job to do. It's much easier to have some sort of form to your living."

And if some of those forms are hand-crafted at home, all the better.

"My living room is my studio. It's not separate from my living - it's not separate from my domestic life."

If Smith's work shares characteristics of the domestic arts such as sewing, it's no surprise. She began laying down the roots of her career in her teens stitching things like rag dolls. You can find the echoes of these formative exercises in such pieces as "Lucy's Daughter's," Smith's stuffed and silk-screened fabric musing on the "genetic mother of mankind"

Smith's love of variety and fierce curiosity has created a body of work that flows from one medium to the next, says Siri Engberg, curator of Visual Arts at Walker Art Center.

"She's been courageous in her use of materials and methods," Engberg said. "She's interested in exploring as many different art forms as possible."

That means viewers of her work will be looking at wax and cheesecloth figures one moment, glass stomachs the next. Horsehair sprouts from the paper scalp of a vaguely crucified female figure, and bronze casts of starfish hover over a small blue girl.

"The exhibition starts with a more removed and clinical observation of the body as a system of parts," says Engberg. These parts include male and female uro-genital systems in mint-green bronze and bleach-white terra-cotta ribs. From there it considers the body as a whole in various physical and metaphorical states, from flayed and vulnerable in the astounding beeswax "Virgin Mary," overripe and pinioned in "Untitled" or fragile, flaccid and fragmented in "Hard Soft Bodies." It ends (and perhaps begins again) with a consideration of animals, nature and the cosmos.

Smith cites religion, mythology, folklore and anatomy as the inspiration for her works, but says, "I don't have any sort of didactic agendas in terms of what I want my work to be about."

Instead, she would rather see where her intense curiosity leads her. It's a sort of free-wheeling approach that you might not expect from someone who creates work that sometimes darkly shows the extreme vulnerability, intimacy and fragility of the human condition. Smith deals with such profound and provocative subject matter, you might expect her to be a little more aloof. Actually, Kiki emits a few belly laughs and comes off as very earthy and approachable with her wild nest of silver hair, tattooed arms and rough hewn silver shamrock pins.

Meanwhile, the exhibit installation buzzes with creative energy around us. For an artist who makes art every opportunity she gets, you get the feeling that the whole project is one big art piece.

Smith is amazed by all the attention. She's just wrapped up an exhibit in Venice, which piggybacked the Biennale and two years ago was the subject of an exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Smith's work is also held in more than three dozen national and international public collections.

"I've been privileged to have the opportunity to have my work go out into the world and have a place to put it outside of my house or my storage spaces," Smith says. "And also be within some sort of cultural dialogue. That has been extremely rewarding and in a way also spawns one's own quirkiness to kind of bloom," she laughs. "Or something like that."


What: "Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005" a 20-year retrospective of the sculptor's work

When: Through Jan. 29

Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St.

How much: $7-$12.50

Contact: 415-357-4000,


Jennifer Modenessi:


(c) 2005, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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