It is easy to empathize with the artist’s well-known play with physical discomfort: For viewers dripped in sweat, the oozing bodily fluids, waxy impressions of flesh, jars that claim to store pus and mucus, and a thick wool pelt woven with human hair become delightful tools of commiseration. Curated by Siri Engberg of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, this “gathering” presents a remarkable overview of the artist’s 25 years of work, and demonstrates how Smith uses her knack for eliciting a visceral response to exert political leverage. While it operates within the framework that usually defines the artist’s career, like the discourse on gender and identity politics of the “90s, or the AIDS crisis and culture wars of the late “80s, what makes the show such a success is that it also offers a fresh way to think about her work as a wonderfully tactile and process-based practice.
The show is kickstarted by Untitled (1990), a beeswax sculpture of two propped-up figures, Smith’s first work on a life-size scale. Their heads helplessly hang against their chests as life-giving fluids fail miserably– breast milk drips down the woman’s torso and semen splatters on the man’s bruised legs. The work’s placement in the show suggests that this and similar figures of the early “90s are a culmination of her investigations of small-scale fragments of the human body in the late “80s, when she first explored the potential of a biological vocabulary while training as an emergency medical technician. At the same time, the emotional and physical pain that is clearly evident in this piece anticipates the more abstract, but equally prominent place of the body’s vulnerability in Smith’s recent work with celestial imagery.
Through this chronology, it is easy to see how Smith’s subversive use of the body’s unpleasant by-products turned art history on its head and made her the artist par excellence of what has been termed the “bad girl” era of the “90s. By pairing the female body with taboo behavior, gross excretions and animalistic behavior (her figures sprout facial hair and warts, climb walls on all fours and contort their bodies in defiance of “lady-like” positions), she challenges Western culture’s tendency to idealize and objectify. Her women are prone to the vulnerability and pain that we all experience, whatever our sex. It is a liberating notion, and her attempt to revise symbols steeped in sexism becomes all the more provocative when she mixes them with loaded cultural and mythological references, from Catholic iconography to Little Red Riding Hood.
Virgin Mary (1992), for example, is one of the more arresting works in the show. The biblical figure, sacrilegiously skinned like an anatomical model, solemnly stretches her arms out in a familiar gesture of comfort. The exposed tendons, bulging eyes and articulated ripples of carved muscle tissue and veins are mesmerizing and beautiful. Craft, in other words, complicates the grotesque. Throughout the exhibition, the body’s fragility becomes an analogy for Smith’s sensitivity to her material. As you move through the space, the media identified in the wall labels comprise a fascinating list reflecting the exhibition’s delight in Smith’s formal variety: bronze, beeswax, Schott crystal, Nepalese paper, tea-chest paper, feathers, beads, neon, fiberglass. The curator’s decision to place a Wonderkammer, the 15 th -century European method of displaying collections of curiosities, in the middle of the gallery further establishes the pure wonder Smith brings to the body via her choice of objects and material. A terra-cotta ribcage is next to casts of hands bearing creepy blue warts. There are crystal nipples, bronze tailbones and eardrums, bowls of kidneys and transparent stomachs blown from glass set jewel-like behind glass. The implied preciousness of the objects, displayed in cases that forgo labels and context, invites a magical sense of wonder that makes us marvel.
Tied up with the discourse of abjection that emerged in the aftermath of the NEA censorship and text-based work of the”80s, Smith’s art exemplifies a gleeful return to the corporality in art making in the early ‘90s. For this reason, my only complaint is that the show seems a bit too tame. It is a shame that Smith’s really gross stuff, and by extension her more politically overt pieces, didn’t make it into the show. Her well-known urine and menstrual blood made from yellow and red beads, and her work with more violent subtexts, like the figures with slashes in the back or grisly exposed spinal cords breaking through skin, come to mind. Tale (1992), for example, was included at the exhibition’s previous venues, but is noticeably missing here in Texas (apparently some of the lenders were worried about the safety of the beeswax in the summer heat). This sculpture depicts a woman on all fours. Repugnantly smeared over the buttocks with her own waste, she trails a hilariously long “tale” of feces. This is a veritable icon of the abject, so controversial it even prompted the scorn of Philippe de Montebello, director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its absence is felt.
Omissions aside, the curator’s choices wonderfully emphasize Smith’s deeply material interests in form, craft and texture, and all of the wonderful stuff about art making that keeps us interested in looking at the real thing. In this exhibition, Smith is an artist informed just as much by Carolee Schneemann’s 1960s feminist performance extracting a paper scroll from the vagina as by Richard Tuttle’s tiny abstract compositions of wire and folded colored paper. It’s a muddled intersection that speaks to a profoundly contemporary desire to enjoy the messy interactions of the controversial, the creative, the painful, the political and the beautiful.
Images courtesy the artist, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and PaceWildenstein New York
Michelle White is a curtorial assistant at The Menil Collection.