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Kiki Smith: I am a Wanderer

Retrospective on the sculptor, printmaker and self-described 'thing-maker', curated by Petra Giloy-Hirtz
Untitled (Crow Feet), Kiki Smith, 1995
Modern Art Oxford, 30 Pembroke Street, Oxford OX1 1BP, Sat 28 September 2019 - Sun 19 January 2020

October 9, 2019
Nature, red in egg and paw

Yet again Modern Art Oxford proves it's the perfect-sized space: big enough to have plenty to see but not so big as to be overwhelming. This is crucial when it's an artist whose work you don't know, and I have to confess I wasn't familiar with Kiki Smith. I Am A Wanderer serves as a good introduction to her work, with recurring themes and visual elements popping up across the range of media.

What drew me in was the tapestries, which turn out to be giant pieces made on an electronic Jacquard loom. These looms were really the first programmable machines, using punch cards which paved the way for early computers. Smith clearly appreciates the juxtaposition of old and new technologies, and of taking her place in a long tradition of textile workers.

The tapestries line the whole of the largest exhibition space, peopling the walls with birds, religious imagery, innumerable eyes, tiny moths rendered as large as shoeboxes, gold leaf, collaged borders, and a whole forest of flecks of colour. This is nature served up as powerful and uncompromising, with fox and eagle eyes following you round the room. I loved the owls, peering down in 'Parliament', but the moths and cobwebs was the piece I'd like most to take home.

The furthest space contains etchings, some echoing the tapestries. Red Riding Hood bursts in on her grandma, The earth is represented as two beautifully inked breasts, protruding from the wall, and Alice leads away the animals through the flood of her own tears, in a print that's definitely from the same mind as the 'Sky' tapestry where a woman soars with the birds. Is she a fully grown Alice? Smith herself is plentifully represented, in what seems an extremely biographical exhibition.

Interspersed with the tapestries were some small sculptures, mostly diminutive humans. Smith goes in for short, snappy titles, which don't give much away. The religious and mythological themes continued, in an exhibition by turns powerful, beautiful, repulsive, unsettling, funny and naive; sometimes all at once. The central rooms contain photographs, and a Wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities, or things made out of other things. There's a gold shell, a plaster bird, a bronze bat, a cat-octopus tentacle fusion called, of course, 'Octopussy', and an egg yolk made of poured glass. It's glossy, sunshine yellow, and totally perfect.

Photographic art often inhabits that strange space where its status as art is what makes it good. So Smith's picture of four paws of a sculpted dog is simultaneously missing the main part of the sculpture, but framed beautifully on the page. And the crows' feet I find beautiful and comforting, but also disgusting. In this medium too, Smith likes her nature raw and real, lacking the twee sanitised sheen so beloved of children's cartoons.

The tapestries were indeed reason enough to see this exhibition, but probably won't be the pieces that haunt me. As ever, I didn't find enough information in the labels to really see into Smith's thought process: while some pieces speak for themselves, not all do. But this is Modern Art Oxford, so there's a whole accompanying swathe of talks, gallery tours and further information about the current exhibition, and the greater body of Kiki Smith's work.

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