The Preoccupied Mind: Art Arises

By Adrienne LaFrance

EVERLY, Mass.— Those with messy desks and piles of clutter take note; things aren’t out of place, they’ve simply found their natural congruency. At least, that’ s what artist Kiki Smith, 52, told a group of about 325 people on Wednesday, March 29 at Boston University’s second-annual Tim Hamill Visiting Artist Lecture, “My Preoccupations.”

And Smith can become preoccupied with just about anything as a subject for her art. She has sculpted, etched, painted, drawn, cast, collaged, and even taken photos of herself covered in blood.

“I don’t think you can buy blood anymore,” Smith mused in a faraway sing-song that would make you think she’s trying to remember items on a grocery list. “We used to buy jugs of it down the street in New York,”

Smith’s long, gray curls and dark approach to art evoke images of John Updike’s Alexandra Spofford, the sculptor with a good heart but a gleam of mischief in her eye, from The Witches of Eastwick. The bluish-ink outline of a star tattooed between the thumb and forefinger on her right hand and a collection of tiny asterisk-like stars tattooed to her left only add to her mystique, a quality that blossoms most fruitfully in her work.

Smith’s perspective on life and art is an intoxicating blend of humanity and imagination that could leave any audience teetering between being stunned by her brilliance and wondering if she, who proclaims a “spiritual fondness for rats,” is secretly just yanking our chains.

But most of her art, some of which is more bizarre in her vision than it appears when it’s complete, is deeply somber.

In one project, she cast hundreds of sculptures of frogs to symbolize a biblical plague. She painted a witch lying lifelessly, having eaten her own poisonous apples. One project she refers to as “Noah’s Death Barge,” featured sculptures of dead animals, all black, conveying species extinction. Another exhibit featuring depictions of animals that are all white does not elicit the opposite emotions, as one might expect.

“I made them all white because things that are white are either poisonous or disappearing,” she said.

But without the privilege of hearing Smith discuss her art, it seems impossible that anyone could guess the thought process that led to its creation. One such piece features a figure standing above the body of a wolf.

“I got the idea from (the part of) little red riding hood when the hunter cuts the grandmother out of the wolf,” said Smith. “And I thought that if you take that out of the context of the story, it’s quite an odd thing to be happening.”

And context is never something that constricts Smith’s work. Her adherence to the very specific form itself allows multiple layers of interpretation, and she encourages each person to have their own intimate relationship with the art she creates.

Smith’s art has been celebrated as groundbreaking, her subject matter serving as metaphors for a slew of social issues like race, gender, age and religion. But Smith said she hesitated to embark on figurative art because she wanted to avoid those kinds of broad social statements. She wanted her art to be accessible on a more individual level.

For example, Smith’s famous depictions of internal organs (her inspiration for which came some 25 years ago in a copy of Gray’s Anatomy that was a gift from an old boyfriend) are intensely personal for anyone who considers them, she said.

“Every body part I looked at resonated and had meaning for me,” said Smith. “It was like this language. Fat cells meant something because I’ve always been overweight, nerve cells meant something because I’m nervous… I want people to look at this stuff and wonder what relationship they have with pus or with vomit and why that’s important.”

Smith is hardly what one might envision to be overweight and what she describes as nervousness comes across as more distracted than anything else. But this is a characteristic that she acknowledges without hesitation.

“I probably have ADD, but that didn’t exist when I was little,” Smith said. “Sometimes people will come over to my house and I’ll start cleaning and they think it’s rude but really I just listen better that way.”

And that’s when she explains that messiness is actually conducive to art, because it allows you to see things in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise see them. Just catching a glimpse of Smith’s perspective is a wholly refreshing experience.

She has an almost girlish quality in that she’s vibrantly unapologetic for her unconventional view of the world. And it’s a view that she can’t quite explain herself when people ask about what inspires her.

“I always say, like, my dead sister told me what to do, or I dreamt what to do or my birds told me what to do,” she said. “But I was listening to this Buddhist lecture the other day and it said, ‘Knowledge arises,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s just like, shit happens.’ And that’s just it. Knowledge arises. Shit happens. Things just become apparent to you.”

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