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Kiki Smith: Keeping the Faith

By Lynne Tillman

By calling Lynne Tillman’s work “so striking and original that it transforms the way you see the world, the way you think about and interact with your surroundings,” the Los Angeles Reader might as easily be describing Kiki Smith’s powerful yet vulnerable art as the writing of her longtime friend. The Walker exhibition catalogue Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980–2005 describes Smith’s craft in similar terms: “Her work offers us the opportunity to reexamine ourselves, our history, and our place in the world.” In September 2004, Tillman sought to discover how Smith assesses her own place in the universe as they talked about her life inside and outside her art, her sense of humor (“that nobody gets,” says the artist laughingly), and her practice of interweaving strands of mythology, nature, and feminism into forms both beautiful and grotesque. Following is an excerpt of their conversation from the catalogue.

Lynne Tillman:

Do you worry a lot about the meaning of your work?

Kiki Smith:

I try to keep something like faith that I’m making my work from a deep place inside me. And that it is benevolent toward me. Sometimes, in trying to make a show, I start seeing what the parameters are of a body of work. Things keep coming up and telling me to pay attention to them. I tend to trust that what I’m being told to pay attention to by my work is somehow beneficial for me. And I can’t control it. I can try to make a life better for myself, which for me is trying to think about images of women. I don’t want to make didactic work. I hope it will benefit my sense of self.

LT:

As a novelist, I’ve realized that even when you think you know what it is you’re writing, it’s different from making meaning, because meaning is created when the object’s used and taken into the culture. You can’t control that.

KS:

In my despair, I try always to remember that I’m not in control. I am one of many. You just have what information has been given you; others have different information. All you can do is honor what’s been given to you.

LT:

You mention a few friends and associates, and I wonder if you’d like to talk about some of the influences on you.

KS:

Everything! [laughing] I was very influenced by Bread and Puppet Theater, by Meredith Monk. It’s easier to say now who influenced me then. Certainly, Eva Hesse and Lee Bontecou. I was still at home in New Jersey then. When I came to New York, I was extremely affected by and curious about many artists and the immense diversity of work. One of the artists I greatly admired was Nancy Spero. She is really one of my heroes. And Leon Golub’s work changed my work a great deal.

LT:

Can you say why?

KS:

Nancy’s work was a great confirmation. She was another artist, an older artist, who recognized similar things as having value as I did. Paper, printmaking, figurative image-making, the use of images of women. Then, I wasn’t making images of women, and it wasn’t until much later that I started figurative work. Printing on paper, repetitions through printmaking, to me, this was very significant to see—obviously Warhol and others were doing that, but not in the same way. Nancy’s approach had a vocabulary in which she employed images like a written language.

LT:

Later, Keith Haring did, too.

KS:

Yes. Nancy does it in the most open way. Then Leon Golub’s mercenary paintings around 1983 became, really, a mandate to me not to depict violence in a gratuitous manner. Not to use other people’s experience or co-opt it, not to take a physical malady, for example, and make it one’s personal metaphor when it’s someone else’s physical reality. That was at a time when a lot of artists were in a romance with B-movies, a romance of rock and roll, sex, and death. We were in Nicaragua then; the U.S. under Reagan was trying to undermine the sovereignty of Nicaragua and was illegally funding the Contras, and Golub delivered a mandate for my generation to pay attention, not to be gratuitous.

LT:

It’s impossible not to mention your family background: your father, Tony Smith, an important artist; your mother, Jane Smith, once an opera singer; and your sister, Seton Smith, an artist. How do you think your background primarily affected you? And, a corollary question: Do you notice differences in your friends who didn’t have that background? And in their attitudes toward, and experience of, being artists?

KS:

I think the main thing I got from it, which has good and bad aspects, is that art-making is an inherent possibility. I didn’t second-guess myself or question my desire. I think humans are inherently creative and technological, which aren’t separate from each other. But essentially it’s what we’re about, apart from spiritual ideas about our existence and purpose. I grew up surrounded by people concerned with forms of self-expression—most people find self-expression in various aspects of their lives, and express it in many different ways, creating their identity around it. But growing up in an art family, I thought that I could do it visually.

LT:

And, that you could just do it.

KS:

Sometimes friends of mine don’t believe they can do it. They don’t trust it. From when I was a child, my mother would say, “Trust your intuition, trust your inner voice, trust that.” While I don’t necessarily trust it always in my daily, personal life, I do trust it in my artwork. Even if it makes me uncomfortable, even if I would like to be a totally different kind of artist, different from what I am, at the same time, I know this is what I have been given. Trust is extremely important.

Lynne Tillman, associate professor/writer-in-residence in the Department of English at the University at Albany, is the author of four novels, two collections of short stories, one collection of essays, and two nonfiction books. She has collaborated often with artists and writes regularly on culture.