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Kiki Smith: The Artist of ‘Abject’ Figurative Sculptures

By Nina Subin - Nina Subin, CC BY 4.0, Link

Presenting visceral representations of men and women or individual body parts, and depicting in graphic detail the internally toxic effects of illness, long-held guilt, shame, or humiliation on the human body, the German-born American artist, Kiki Smith, is revered as one of the most important voices of contemporary Feminist art.

Best-known for her figural representation of morality, abjection, and sexuality, Smith was born on January 18, 1954, in Nuremberg, Germany. The daughter of an American sculptor Tony Smith, she grew up in New Jersy. The largely self-taught Smith enrolled in the Hartford Art School for a brief period of time before moving to New York in 1976. In New York, she quickly became a fixture of the Downtown arts scene of the time which included artists like David Hammons and Jenny Holzer.

Smith’s work as a sculptor bore little resemblance to that of her father. She was engaged in the study of human anatomy and the natural world. Her work in the 1980s often examined particular part of the body-- hands, the digestive system, the pelvis, the liver- using materials such as cloth, paper, and ceramics to depict the mystery and vulnerability of the body.

In 1985, Smith briefly studied to be an emergency medical technician. By 1990 she had begun to create fully realized human figures, and she often employed beeswax to heighten the suggestion of flesh, as in “Untitled” (1990). Smith used the body as a metaphor for the passions and tribulations of existence, and her work reinvigorated the tradition of expressionist and emotive figural sculpture.

After the mid-1990s Smith shifted the focus her subject matter by departing from the ‘abject’ figurative sculptures that she is known for. She delved into portraying animals and creating works that are based on fairy tales and myths. She became the pioneer in restoring the figure as acceptable subject matter in contemporary art.

Smith had been the subject of many solo exhibitions, including a retrospective in 2006 organized by the Walker Art Cente, Minneapolis. Among the many awards she has received are the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture (2000), awarded annually by the Skowhegan (Maine) School of Painting and Sculpture, the Athena Award from the Rhode Island School of Design (2005) in recognition of her printmaking, the Edward MacDowell Medal (2009) from the MacDowell Colony artists’ residency in Peterborough, New Hampshire, for her outstanding contribution to the field of sculpture, and the U.S. State Department Medal of Arts (2012)


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