Kiki Smith - My Blue Lake
My Blue Lake is a hand-colored photogravure and lithograph from 1995 depicting a human face and torso as a map with topographical features. It is one of several pieces created during the early 1990s aimed at changing how the female body was depicted in art.1 In My Blue Lake, Kiki Smith combines the world and her body by using a camera designed for capturing geological features. Smith photographs herself as if she were terrain. She used the printmaking technique of drypoint along with red and blue coloring to make her hair and body hint at topographical markings. The camera used with permission from the Royal Academy provides a full peripheral view of the subject so that her whole body is viewable in a two-dimensional image. The camera distorts her skin, but less so her face, the same way a map distorts elements in the periphery but less so in the center. The viewer is forced to ponder their role and relationship in the natural world.
Like the terrain they inhabit, women’s bodies are in constant flux and My Blue Lake turns the body into a literal landscape. The analogy to all of humanity did not end with the completion of the portrait; Smith then hand-printed each copy because the printing process reminded her of birth in that each creation is unique and yet also nearly identical to its “siblings.” Thus each print symbolizes her larger view of humanity and how similar we are to one another.2
Kiki Smith’s style is less inspired by other artists as it responds to them. This began at home. Although an American artist, Smith was born in Nuremberg, Germany. She moved shortly after her birth to South Orange, New Jersey, in 1954. Her father was a successful abstract sculptor specializing in Cubism who likely worked in response to his father, a professional altar carver. Possibly inspired by her family, Smith’s work is deeply thoughtful and thought provoking, on an almost spiritual level.3 Little is known of her early life and she prefers not to discuss it. In interviews she has said her earliest pieces were inspired by experiences she was working through and trying to process.4 While many of her pieces are fanciful, none are abstract; she has said she considers that untouchable territory since it was the realm of her father.5
Indeed, Smith has expressed deep dislike for abstraction. She has said her work in the 1970s was in response to the minimalism of the 1960s and 1970s.6 She has also criticized her father’s favored Cubism for its disrespect of the human form and how the mind’s conception of it. She has criticized Pablo Picasso for his “dissection” and “disintegration” of the human body in favor of portraying “psychic dislocation.” One of her motivations as an artist, she has said, is to repair the fragmentation and fracturing of the human body made so popular by Cubism and its offshoots.7 For Smith, the human body, particularly the female body, is a sacred thing.8 Her work is a series of physical objects grappling with dilemmas of the mind and soul.9
Since so many of the depictions of the female body she detests are male-inspired, her reparative work has a definite tone of feminism. Her contemporaries in the 1970s made art that was often sex-driven. Smith on the other hand was never interested in eroticism or even the sexed body. The bodies she draws, paints, sculpts and photographs are never victimized or seduced.10 She is not interested in representing, but she is profoundly interested in the body. The whole history of the world is in each person’s body, she has said.”11 Her work is credited with forcing contemporaries to rethink feminist art and the human body as a subject of art.12
Having grown up in the 1960s, Smith has also confessed to being “Hippie” inspired, thinking about returning human sensibilities to the land.13 She likes her work to force viewers to ponder their role in and relationship to the natural world rather than insisting we are apart from it by virtue of our consciousness. Her role as an artist, she said, is to recognize the pain caused by the dichotomies of male and female, body and mind, and to mend those fractures to heal all of society.14 The body is our link to the Earth; it represents our shared biology as humans and our shared experience with the environment.15 Smith says she did not initially choose the body as subject matter consciously, but “because it is the one form that we all share. It’s something everybody has their own authentic experience with.”16 Despite human beings being separated by time, cultures and geography, the body is that shared commonality across all space and time.17
During the 1980s many artists were interested in the body as a way to explore and express ideas about gender, gender identity, sexual identity, gender and sexual politics.18 Smith went so far as to study human anatomy as part of Emergency Medical Technician licensing.19 All throughout the decade her work was focused on the female body.20 Fascinated with body politics she studies debates over genetic engineering, inoculation, incarceration, and government control of bodies. Like the Earth itself, bodies exist independent of the abstract phenomena of politics, although governments attempt to exert control over both land and flesh.21
Refusing to be one-dimensional, Smith also studied design and printing (mostly fabric) during this same period and loved to create scarves and skirts for friends. Living and studying in Mexico, she fell in love with Hispanic depictions of skeletons, death and mortality. Combining these influences with her studies of Gray’s Anatomy from the EMT training, she often made designs featuring random, usually internal, body parts.22 She loved how body parts communicated humanity but not individual humans. In fact, she did not create art depicting a whole human until 1987.23
This progression through the 1980s began with body parts and evolved into whole bodies, but instead of breaking the body down into visual pieces (the way disciples of Picasso might think of a woman as a compilation of eyes, mouth, breasts, arms, hips, and legs), Smith’s work follows subject matters from the “microscopic to organs to systems; skins to bodies to the religious body to cosmologies.”24 Her goal is to unravel the body’s functions and portray the skin not for its visual and tactile traits, but instead as a boundary between the internal and the external.25 “The inside and the outside are constantly in a shift of what you're letting go and leaving behind-you’re breathing in and out and that’s becoming you and then being expelled from you,” she said. “You’re something constantly changing, and that fluidity is not to be lost.”26 There really is no separation between your consciousness, your identity, and your body, and there is no real difference between your body and the physical world as it fills itself from the outside, and then literally expels pieces of itself from within. “The outside can’t contain the inside,” she said.27
An early example from this period illustrating her emerging interest in the oneness of the body and Earth is “Hand in a Jar” from 1980. It is a latex hand submerged in a jar with algae growing on it. During the development of this sculpture she had no intention of including the algae, but when it appeared accidentally she was delighted. It was a metaphor of parasite-host relationships and all the symbiotic relationships that exist within life, including how new life often springs from death itself.28
In the 1990s her fascination with individual body parts and internal organs evolved into depictions of the whole female body.29 These bodies were always exposed and evoked strong reactions from viewers. Smith has said she is a “civic-minded” feminist, not a “feminist artist.”30 There is no agenda for her art, she said, because it is all personal: “My work is about my life, and it protects my life. I trust my motives for doing things because I know they are deeply connected to me.”31 And yet ironically she is considered one of the most influential “feminist artists” of the 1990s because of the way her deeply personal work reclaimed the female body in art away from male perspectives and instead rooted it in shared female lived experience.32 Trendsetting male artists have been obsessed with the beauty of the female body, often because of erotic aesthetics. Smith, instead depicts female bodies with honesty and vulnerability.
Perhaps Smith does not consider herself a “feminist artist” because she feels she reclaims rather than advances ideas. Nearly all concepts traditionally associated with the feminine such as nature, the body and the spirit are at best devalued and at worst attacked by modern western thinking. Smith’s work, particularly in the 1990s, was in contrast to this. Although deeply personal, her work instinctively reflected her own reverence for nature, the body and the spirit.33 The contrast is most apparent when juxtaposed with evidence of our aggressive and violent culture.34 Some refer to her 1990s work as “post-feminist” precisely because it is coincidentally “de-eroticized” and is about her own experience with her body and the environment.35 Ironically, much of her art is so simple in its exploration of the individual’s connection to the world it greatly resembles the minimalist art she so dislikes.36 Even if she surrendered to this truth, her contributions are markedly different for being from the female perspective.37
One reason her art in the 1990s is so personal is that she began to explore the field of self portraiture in 1989 at Universal Limited Art Editions in Long Island. “They told me to bring nothing but myself.”38 Because she was primarily interested in genuine experience and connectivity to the environment and humanity as a whole, her self-portraits lack narcissism. As a result of that, she has frequently engaged in a rarely-seen practice: self-effacement and distortion.39
An example is Free Fall created the year before My Blue Lake. It is a photogravure etching in which Smith appears to be free falling. Interestingly, the piece is not complete until the 33 7/16x42 1/16 has been unfolded like a road map. Thus, to see it the viewer must unfold it first and examine the self-portrait amidst all the creases.40 Critics say it is a “continuation of her attempts to expose the perceived dichotomies between the specific private and the public.” The image is both a literal and metaphorical unfolding of Smith.41 “There’s something really nice about transgressing your own image. It’s endlessly amusing to make yourself horrific-looking.” This is certainly seen in My Blue Lake.
Distortion was not the goal of My Blue Lake. Riffing off Jasper John’s two-dimensional depictions of three-dimensional objects was the aim. Smith has said funerary masks “unfold the head” and she really liked that, particularly how it was like a topographical map.42 Her first attempts resulted in the hair series in the early 1990s. Returning to her love of printing, she made rubber molds of her head and then smashed it flat, inked it, and pressed it against a lithographic plate. During this time at ULAE she studied the etching prints of masters of photogravure Bill Goldston and Craig Zammiello. The hair series and coaching from her mentors eventually led to a desire to splay her body flat.43
Initial efforts at trying to portray the whole of her in a single print led to Smith and Zammiello experimenting with photographing Smith while she spun on a stool. She continued attempts to make flat images of her own head. She described as being a sculptor creating a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional piece of paper.44 Eventually Goldston and Zammiello stumbled upon the “periphery” camera at the Royal Academy at the British Museum in London. It was one of only two in the world. They rented it for two days. “The subject sits on a rotating turntable and the camera moves laterally at the same speed; the film records the image in successive strips that together form a periphery photograph.”
Typical of Smith’s work, My Blue Lake was not created to communicate a message; it was an experiment conducted with her mentors. Because it sprung from a deep well of thoughts about herself, the body, and femininity in art, much can be said about the state of mind that led to its inception. Take the eyes, for example. Staring eyes typically represent voyeurism (especially in surrealism), or, often in portraits of women, they are the subject’s gaze returning the male artist’s voyeuristic gaze.45 In My Blue Lake the eyes stare at nothing. Although (ironically) there were men behind the camera, the process was not one whereby a man stood in front of an easel or behind a camera staring a naked woman. Smith in My Blue Lake is staring at the camera, which was constantly moving and filming for six minutes. As a result her eyes seem to stare at nothing. They’re looking forward but not at you, and you can see that in the middle of the image recording, she changed the direction of her gaze so one eye looks one way and the other eye looks off slightly to somewhere else. Fittingly, others have described her body of work in general as “numb to the objectifying gaze of others, or indifferent to our presence.”46
My Blue Lake works wonderfully as a metaphor. Just as the camera was in constant movement, a woman’s body is in a constant state of change. It changes daily with the activities of breathing, eating, and defecating; as the years pass by it ages and changes with puberty, childbirth and menopause. The environment of which it is a part is equally unstable and in flux changing with seasons, from temperature, from erosion and massive events like earthquakes or floods.47 Tellingly, the following year she created an installation titled, Landscape in which she places whimsical creatures placed on a blue circle suggesting the state of nature when Adam and Eve arrived.48 In hindsight we may allow it to hint that her post-exposure treatment of the image with the blue may be suggesting birth, genesis, origin.
Like Free Fall, My Blue Lake was not finished once the image was done. Smith then allowed her love of printmaking to take the image to a second level of metaphor. Loving the complexities of the form, and the craft tradition, Smith has studied it like few of her generation.49 Printing copies of a piece she’s especially proud of, like My Blue Lake, is like creating the literal issue of Adam and Eve. Smith says she enjoys the “experience of the process.”50 Smith says the prints mimic what we are as humans: same yet different. “It's about repetition versus uniqueness,” she has said. “I also think there's a spiritual power in repetition, a devotional quality, like saying rosaries.”51 And ironically, making a series or multiples of her art reminds her of her father’s variations on geometric shapes, bringing her work full circle back to her own origins acknowledging she herself is both a copy and unique.52
1Kimmelman, Michael. "Making Metaphors of Art and Bodies." The New York Times. November 14, 1996. Accessed November 24, 2015., 1. http://www.nytimes.com/1996/11/15/arts/making-metaphors-of-art-and-bodies.html.
3Posner, Helaine, and Kiki Smith. Kiki Smith. Boston: Bulfinch, 1998, 9.
4Poser, Smith, Kiki Smith, 11.
8Kimmelman, "Making Metaphors of Art and Bodies." 1.
10Smith, Kiki, and Susan L. Stoops. Kiki Smith: Unfolding the Body: an Exhibition of the Work on Paper. Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, 1992, 11.
11Close, Chuck, and Kiki Smith. 1994. “Kiki Smith”. BOMB, no. 49. New Art Publications: 38–45. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/stable/40425097.
12Posner, Smith, Kiki Smith, 31.
17Stoops, Smith, Kiki Smith: Unfolding the Body, 11.
18Posner, Smith, Kiki Smith, 9.
20Smith, Stoops, Kiki Smith: Unfolding the Body, 11.
21Weitman, Wendy, and Kiki Smith. Kiki Smith: prints, books & things. The Museum of Modern Art, 2003, 16.
22Weitman, Kiki Smith: prints, books & things, 14.
23Kimmelman, "Making Metaphors of Art and Bodies." 1.
24Posner, Smith, Kiki Smith, 35.
25Kimmelman, "Making Metaphors of Art and Bodies." 1.
26Smith, Stoops, Kiki Smith: Unfolding the Body, 28.
27Smith, Stoops, Kiki Smith: Unfolding the Body, 28.
28Posner, Smith, Kiki Smith, 32.
29Kimmelman, "Making Metaphors of Art and Bodies." 1.
30Posner, Smith, Kiki Smith, 35.
33Kimmelman, "Making Metaphors of Art and Bodies." 1.
34Posner, Smith, Kiki Smith, 25.
35Smith, Stoops, Kiki Smith: Unfolding the Body, 27.
36Kimmelman, "Making Metaphors of Art and Bodies." 3.
37Smith, Stoops, Kiki Smith: Unfolding the Body, 16.
39Weitman, Smith, Kiki Smith: prints, books & things, 25.
40Smith, Stoops, Kiki Smith: Unfolding the Body, 28.
42Weitman, Smith, Kiki Smith: prints, books & things, 26.
46Smith, Stoops, Kiki Smith: Unfolding the Body, 21.
47Posner, Smith, Kiki Smith, 32
48Posner, Smith, Kiki Smith, 27.
49Weitman, Smith, Kiki Smith: prints, books & things, 22.
50"Kiki Smith." PBS. September 9, 2003. Accessed November 24, 2015. http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/kiki-smith.
51Kimmelman, "Making Metaphors of Art and Bodies." 3.
52Kimmelman, "Making Metaphors of Art and Bodies." 2.