Progression of Art
One of her early large-scale wax sculptures, Untitled explores the human body from within a variety of themes such as religion, procreation, life, and death. The sculpture consists of two life-size, nude figures (one female and one male) placed near one another, each held slightly aloft by vertical props. The anonymous-looking, unidealized figures are Caucasian, depicted in mostly naturalistic skin-tones with areas of red-tinted mottling on each (the male figure is of noticeably ruddier complexion). Both figures slump forward, eyes closed, hanging limply and puppet-like, as if dead. Milk has leaked from the breasts of the woman and runs down her torso, while semen has dripped down the legs of the man.
Although each figure is separate, the similarity of treatment suggests that they are to be viewed as a unified composition. Elevated as they are, their limp postures hint at ideas of death and suffering, perhaps crucifixion, while their gendered presence (along with their bodily fluids) invite associations with procreation and sexuality, and tie them to such religious concepts as Adam and Eve, and, ultimately, notions of Original Sin.
Examined more closely, Untitled characterizes Smith's self-confessed preoccupation with visceral functions associated with life giving bodily fluids - exemplified here by the milk and semen. In contrast to those secretions tied to procreation, the red tinted coloring on both figures (the male more so, imparting a somewhat ruddy hue to his features), certainly implies blood, but might also remind the viewer of the ancient burial practice of adorning the dead body with red ochre. Of further significance is the life/death dichotomy that blood represents as the vector for deadly diseases such as AIDS, from which her sister had recently died and which was then reaching epidemic proportions worldwide.
Smith's prosaic figures are entirely human, with the blemishes, defects, and weaknesses intrinsic to humanity. They challenge the viewer to see the body as more (and less) than beautiful, idealized objects of veneration or attainment; they demand honest self-reflection by the viewer, and acceptance of the frailty, carnality, and vulnerability that are inherent in living in the flesh.
Beeswax and microcrystalline wax - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
Smith's interest in the elemental functions of the human body, particularly with female anatomy, merges with her Feminist perspective, and the iconography of her Catholic religion in her sculpture, Virgin Mary. She has appropriated the image of the revered matriarch of her faith and removed the luster generated by centuries of veneration to investigate those vital differences that place her above all women.
Nearly life-size, the wax figure stands, feet together, arms at her sides turned slightly outward, palms up. Her body is depicted nude, but without skin, so that the musculoskeletal system is all that remains, except that her head, hands, breasts, genitalia, and feet all retain their pale flesh. Her head is hairless, the facial features barely discernable. The impersonal nature of the figure, with its reddish-pink layers and bands of muscle, sinew and pale bone brings to mind anatomical models and medical textbook illustrations.
The open-arm posture, however, suggests images of a Eurocentric 'Virgin Mary', for which this sculpture is named, and is reminiscent of Orans figures of early Christianity. Familiar posture aside, Smith withholds Mary's traditional attributes: the halo, blue robe, bejeweled crown, lilies, roses, nursing infant, which generate an otherworldly sort of aura meant to elevate her above all women. Instead, the viewer is asked to acknowledge the woman beneath the veneer of holy mysticism. This Mary offers the viewer no gentle countenance or spiritual comfort. Rather, by removing her skin yet retaining those portions for which she was adored - her breasts, uterus and hands - Smith's sculpture reveals the affinity Mary shares with all women, the blood and bodily functions, the muscle, sinew, and bone. Once examined, the viewer is obligated to acknowledge that those functions for which Mary was revered (and for which women have, historically, been condemned by the Church as unclean) are what actually made her a woman, and that in her humanity she was simply flesh and blood. This leaves viewers with a conundrum, as they must decide either that the venerated figure was simply human or that a woman's body is actually sacred.
Beeswax, microcrystalline wax, cheesecloth, and wood - Pace Gallery
It is important in understanding Smith's contributions to art to examine other media beyond sculpture, which are far ranging. Smith had considerable experience in printmaking, having experimented with monotype, and screen methods since the late 1970s. But, her work in etching was new.
Sueño (Spanish for "dream") is a two-color intaglio print depicting a life-size figure curled into a distorted semblance of a fetal pose in the center of a large sheet of Japanese paper. It is impossible to discern the figure's gender (though Smith herself posed for it, while assistants traced her), reinforcing its enigmatic quality. Negative space surrounds it creating a sense of vulnerability. It curls awkwardly, with its back curved upward and slightly torqued, legs drawn up, its right foot tucked behind the left leg, arms pressed open from the shoulder, and its hairless skull facing downward in profile.
The figure appears to be without skin, its striated musculoskeletal system etched intricately in thousands of lines of black ink, heightened by tints of red. A single, thin outline hovers slightly away from the figure, traced most of the way around, representing the outer skin, similar to an x-ray. The stark contrast of ink against pale ground strengthens the aura of defenselessness, while the detailed linear treatment and braiding of the muscles highlights the unnatural pose.
Although Sueño parallels Virgin Mary in its depiction of a flayed figure, it leads the viewer to a different conclusion laced with irony. Although the viewer sees the figure in amazing detail, it is still completely anonymous. And, for all that this flayed individual appears very vulnerable, by virtue of its location within the composition, one also experiences a sense of discomfort, even unease due to the unnatural placement of limbs and unresolved posture.
Etching and aquatint on Japanese paper - Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Smith's bronze sculpture, Lilith, is a continuation of her interest in female figures from folklore, mythology, and cultural narratives. In this work Lilith clings, insect-like, to the wall above the viewer's head. Her crouching, upside-down posture appears poised to flee. From below, shadows obscure most of her features, enhancing her inscrutability, and generating a sense of unease in the viewer. Head turned to the side, her startlingly intelligent, blue glass eyes peer over her shoulder, belying her feral posture and the dull brown finish of her face. Her cast bronze features are somewhat gestural, the surface rough and unrefined in places, characterizing the earthy, uncontrollable nature Lilith personifies.
According to Hebrew mythology, Lilith predated Eve as the first female in the Garden of Eden and was the first wife of Adam. In the stories, Lilith considered herself Adam's equal rather than his inferior, as they had both been created from dust, and thus, she would not submit to him. Consequently, Adam rejected Lilith and she fled into the demon world to reside, a symbol of female rebellion. Eventually, Eve would be created from Adam's own flesh, a submissive helpmeet faithful to her husband's authority.
Lilith is a study of contrasts. Created in the mid-1990s, while Smith was at the height of her exploration of strong women of biblical lore, she represents those traits considered by Church fathers to be dangerous for a woman to possess - the very antithesis of Eve. She is an empowered woman: independent where Eve is bound to Adam by her very flesh, assertive where Eve is submissive, and possessed of a carnal nature where Eve is modest.
Silicon Bronze and glass - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Lying with the Wolf
Lying with the Wolf is part of a short series of works on paper based on fairy tales. We can see Smith's shift in focus from the figurative art to animals in the late 1990s and then to their corresponding relationships in 2001. She often returns to the subject of the wolf, and of human and animal interactions. The intimate relationship between the woman and the wolf has roots in biblical, mythological, and feminist themes.
A large-scale, ink and graphite drawing on paper, a reclining female nude is depicted embracing a wolf couchant. The pair was rendered without background imagery to assign a specific context, but the wrinkled and patched paper segments resemble bed sheets and a pillow. Smith's interest in folklore, from ancient cultures through the Victorian era, often results in artworks displaying more than one theme at a time, as is the case with Lying with the Wolf. The woman can be identified in multiple narratives including St. Genevieve (the patron saint of France), Little Red Riding Hood, plus in the more obscure references to the She-wolf, the predatory side of womanhood.
Feminist narratives on La Loba (Spanish for both Wild Woman, and also Luminous Wolf) and similar themes encourage women to embrace the wolf-woman within to fully realize their own core of personal strength. Accessing the wolf-woman within requires one to abandon social and religious mores, and practice deep personal introspection in order to realize the true woman beneath long-practiced social strictures.
Ink and graphite on paper - Centre Pompidou, Paris, France
In Rapture Smith revisits the subject of human and animal relationships. When discussing her sculpture Smith stated, "It's a resurrection/birth story; 'Little Red Riding Hood' is a kind of resurrection/birth myth. And then I thought it was like Venus on the half shell or like the Virgin on the moon. It's the same form - a large horizontal form and a vertical coming out of it." "Virgin on the moon" refers to the iconic image of the Virgin Mary standing on a crescent moon. She also compared her sculpture's concept to Raphael's The Birth of Venus and similar depictions. Emergence from water as a means of birth parallels the Christian rite of baptism, and the idea of the rebirth within the faith.
The female figure in this life-size bronze sculpture is emerging from the open belly of a recumbent wolf. Stepping forward, only her foot remains inside of the animal. The contrast in texture is striking - the fur of the wolf is heavily textured and coarse, while the woman's surface appears smooth and radiant, even new. Its title refers to the deeply held Christian tenet, described (but, not named) in the New Testament by Paul in his First Epistle to the Thessalonians, that before the second coming of Christ all believers will rise up and be spirited to heaven, body, and soul. The term 'Rapture' appears elsewhere in the Bible to separate this event from the Second Coming of Christ. The resurrection message here is clear; rebirth and renewal comes from shedding the former self.
Yet the forms of Rapture hold an older, deeper meaning that is fundamental to the universal concept of Womanhood, because it also connotes a sense of strength and mystical union. The woman figure emerges nude from inside the powerful animal. She strides forth a goddess, a holy woman, and the archetype of La Loba, the wild woman, completely unafraid. The woman must embrace her true strength to find empowerment and achieve spiritual renewal. Thus, she rises from wolf reborn. So, Rapture is presented as an earthy and physical resurrection, but it represents a psychic and spiritual one, as well.
Bronze - Pace Gallery