Kiki Smith’s White mammals


Kiki Smith’s fascination with issues of mortality and physical transformation is a recurrent theme within her artistic practice. Smith is best known for her sculptural representations of the human body, beginning her practice in the 1980s with an exploration of body parts and internal organs. This expanded in the early 1990s to life-size figurative sculptures, which combine vulnerability with a confrontational honesty. Subsequently her interest in natural history led to her study of the physical forms of others, particularly animals, birds and cosmic bodies. An interest in spirituality and mythology has moved her more recently towards the sentimental and fairy tale, but often the macabre fairy tales, the version in which Little Red Riding Hood is eaten. Smith is renowned for her innovative use of a diverse range of media, including wax, papier mâché, bronze, glass, fabric, photography, film and the full range of printmaking techniques, prints being an integral component of her oeuvre. Smith has never had a studio, instead, she works collaboratively in classrooms, print workshops and foundries throughout the United States and overseas.

In 1998 Smith was invited to work with the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, using it as the inspiration for an installation at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Smith decided to focus on the colour white and its varied manifestations and purposes in nature, such as its use as camouflage in winter. The White mammals set of seven etchings was one of the resulting works. The eight animals, depicted life-size, are rodents and other mammals that inhabit snowbound regions and are either born white, or grow winter coats. Smith, however, has selected to remove their concealing shade, showing them black against the scratched and marked background of the etching plate. The animals are rigidly arranged, with blank eyes indicating the cotton-wool-filled sockets of the museum specimens. Yet, as with much of her work, these prints retain a powerful intimacy, conveyed by the isolation of the animals on each sheet and the dense swirls and patterns of their fur, exquisitely conveyed through Smith’s control of the etching needle.

The recent acquisition of prints by Smith marks the beginning of a concerted strategy to strengthen the NGV’s representation of contemporary American printmaking, to complement the Gallery’s recent focus on British printmaking, which led to the exhibition BritPrint in 2005–06. Smith’s ongoing exploration of the dichotomy between the frailty of corporeal life and the resilience of nature, her extraordinary abilities as a printmaker and her ongoing influence on artists around the world motivated the decision to begin this focus with her art. White mammals, 1998, and Europa, 2000–06, are the first works by Smith to enter the collection.

Alisa Bunbury, Curator, Prints and Drawings, NGV (in 2007)