BY Paul Myoda in Reviews | 01 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 26

Alison Saar: Strange Fruit Kiki Smith

BY Paul Myoda in Reviews | 01 SEP 96

The world has fundamentally changed, Peter Sloterdijk once remarked, now that one no longer knows where on earth one will be buried. To the stubborn individualist, this comment falls moot - I am not truly my 'I' till I am recognised as someone other than the son or daughter of my father and mother. From this perspective, I suppose it doesn't matter what happens to one's body in the great beyond, unless it's something meaningful, such as ashes sprinkled over some baseball stadium, or cryogenic suspension. Yet, through the melancholic odour seeping from this generalisation's pores, another generalisation can be discerned: modern consciousness has been successfully deracinated from the land.

Alison Saar's work is an attempt to replant it. Calling on a wide variety of sources - African and Haitian folklore, contemporary African-American culture, Catholicism, voodoo and mythology - Saar creates her own universe wherein places, peoples and things are planted and nurtured in the same field. Here, contradictions are reconcilable rather than revolutionary and forces are spiritual rather than nuclear. The overarching Law presiding over the land is the traditional Yoruban belief that good and evil coexist in interdependent measure, a perpetual motion machine with no eschatological finality save that of 'forever'.

Yet, like the Yoruban world view, this 'forever' is in flux - at least on the surface. Deities take on attributes and characteristics relevant to the day. Particular historical conditions - slavery or sharecropping, colonialism or post-colonialism, smallpox or AIDS - are interpreted through timeless dualities such as savagery and civilisation, or persecution and redemption. Terra Rosa (1993), for example, is a life-size, pregnant, female figure beautifully carved from wood (Saar knows her materials in the way the best woodworkers do). She sits with her hands up, cupping a clump of dirt as if in deferential offering, although an open mouth full of the same dirt also suggests a moment's respite for chewing and swallowing. While the literature accompanying this work points out that dirt eating is still a common practice in some Southern States, among both rural whites and African-Americans, to assuage hunger and satisfy superstition, this fact, or surplus information, is eclipsed by the symbolic clarity and the disconcertingly visceral effect of the image. Like the best of catalysts, Terra Rosa begins a rapid-fire chain-reaction of associations and questions: 'femininity' relative to the earth, love and selflessness, endlessly regenerative cycles, first you're warm then you're cold...

Other images from Saar's human menagerie of sculptural figures misfire, however, encumbered by a religiosity, a righteousness, a kind of stale transcendence that is sometimes too difficult to swallow - no matter what the hunger, spiritual or otherwise. Yet, much is written about the way Saar's art - especially her public art commissions - enacts a reciprocal exchange of nourishment and healing with a larger community, presumably outside the myopia and specialisation of the contemporary art world (for better or worse, Saar is often referred to as an 'outsider artist'). There is a feeling that the accessibility of her subjects and the inclusiveness of her symbols traverse cultural differences to reveal the very bedrock of a universal humanism. This is like suggesting that one need not subscribe to Capitalism in order to honour Walt Disney's sub-zero suspension, or to Communism to supplicate before Lenin's embalmed body. Which is to say that sometimes Saar's art just gets stuck and buried in the muck of happy holism.

Kiki Smith's menagerie of animal and human figures sit about as far apart from Saar's as these last two examples. But why? Both artists use the figure of the woman's body as a central motif, a vessel to be filled or emptied, adorned or stripped, cast or chiselled. Both make works aimed at the gut. And of course, both encompass the spiritual dimension: the pneuma, that which can't be sculpted, but only so elusively sculpted around...

Smith's much anticipated first exhibition of 'New Sculptures' at her new gallery, PaceWildenstein, announces a new level to her career. A classicism of sorts. The sheer quantity of objects is daunting at first: several figures (some bronze, others in paper and resin) hanging off the walls, several others resting on pedestals, dozens of cast animal skulls on a shelf, drawings, prints and some jewellery, and to top it off, dozens of dead or dying bronze crows spaced evenly apart on the floor. If one momentarily manages to sequester a particular piece from the cacophony of the rest, Smith's signature touch is still evident - never mind the suspicion that a small army of fabricators and foundry people actually made the things. Touch shouldn't be taken literally, although touch is what brought Smith's work the attention of the art world in the first place.

I remember seeing some of Smith's works just as the decade was turning. Influenced, no doubt, by the heightened levels of radioactivity in the air - everyone's radar was boosted full power in the attempt to discern the contours of the incipient 90s - Smith's work seemed to glow. Much like Robert Gober, Smith appeared simply to ignore the political correctness and didacticism, the spectacle and endgame posturing of that time's official art (What nerve! Oh my!). A couple of years later, Lisa Phillips of the Whitney Museum could announce with an insider's confidence that the art of the 90s could be seen returning to a spiritual dimension. Pick up your shovel and hoe! We're all going to begin replanting that wayward consciousness back into the land, or, in Smith's vocabulary, the Body.

Which is where we seem to be today - replanting spirituality takes a damn long time - just ask Alison Saar. Which is not to say that Smith hasn't continued to make wonderfully compelling sculptures. Untitled (1995), for example, is a wall-mounted female figure delicately made from brown paper. She is fully buckled over at the waist, revealing the back of her head, and the disarmingly grotesque sight of long, thick horsehair plugs exiting from holes in her pulpy scalp. The sense of vulnerability and susceptibility to the arbitrary forces of time is almost overwhelming. The spirit's breath, barely inflating the body-as-bag, seems to leak from its hair holes. If you cock your head in a somewhat compromising position, you are rewarded with the punch line: a little paper penis tucked between her legs.

Stand back again (perhaps with blushing cheeks), and the effect is annoyingly similar to an overcrowded art fair booth. I would not make such a point about this were it not for the sense that Smith's sculptures are antithetical to this presentation. They are precisely about intimacy, about the electrical, charged space around them: a space over which the sculptures seem to beckon the viewer, a space which becomes activated, which becomes gendered when you catch yourself looking.

So the question once again: can an inanimate object possess a complex, individual spirit, with the ability to tell meaningful stories, to guide us into the past and future, and offer prescient interpretations of today, as Yoruban belief would have it? If so, I am afraid that this spirituality is somewhere outside this exhibition. It's as if Smith's new work is already dead and buried in some overcrowded museum; to emphasise the etymological precedent - the mausoleum.