(credit: Kiki Smith, courtesy The Pace Gallery)

Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art

Northwestern University 

40 Arts Circle Drive

Evanston, IL
(847) 491-4000
Hours: Tue – Sun 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Looking at Kiki Smith’s work is like entering another dimension. The artist, known for her sculptures, prints and drawings, takes the everyday and tweaks it slightly, giving her work an aesthetic that’s darkly whimsical. While she isn’t especially known for her photography, Smith uses the medium as source material for sculptures and drawings, as well as in collages and artist books. Then sometimes she simply explores the form by itself. I Myself Have Seen It: Photography and Kiki Smith, which runs through August 14 at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, offers a survey of Smith’s photography and explores the ways the medium enhances her other artwork.

The first large-scale exhibit of Smith’s photographs, the show often pairs a picture with a sculpture, video or print. Wandering, inspired by Little Red Riding Hood, features about 20 small sculptures of a girl, wolves and deer arranged in a case. They’re situated next to close-up photographs Smith took of the sculptures. Those lead into the Sleeping Witch series, which depict a woman wearing a cloak lying in the woods with a basket of apples. The works all combine to thrust the viewer into the world of fairy tales and raise questions about childhood, innocence and danger.

In another room, White Mammals (1998) pairs ceramic molds of animals on the floor with etchings of the same animals hanging on the wall above them. The animals are small mammals, like mice, and appear dead. The sculpture stands in for the animal, while the etchings give the piece a scientific feeling, as if entering a lab. Next to this installation is a selection of photographs showing winter landscapes, stuffed owls and raccoons and a polar bear swimming. The juxtaposition is of life and death, but the wintry setting makes it hard to believe that anything could survive there.

(credit: Kiki Smith, courtesy The Pace Gallery.)

Untitled III (Upside Down Body With Beads) fills the central space of another gallery. The bronze sculpture, of a bent-over human body (though so crude it’s barely recognizable as such) and a tangle of beads, is matched with a series of photographs Smith took of this and another sculpture. Untitled III takes up a lot of space, while the images zero in on parts of the body. There’s a disconnect between the close-up images of the head and feet and the sculpture – you almost wouldn’t even realize that they’re related if they weren’t next to each other. It provides a way to think about photography as an art form and how subjects and images relate. It’s also interesting to see how the Smith behind the lens views the work that Smith the sculptor made.

The baseboard of each room is lined with photographs, creating a partial frame for each wall. It’s a reminder that we’re there to see how the photographs interact with the rest of work and when it comes down to it, her photographs work the same way her sculptures, drawings and etchings do. They offer access to world of dark fantasy, mystery and the unknown and we’re lucky to get to enter it.

I Myself Have Seen It: Photography and Kiki Smith is on view through August 14 at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art.