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VISUAL ARTS REVIEW

A fierce presence, softened

Divided attention dulls an artist's once-sharp edge

NEW YORK -- I vividly recall my first Kiki Smith moment. It was at the 1991 Whitney Museum of American Art's Biennial Exhibition, where I was blown away by her pair of appallingly realistic, life-size wax sculptures of a man and a woman, both naked. Held up by metal stands that hooked into their upper backs, they drooped like corpses. There were white stains of breast milk on her torso, of semen on his legs. Cast from the bodies of live people, they looked as though they'd been tortured to death. I thought they made a stunning couple and a viscerally sensuous allegory of the human soul brutalized by modern times.

To see these tragic figures again in "Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005," a career survey now on view at the Whitney, is not so wonderfully shocking as it was 16 years ago. But they still have a powerful presence. And beholding them in the context of a lot of her other work helped me understand why I've been disappointed by the scattershot development of her art since the early '90s. (The exhibition was organized by Siri Engberg , a curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis , where it was on view last spring.)

Smith, who was born in 1954 and has lived in New York City since 1976, has become one of the most celebrated and beloved artists of her generation. But over the past decade she has softened the hard edge of her art in favor of a kind of ethereal, New Age poetry and a busily meandering play with materials and handicrafts.

There were other gripping works like the hanging wax couple in the early '90s, including the amazing "Tale": a naked woman on her hands and knees extruding a length of feces more than 10 feet across the floor like a long tail.

"Tale" is unfortunately not in the Whitney show, but "Lillith" is: a dark bronze nude with glass eyes that crouches on a gallery wall like a human fly (there's a version of her at the MFA). Also in the show is a bronze crouching woman who lays her surrealistically elongated forearms on the floor in what seems a gesture of supplication. And there's a seated nude made of wax who has deep scar lines incising her back as though she'd been clawed by a monster rapist.

Considering those works, I find myself imagining a new life for figurative sculpture: not some fusty, academic revival of 19th-century, Renaissance-based models, but something that would convey in the fiercest way both the physical reality and psychosocial complexity of the 21st-century human being.

But though Smith has continued to create figurative works, she has not conjured the kind of furious urgency that I felt in those of the '90s. She has become a homespun symbolist, and she has remained a perpetual, self-teaching student, always experimenting with different materials -- plaster, clay, glass, paper, and bronze, among others -- and processes, including drawing, casting, sewing, printmaking, and photography.

A preoccupation with the body, nature, death, and rebirth runs consistently throughout Smith's oeuvre. Her work is a kind of extended mourning for life on earth in a time when bad things -- sexual discrimination, environmental degradation, AIDS, war -- are happening everywhere. But because she's been so all over the place formally and technically, and because she never stays focused on any one way of working for long, her retrospective is a hit-or-miss affair.

Works from the mid-'80s, when she began to hit her stride, include a rough bowl filled with crude ceramic representations of body organs, a plaster cast of a woman's pregnant belly called "Shield," and a rusty, cast-iron sculpture that looks vaguely like an antique radiator representing the human digestive system. A baby made of crinkled paper hangs by its umbilical cord between a pair of suspended paper legs.

In their time, these and similar works were more purposeful than they may seem today. Amid the cocaine-fu e led '80s art world of big money and big egos, Smith honored the humble, the fragile, the mortal, and the feminine.

While Smith's early works tend to be raw and homely, she soon began occasionally to produce, with the assistance of professional craftspeople, works of uncommon beauty, like a school of hundreds of enlarged, wriggling sperm cells made of crystal glass circling on a black rubber mat. In fact, most of her works in glass, including a paperweight in the form of a female breast and a clear egg with its yellow yolk hovering inside, are irresistibly lovely.

In the later '90s, Smith turned from tormented humans to animals. Dead crows cast in bronze scattered in a corner of the gallery are based on a story she heard about birds killed by toxic chemicals in New Jersey. A huge, white-on-black etching of a peaceable kingdom is printed on scores of glued-together sheets of paper: Out of the deep black field emerges a disconnected frieze of ghostly, near-life - size illustrations of a deer, a peacock, a wolf, a cat, a mouse, and several other animals, all drawn with industrious conscientiousness if not with transcendent skill.

Smith's artistic persona these days is of a motherly, generously accepting nature -- she wants to project a nonjudgmental tenderness toward all things great and small. But she walks a dangerously fine line between fierce romance and self-indulgent schmaltz. The little bronze bat with the eyes made of real rubies is magical, but the skulls of small animals in cast pewter and the mushrooms cast in gleaming white bronze are cliches. The tableau of a bronze naked child sadly kneeling with her back to a wall dotted with golden starfish is sentimental theater.

For all her busyness, Smith seems curiously lazy. She rarely pushes on to discover possibilities beyond an initial concept. The child-size paper and hair sculpture "Daughter," which represents the offspring of Red Riding Hood and the wolf, with a soundtrack of ominous cello playing, is an interesting idea, but it's like a Halloween display for kids. More concentrated thought and energy could have made it so much more weird and scary.

It's not that she isn't dealing with rich ideas and feelings. Among the most remarkable of the show's more recent works is a large, blackened bronze piece called "Rapture" -- perhaps another chapter in the Red Riding Hood story -- in which a nude woman steps out of the sliced-open abdomen of a dead wolf. I love its mythic vibe -- the image of the soul liberated by the death of its old, animal husk -- but as a sculpture, it remains strangely lifeless. The woman has a wooden, zombielike expression in her face and body, and the wolf looks like a specimen borrowed from a taxidermist. It's as if the soul were still imprisoned within its flat-footed bronze shell.

"Rapture," I imagine, is like a dream that Smith is having about her own art, a dream about saving its life. If only she would give herself more wholeheartedly to what matters most deeply to her, I can't help thinking -- stop distracting herself with all those different techniques and handicrafts, all the aimless fussing and puttering. If she could just focus on one true thing long enough, maybe it would come violently to life. Some of her sculptures from the '90s had that shocking aliveness. It could happen again.

Ken Johnson can be reached at kejohnson@globe.com.

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