In 2010, Kiki Smith was given the chance to build a window for a synagogue in Chinatown. Smith is something like royalty among the Soho avant-gardes, an image even more complete now with the Jane Goodall-grey of her hair, the look of years spent mired in jungle, figurative language she might embrace. In one of her most famous works, 1993’s “Tale,” a woman built out of beeswax lies prostrate while a line of feces trails her, Smith’s idea of what it felt like to crawl out of the ‘80s of AIDS-kissed needle lips—“disgusting,” said Philippe de Montebello of the Met, at the time. The synagogue in question was the Eldridge Street Synagogue, one of the country’s first and now a decade-old art museum, first planted in Chinatown when the Howard Johnson around the corner was a mikvah bath house. Smith, collaborating with the architect Deborah Gans, erected a baby blue stained glass window, dizzy with stars and blasting the heavens inside, full-speed.
Smith returns now and lines her latest sculptures along the pews. They are plates in polite glass boxes that recycle a number of striking motifs: an older woman with the city in her hair, cat scared frozen, hands lifted up & holding waffle hearts. Isolated and exhibited in the synagogue’s main floor, they look like the anonymous activity of an incredibly precocious student, without so much as a placard. “I don’t want to make bodies anymore,” Smith told Heidi Julavits last year, because it became harder to find any she could relate to, so it’s not surprising these sculptures skillfully evoke shadows; the cat could be staring at you from a corner bodega, the optimistic energy of the hands and hearts belonging to the sunny murals that accompany city high schools. The viewer is forced into the abjectness of an autobiography without mirrors, vestiges of city life.
The synagogue’s women’s gallery [so named because during the old Orthodox services, the women would sit here, elevated a floor above] provides a better view of the window Smith and Gans constructed eight years ago, and its oceanic blue is no less dramatic surrounding stones and chandeliers authentically tinted with the feel of the past century and a half. Much of the synagogue renovation was meant to replicate set artifacts, but Smith’s window was an entirety new creation and its ambient gaze toward the heavens feels almost futuristic next the earth colors of historical paraphernalia. Three more of Smith’s sculptures can be seen up here: works that are aluminum-cast and life-sized, conceptually recycled, somewhat, from a bit in “Lodestar,” her 2010 show at The Pace Gallery: a set-up of broken chairs and escaping birds. It is very good bit, quite beautiful, elegiac rough edges erecting disintegration and Phoenix-like gesture of rising out of them. At the time, they were meant to signify “grieving and regeneration,” the death of her parents and Smith’s continued living on this earth. Here, they are offered as a metaphor for the actual process of renovation: a local community center no longer needed after its community departed for the suburbs turned into a museum that now receives 40,000 visitors a year. The past is vulgarized, obviously—you can hear Eldridge’s tour guides slicing a century of religious ritual into bite-sized snippets if you sign up for the tour. But art is vulgar too, and this is the Smith’s ultimate medium, the past dragged out, because you
can never quite get away.
Below the Horizon: Kiki Smith at Eldridge is on view at the Eldridge Street Synagogue until
October 10 th