How much pleasure you derive from Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005, a mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, will depend on whether you think art should simply confirm what we know or expand and deepen our knowledge.
Anyone conversant with Ms. Smith’s sculptures, drawings and installations will recognize that the word “pleasure” is used advisedly here: The main theme of her oeuvre is the body and its many and various failings. Frailty, illness and decay are subjects meant to prompt sobriety and reflection, not delight. “Nature doesn’t care if you become fly food,” an aphorism scrawled across one of the drawings, puts a blunt spin on her preoccupations.
Ms. Smith’s most infamous work—Tale (1992), a life-size effigy of a nude woman on all fours trailing an absurdly long line of shit out of her rear—is not at the Whitney. That doesn’t mean you won’t recognize how thoroughly Ms. Smith conflates putrefaction and sex. Intimacy is the sum—less, actually—of its dissected parts: A “mammary” is distended and spider-like; the “uro-genital systems” are alien specimens; a tongue slithers into an ear like a sea slug entering a shell.
The body, particularly the female body, is a burden, its processes gross and lamentable. An early untitled work consists of 12 silvered glass bottles whose supposed contents are etched on the face of each: Semen, mucus, vomit, diarrhea, pus and so on. Constipation and bloody urine are mentioned elsewhere. Ms. Smith’s figures dangle from metal stands, give birth from fragmented bodies and suffer mutilation. A hunched-over woman, constructed from brown paper, paste and horsehair, is crucified upon the wall.
Allusions to religion, myth and fairytales become more frequent with the later work. Her furry Mary Magdalene (1994)—or maybe she’s scarred; Ms. Smith’s skills as a sculptor don’t quite allow her to make the distinction—suggests a caustic take on Christianity, as does a crèche comprised of scattershot bronze animal silhouettes. Daughter (1999), a smallish mannequin that’s a cross between Little Red Riding Hood and the Bearded Woman, is accompanied by spooky music. Feebly crafted and oh-so-symbolic, it garnered snickers from fellow museumgoers.
Ms. Smith is a proud disciple and practitioner of feminist art. The chief characteristic of feminist foremothers like Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke, Carolee Schneemann and, less so, Eva Hesse isn’t outreach or introspection, but narcissism. Self-absorption renders political statement worthless. Sloganeering and moralizing trample over aesthetics.
So it goes with Ms. Smith. Her art doesn’t admit to ambiguities or subtlety. Even at her most abstruse, the message is clear as a bell: Being alive sucks. Her strident ickiness quashes any interesting, furtive tangents. Ms. Smith winnows her art down to the barest whiff of a morbid idea.
If she were capable of or interested in transforming her love of materials, paper especially, into something greater than one-to-one markers of dread, then the work might earn or even transcend its reputation. As things go, she’s content to reiterate the fact that our bodies are fallible and, at times, repellent. Tell us something we don’t know, or at least don’t be so pretentious about it.
Ron Mueck, whose sculptures are the subject of a major exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, is also taken with the body, but he abjures the abject for verisimilitude. Before gaining renown as a Y.B.A. (Young British Artist), he made puppets for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Who could have imagined that Cookie Monster would lead to internationally renowned transgressions?
“How Does He Do It?” reads a wall label. The question will occur to anyone who sees the work. Using fiberglass and other materials, Mr. Mueck crafts figures, often nude, whose skin, hair, toenails and, in one case, umbilical cord are astonishingly true to life. Wrinkles, stubble, musculature, veins and moistened eyes are rendered with exacting fidelity to observed fact. A cool brand of trompe l’oeil is his specialty. “Don’t touch!” was the repeated mantra of the security guards. People want to know what the sculptures feel like, so credible is the illusion.
What separates Mr. Mueck from Duane Hanson, whose sculptures of frumpy housewives and tourists have elicited double takes since the 1960’s, is scale. A newborn girl takes up as much space as a stretch limo; another baby is hardly larger than a baseball card. A hairy naked man is huge, a crouching man, small. A woman in bed, pensively staring into space, is the size of a railroad flat. Mr. Mueck’s stock-in-trade is absurdist theater; sculpture is the means.
“Most art we look at,” the museum tells us, “Ron Mueck’s sculptures, we watch.” The implication is that his pieces convey movement. This is curatorial false advertising. What’s striking about the sculptures, after all, is their inertia. That’s the point. Consummate artificiality, not life, is Mr. Mueck’s raison d’être. There’s more energy in a wax replica at Madame Tussaud’s.
Historical references (to the crucifixion and Manet’s dead toreador) and various props (a mirror, a boat and a bed) add some diversity, as does physical dissociation: Mask II (2001-2002) and Mask III (2005) are gigantic faces without bodies. A sculpture of the artist’s dead, naked father, sequestered in a corner, is the lone reflection of autobiographical intent.
In the end, these variations tweak, rather than develop, Mr. Mueck’s clinical vision. He is, like so many contemporary artists, a one-trick pony. (An art market that prizes product consistency wouldn’t have it any other way.) Once you accept his trick, you’re free to be diverted by his immaculately plotted kitsch. His technique is breathtaking, but it can’t redeem a blandness of imagination.
At the museum’s exit, there are some Rodin sculptures. Passing by them, you almost forgive the 19th-century master his bluster. Rodin’s saving grace is that vulgarity was inseparable from his genius. Ms. Smith and Mr. Mueck are too prim to risk anything that energetic. Better to stifle vitality than embrace it. As artists, they ask as much of themselves as they want—and it isn’t enough.
Kiki Smith: A Gathering, 1980-2005 is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, until Feb. 11; Ron Mueck is at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, until Feb. 4.