Lurking with Intent: the sculptural practice of Kirsty E Smith
by Anneka French 2012 This essay was first published in the Waiting edition of Conjunction Magazine.
Lurking with Intent: A short essay on the sculptural practice of Kirsty E. Smith By Anneka French
The sculptures of Kirsty E. Smith are fleshy and solid. Although they are almost entirely abstract, each one has its own particular character which the viewer responds to both physically and psychologically, wanting to touch the soft tactile velvet used in Cyril, or stepping around the long trailing tentacle-like forms of Ziggy. These responses are partially developed through Smith's surprising use of sumptuous textiles in conjunction with functional, reclaimed and recycled objects such as a melamine shelf or piece of agricultural machinery, as well as her wide ranging influences including design history, space exploration and architecture. These draw together unlikely threads, touching upon memories and making connections between disparate ideas. However, one of the most striking things about Smith's works, which she terms 'beings,' is the uncanny presence she is able to create within each one, almost as if they have a life force of their own. The sculptures embody both stillness and a real sense of energy through the artist's manipulation of materials, and use of personification and display.
Smith's methods of display are integral to our perception of and response to her works. Her exhibition at Erasmus Darwin House in 2010 is probably the best example of this skilful approach. She described the works as 'taking up residence' within the rooms of the 18th century house, amongst the collection of museum objects and mannequins dressed in period clothing. The success of this display was built upon the clear visual and conceptual connections made between the works and their context. This animated each of the artist's sculptures within the space and this implied movement was a little disarming. For example, Madeleine was positioned in front of a window at the end of the hallway, where she seemed wait patiently, gazing out to the view beyond, whilst Ziggy appeared to have slithered stealthily out from a fireplace. In this manner, Smith's display draws on the uncanny, reinforcing the suggestion of a character and of an unknown intention. The result is a feeling of unease, akin to wondering what museum mannequins might get up to whilst your back is turned.
At first glance, Smith's works have much in common with furniture or other domestic objects, although many contain elements suggestive of legs, wings or hair. Virtually all of her pieces are titled with a human name or use words pertaining to human characteristics such as Chubby Blue. The titles usually arise through the process of making each piece, with the titles acting as signposts towards these different identities, such as the stately Madeleine. The sculptures are largely constructed from a structural skeleton, painstakingly built up with foam and upholstery wadding, and finally an outer skin of fabric, so it is all too easy for us to respond to them as familiar, if slightly off-kilter entities. The artist's use of personification is important to our understanding of her practice, and this reveals much about the character and preoccupations of the artist herself. The beings operate as members of an extended family and are at their most engaging when in dialogue with others of the same kind. Smith carefully considers every component of her sculptures, using found materials and incorporating objects or textiles which have a personal story inherent. This way, Smith weaves herself into each sculpture, adding her own experiences to her complex body of work. Smith's extraordinary practice is an extension of herself. She shapes, names, and sends each work out into the world, living and breathing every one.
The concepts within and influences on Smith's practice are eclectic and shifting, yet her forms are tangible, definite and discrete. Her sculptures are vessels which hold and suggest many ideas simultaneously. They are saturated with memories and with narrative, in both a personal and more universal sense. The sculptures are reassuring solid but always seem to be on the edge of movement, waiting for the opportune moment to slither or to sigh. Smith's conjunction of the old and new, the ordinary and luxurious, the cheap and expensive, all contribute to an engaging body of work. Her use of the obscure and familiar in equal measure produces a feeling of the uncanny, and this is reinforced by the carefully selected methods of display and use of personification within the largely abstract practice. With only a small suspension of disbelief, it is perfectly possible to believe that Smith's sculptures have an unseen life of their own.
Inventions of the Mind: Erasmus Darwin House
by Anneka French 2010
In Inventions of the Mind is an exhibition which attempts to form a bridge between the ideas of contemporary artist Kirsty E. Smith, and the life and work of one of Britain's most important historical thinkers, Erasmus Darwin, linchpin of The Lunar Society. The exhibition focuses on six of Smith's 'otherworldly' sculptures, each of which relates to Darwin's thinking. The pieces are displayed amongst the historical artefacts held within Erasmus Darwin House, in direct relationship with his former possessions. The exhibition attempts to establish both visual and conceptual connections between the two figures and their work. These include shared interests in philosophy, nature and technology which are evident in the objects from the museum's collection in Smith's interventions.
Like Darwin, Smith is an experimenter and innovator, a creative individual seeking to make sense of the world around her through her work. Also based in Lichfield, she makes work which is an eclectic amalgamation of the organic and the man-made. In the same vein, Darwin's Commonplace Book on display at Erasmus Darwin House includes sketches of strange animal-machine hybrids, including one which has funnel-like wings reminiscent of components Stan, one of the key artworks in the exhibition. Smith is influenced by a startling array of ideas, just as Darwin was, and her three-dimensional abstract works incorporate wood, metal, textiles and a variety of 'found' objects: objects she quite literally ‘finds.' She appropriates forms, textures and colours from advertising, design history, popular music, space exploration, architecture and industry to create ambiguous forms. Her sources include both the familiar and the more obscure. The artist's visual vocabulary contains such diverse items as vintage lampshades, agricultural machinery, tweed, hat netting and new glittery synthetic fabrics, all of which can be found within the exhibition. It is the conjunction of these vastly different inspirations and materials which gives the work its unexpectedly surreal qualities and makes it difficult to categorically define.
Each work is titled with a human name which often arises through the process of making. This personification is important to our understanding of the finished works. Smith sees the sculptures as having their own particular characters, and this reinforces some of the ‘uncanny' and comical aspects of the work. The titles act as signposts towards these personalities, from the stately Madeleine to the more mischievous Ziggy . Several of them contain elements which look like legs, wings or hair, and it is perhaps difficult to separate the human or animal-like qualities from the works in order to see them purely aesthetically. However, more formally, Smith's work incorporates frequently occurring motifs such as stripes, piped lines and protrusions, and she joyfully experiments with colour, texture and pattern, alongside ideas.
The works attempt to question our physical relationship to our surroundings, as well as how our memories and experiences might be affected by these. Smith's work also deals with philosophical notions of what is ‘internal' and what is ‘external,' what is the ‘top' and what is the ‘underneath,' i.e. how our eyes, minds and bodies relate to objects and spaces. Smith's work is made in three-dimensions which means that we respond to them directly, perhaps wanting to reach out and touch the soft fabrics of Cyril, or having to step over legs belonging to Madeleine. Smith made Colin specifically to sit atop a bookcase in the house, placing it as if it had spontaneously grown from the bookcase. The positioning of this and of the other sculptures within the building have been chosen so as to make connections with the other objects and furnishings inside. Smith has described the works as, “taking up residence,” within the rooms of the house, which relates back to the notion of them having their own characters. Appearing both out of place and yet somehow 'at home,' each sculpture appears to be engaged in dialogue with its new context. They are therefore in dialogue with us as well, animated within Erasmus Darwin House. The effect can be a little disarming. For instance, Madeleine seems to gaze longingly out from the hallway window, whilst Ziggy appears to have slithered out from the fireplace. It is the skilful positioning of the works in individual spaces that results in a feeling of unease, like looking at museum mannequins and wondering what they might get up to whilst your back is turned.
The sculptures on display frequently unite opposing ideas, for instance a combination of both the soft and the organic, the hard and the sharp. Sumptuous textiles like velvet and merino wool are used in conjunction with objects of little monetary value: the reclaimed and recycled. These are often things Smith has discovered in scrap-yards and junk shops, sometimes scratched or worn, as well as new items bought in markets. Through the process of making, objects and materials are removed from their original context and given a new function and a new identity, mounted, bent and shaped, or used in multiples so as to be almost unrecognisable. This is particularly true of Russell, as its form incorporates long brushes used to clean behind radiators, twisted into features like planetary rings. The way the artist manipulates her chosen materials determines our response to the work. For example, the floppy tactile 'tentacles' of Ziggy are made from sparkly dance costume fabric, and so the piece is attractive in terms of its form and its material. However, it also features a belt of spiked plastic ‘bear paws,' which are more usually used to handle large joints of meat whilst cooking. Within this context, these components are threatening and strange. Colin , Smith's most recent work made for this exhibition, brings together discarded and unwanted objects with those associated with power and wealth. The work is adorned with feathers designed for ceremonial military uniform, whilst the form of the work is built around a scrap piece of piping.
For both Darwin and Smith, sources of inspiration can be found in everyday places and connections can occur between things unexpectedly. Sometimes a sculpture can be inspired by another image or object, or a chance encounter with a place or a person. Smith delights in describing these stories and the significance each one holds for her personally. She has noted that, “We live in a constant dialogue between memory and our experiences of the present.” The vintage wool bouclé fabric used in Cyril was inherited from the artist's late Aunty Betty in Fife. The downpipe hopper used at the core of Stan was acquired from the guttering of a disused bus station in the West Midlands and relates in form to Darwin's horizontal windmill design, albeit unintentionally. Like many of Smith's works, Madeleine incorporates a number of references to manufacturing and technology. Its fluted ‘petal' shape was derived from a ‘ Paul' paraffin heater from the 1950s that the artist saw in a museum. The new black webbed heat-spacer fabric used in the piece was made by Baltex who specialise in developing cutting edge materials for industry, although they were originally founded closer to the era of Darwin than to the present day. Interestingly, the soft black tubing on the top of Madeleine was influenced by electric cables Smith saw when visiting the factory. These stories highlight the visual and conceptual significance of inter-connectedness and of tiny details within the artist's practice.
Smith's conjunction of the old and new, the ordinary and luxurious, the cheap and expensive, all contribute to a rich and complex body of work. Her sculptures are vessels which hold and suggest many ideas simultaneously. They are saturated with history and with narrative, in both a personal and more general sense. Smith's use of the obscure and familiar in equal measure serves to create a feeling of the uncanny, reinforced by their unexpected location and comical titles. Like the mannequins positioned in Erasmus Darwin House, it is quite possible to believe that Smith's sculptures have an unseen life of their own. The works display an empathy with and understanding of the spirit of Erasmus Darwin, whilst retaining their own individualism and character, and it is this that makes them so engaging within and appropriate for this setting.
Anneka French is a contemporary art writer and curator currently based in Birmingham. She has curated a number of independent projects in the UK, including collaborations with galleries including Cornerhouse in Manchester. Other notable projects include two series of public intervention works, and recent group exhibitions exploring ideas of collecting and of exploration, accompanied by critical publications. French has previously worked in the exhibitions department at Tate Modern where she provided curatorial support for the exhibitions Per Kirkeby, and Theo Van Doesburg and the International Avant Garde, as well as contributing to exhibition catalogues. French was previously Assistant Curator at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, where she worked on a range of exhibition projecs and was formerly co-director of Lincoln Art Programme, a live art commissioning organisation which sites work across the city.
Frillip Moolog: The Secret Life of Sculpture
by Matt Price
Inthe West Midlands, England, there is a small city by the name of Walsall. Here, located in a former Texaco Garage, is a shop called Thomas Orton & Son Ltd. On the forecourt are piles of used uPVC windows and doors, while round the back is an old Ford Escort van that appears to have had acid thrown at it. Entering through the doors of the shop the visitor is confronted by an array of items that might have been found on the shelves of 1970s chemists. And if you make it past the racing pigeons and up the staircase, an Aladdin’s cave of bric-a-brac awaits. It was here that Lichfield-based artist Kirsty E Smith found a small, light blue ceramic soap dish from the 1950s that became the starting point for Chubby Blue, one of her most accomplished works to date.
The colour and curves of the soap dish sparked a chain of associations with modernist design, especially with the interiors of 1950s cars such as Cadillacs and Chevrolets. As a child, Smith recalls sitting in a Jaguar belonging to some spinster friends of her grandparents in Glasgow, running her fingers through the grooves in the upholstery. It was with this in mind that when creating her sculpture, she painstakingly (and painfully) hand-stitched the light blue vinyl rather than stapling it so that the owner can, should they share this particular fetish, run their fingers through the grooves in the work. Chubby Blue has obvious formal connections to the Bibendum Chair by the, until recently, largely overlooked 20th Century British designer and architect Eileen Gray. Given the connections between Smith’s sculpture and car design history, it is interesting that Gray’s Bibendum Chair took its name from the famous Michelin Man character designed by O’Galop at the request of the Michelin Brothers in 1898, based on a pile of tyres. Smith’s finished piece exudes a luscious, sensuous tactile pleasure – soft, chunky rings of vinyl layered on top of each other creating an 83 cm-high form. It is a stylish and seductive piece of contemporary sculpture that sits unselfconsciously between craft, non-functional furniture and modernist design.
People find their way to art for many reasons and by many paths. Kirsty E Smith’s career as an artist began when she was nearly killed by an Esso Tanker. As with virtually everything about Smith and her work, there is a story to tell, and the automotive industry is just one of many recurring elements lying beneath the surface of her work (and sometimes literally on the surface of her work, such as the BMW car seating fabric that features in the work Bristle). Having once worked for Lucas Electrical on alternators for tanks (albeit as an accountant), today her art practice regularly takes her to tradespeople such as welders in Stoke on Trent who make galvanised trailers for cars and vans or to John Keatley (Metals) Ltd in Birmingham’s Gun Quarter – a business specialising in non-ferrous metals, including disks for racing car brakes. It is exciting to discover an artist utilising the skills and resources of metalworking companies in a region with such a rich industrial and automotive heritage as the West Midlands. A well-thumbed copy of Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men sits on a shelf in Smith’s house, suggesting she is well aware of the region’s long-standing contribution to industry.
Smith studied at Manchester Metropolitan University, from which she graduated in 2006. Her skills in constructing with metals are put to good use in many of her sculptures, allied with a passion for knitting and needlework that she has had since early childhood. As a child, Smith spent a lot of time with her grandmother, who used to give her fabric samples such as cashmere swatches she was sent by clothes companies – gifts that thrilled the young Kirsty Smith. Some of the fabrics she uses come from her late Auntie Betty’s house in Fife – a flower arranger and senior judge of flower arranging competitions who used textiles and upholstery fabrics as backdrops for her flower arrangements. Smith used some of Auntie Betty’s vintage fabric for Cyril – a striking sculpture that looks like an instrument for some strange futuristic religious ceremony or ancient civilisation ritual, incorporating a 1970s lampshade as if a retro plastic talisman. Along with the inherited velvet, she used beige wool bouclé fabric and synthetic silver fabric over the steel and foam frame, shifting the semiotic register of the form from patriarchal mace to baby’s toy.
Another piece with an element of retro futurism is Lydia, a pyramidal obelisk that looks as though it might once have served on the command deck of the Starship Enterprise. Covered in shiny pea-green and turquoise fabric, a combination of knitted fabric, silk and synthetic felt, the piece is electrified by bright red braid that runs in a groove up the back of the sculpture, over the top and partway down the front, ending up running around the edge of a rusty old fireplace vent. The vent looks both at home and out of place – one might be forgiven for expecting some polished metal or smooth plastic on such a futuristic piece of apparatus. This mysterious device seems somewhere between homemade and industrially produced, as if made by a maverick scientist working towards the space race from their garden shed in the 1960s. Two small car indicator lenses are placed discreetly on one side of the object, suggesting that it might have some electrical circuitry and literal function, though it shows no signs of ever needing to spring into action. The fabric that covers it takes the edge off the rigid, modernist lines of the form, and implies that it might be serving as insulation on some kind of stylish heating device from yesterday’s future.
In addition to Smith’s usage of metalwork and textiles, she is becoming equally adept with wood, having been studying cabinet making in order to develop the techniques she learnt at university. One of her first pieces with wood was Tall Legs, an elegant sculpture (inspired by a plaster wall vent) that looks like a very high stool with a luxurious sewing box for a seat. The French-polished mahogany legs are sleek and slender, their plainness and simplicity counterpoised by the chichi box that they support – a white, satin-lined cube with cream fluff trim and lace-embossed vinyl fabric that might have been quite at home in the boudoir of Marie Antoinette. Made with the zeal of a dressmaker, the combination of fur, satin, lace and vinyl, replete with cream buttons puckered over soft upholstery padding, conspire to create an alluring piece of Rococo fetishism.
Another work that employs wood to good effect is Reg, a small, table-like sculpture on which one might imagine placing drinks – apart from the fact that a series of place mats have been configured and bolted together on the top, as if a house of cards, frustrating any aspirations this sculpture might have had to ever functioning as a table. The four oak legs, which have been hand carved rather than steam bent, bow outwards as if they had once been straight and had to support too much weight. The table mats, configured in such a way that their green baize bases are facing upwards, are 1950s Win-el-Ware sourced from the Rag Market in Birmingham city centre. If the viewer crouches, they can peek inside the configuration and get a glimpse of sunny alpine landscapes in glorious technicolour on the insides of the mats. A mirror inside reflects these scenes, depending on the angle from which they are viewed.
The inspiration for this idiosyncratic presentation of the place mats was the viewfinder familiar to the childhoods of many of us. Smith remembers the eclectic assortment of viewfinder image reels her mother brought back from a spell in the United States, such as flowers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and several featuring views of the Rocky Mountains. As with the viewfinder, the sculpture’s exterior gives a very different impression to the imagery found inside, offering an optical portal into a distant world. It equally captures the excitement and curiosity of children when experiencing and interacting with furniture and objects – the unusual angles at which they look at chairs, tables and cupboards, such as from beneath, inside or whilst on all fours, turning things upside down or on their sides to see how they fit together, how the top might be polished but the underside rough, how the doors open or drawers slide and so on. Smith retains her childhood curiosity, now developed into an obsessive passion for design history.
Indeed, Smith has scrapbooks full of newspaper and magazine cuttings about artists, designers, furniture makers and craftspeople, accompanied by scribbled notes, book ISBNs, web addresses, photographs and sketches. The connections come quick and fast – Smith’s use of furry fabrics echoing Jean Royere’s sofas and chairs, the sculptural installations of Annette Messager or Claes Oldenburg; her subversion of furniture finding parallels in the work of Jurgen Bey, Nina Saunders, Carl Clerkin, Gitta Gschwendtner and Doris Salcedo; her fascination with found objects sharing elements with figures as diverse as Cornelia Parker, Richard Wentworth, Marcel Duchamp and Bruno Munari. Smith’s use of recycled and cheap materials makes connections to the work of the Campana Brothers, Ryan Frank and Retrouvius, while references in her pieces to corporeality spark connections to Anish Kapoor, Satyendra Pakhalé and Carlo Mollino. The list is both long and eclectic, and seems to grow on almost a daily basis as the artist discovers new things in the course of her research and work.
What’s particularly interesting is that Smith’s references and ideas bank seem completely democratic – alongside major figures from design and art history, she takes equal inspiration from unbranded products from any era and aesthetics in their broadest sense – it could be the work of a little known architect, a young textile designer whose website she stumbled across, an ornament salvaged from a charity shop or the 1960s kitchen wallpaper in a friend’s house. Her degree dissertation included case studies of the Sir John Soane Museum, the British Lawnmower Museum in Southport, the Bakelite Museum, the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, and Les Oakes’ personal collection of unusual collectibles (including gnomes, urinals, one-armed bandits, Art Deco bathroom fittings, galvanized buckets and tractor seats). Smith is herself a compulsive bargain hunter and would undoubtedly be a hoarder if she had sufficient space in her family house.
While Smith is clearly passionate about furniture, craft, art, design and manufacture in terms of aesthetics, materials, formal qualities, techniques and processes, there is very much a sense that they would mean little to her divorced from their social histories – the people who made them, the people who use them, the contexts, eras and cultures in which they exist and the narratives that objects yield about people’s lives. It is very much a question of what the environments we create around us and the things we fill them with tell her about us, about individual personalities and the wider culture that people collectively create.
This relationship between individual personalities and tastes and the aesthetics that define particular periods in time is evident in Smith’s practice through the personification of her sculptures – she often gives the works human names, such as Hyacinth, Penny and Cyril. Indeed, she regularly refers to the sculptures as ‘beings’ suggesting anthropomorphic interpretations of the work are significant. It is through the idea of inanimate objects being alive that Smith’s work most clearly manifests a sense of the uncanny. Similarly, these objects are uncanny in the sense that they are at once familiar and yet strange, with elements from shared history brought together in unusual ways and unexpected forms. The combination of personal memories and communal memory wrapped up in Smith’s works by way of objects and materials known to us all but with histories specific to individuals engenders both familiarity and estrangement. These sculptures are both endearing and disconcerting, like talking with old friends and yet at the same time being privy to intimate details of the lives of strangers.
When talking about her beings it is always within the context of Frillip Moolog. But is this name an alter ego, a brand or some other kind of concept? When probed about what Frillip Moolog is, Smith describes it as "a place", albeit one that is in our minds or memories- a psychological place rather than a physical one. It is perhaps this idea of Frillip Moolog being a mental space that explains Smith's impulse, when creating her beings, to draw on both her own and other people's sensibilities, neuroses, desires, memories and experiences. The sculptures involve a dialogue between individual identities as expressed through personal, aesthetic taste and the social, economic and cultural conditioning, ideas, technology, fashions and fads of societies at given points in time, and more importantly, how these relationships change over time. As fashions change, the interior décor changes, people move house, they buy new things, building styles change, new materials are used, new furniture styles appear, new trends in clothes and hair styles emerge, car technology and design evolves. But while we often keep up with change, particular things from different times stay with us – ornaments, chairs, light fittings, books, records. We inherit things, we recycle and appropriate second hand goods, we go back to styles of the past, we mix and match the objects and environments around us just as we reinvent ourselves, mature, regress, change, adapt, learn, forget. Our relationships with objects change over time, as do objects’ relationships with their environments. Just as the material world changes, as our lives progress, we and those around us change – people are born, partners and friends come and go, families grow and shrink, people grow old and die. We meet up with old friends, think of those no longer with us and spend time with new people. We live in a constant dialogue between memory and our experiences of the present, and the physical context around us reflects this unavoidable conversation.
Smith’s engaging sculptures are stories of people and objects as they live out their lives – secret, personal lives with which we often have something in common and yet which are tantalisingly ‘other’.
Matt Price is a contemporary art writer, editor and curator currently working in London and Yorkshire. Following a degree in art history from the University of Nottingham and an MA in curating from the Royal College of Art, he started his career as an editor for Hans Ulrich Obrist before being appointed Managing Editor of Flash Art International, Milan. He has since worked as Deputy Editor of ArtReview and Publications Manager at Serpentine Gallery. In addition to Flash Art and ArtReview , he has also written for publications including A-n , Art Monthly , Frieze, Modern Painters and The Guardian . He has recently curated exhibitions for the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, Plan B, Berlin, and Master Piper, London, and has been invited to curate an exhibition of British painting for the next edition of the Prague Biennale. He has edited publications on numerous artists and architects including Ai Weiwei / Herzog & de Meuron, Joep Van Lieshout, David Adjaye, Jitish Kallat and The Campana Brothers. In 2009 he co-authored the monograph on Adrian Ghenie for Hatje Cantz, and also wrote the biography/chronology of Anish Kapoor for his recent monograph from Phaidon.