In the early 1990s, Kiki Smith began to focus almost exclusively on the exposed female body in a series of highly visceral works that ranged from the beautiful to the grotesque. Boldly engaging with the male dominated tradition of Western figurative sculpture, she radically altered conventional depictions of the female form. Eschewing typical representations of women as idealized objects of male desire, she reclaimed the female body from a patriarchal system and refigured it as the site of lived experience. Smith stated, "Our bodies are basically stolen from us, and my work is about trying to reclaim one's own turf, or one's own vehicle of being here, to own it and to use it to look at how we are here." (J.A. Isaak, Kiki Smith, London, 1997, p. 22)
Untitled belongs to a group of intensely harrowing beeswax and paper sculptures that the artist exhibited in 1992, featuring women in conditions of extreme debasement. These creatures are alternatively distorted, torn, battered or flayed, and reduced to near primal states after prolonged suffering. Originally interpreted as political battlegrounds that bore the contentions of domestic violence, the AIDS crisis, and abortion rights, these figures simultaneously appeared to embody deeper psychic wounds that transcended contemporary social injustices. At once evocative of the intimate, the topical and the universal, these works derived their power from their ability to encompass a multiplicity of readings. In Smith's view, these figures comprised battered survivors of not only physical abuse, but also of the "general psychological or psychic violence in our lives." (Kiki Smith in H. Posner, Kiki Smith, Boston, p. 21). Stripped of their individual and social context, and re-presented as disturbing symbols of social and psychological breakdown, they constitute archetypes of human despair.
Untitled represents a ghostly white wax woman squatting and prostrating before the viewer. She appears to have internalized an overwhelming humiliation: naked, she bends her body in a posture of extreme supplication stretching out her absurdly long arms before her. Physically manifesting shame, she contorts her entire being and seems perilously overextended and ripe for punishment. One is reminded of the abject treatment of the body by early Northern Renaissance and Gothic artists, whom Smith admired for their "expressionism through physicality." Particularly moved by Mattias Grünewald's intense and agonized masterpiece, Isenheim Altarpiece (1512-16), which featured a grossly elongated Christ with twisted limbs and sickly green flesh, she stated, "I love that, the hyperextension of limbs and exaggerated gestures that make the meaning. It's through that body language that you read the meaning of the painting." (Posner, op. cit., p. 36). Betraying her Catholic upbringing, Smith believes that humanity begins in a wretched, fallen state, from which wholeness and restoration can be sought through Christian redemption. It is natural that she is attracted to early Northern European art: her own physically and psychologically damaged figures depict the abjection of flesh; further their often flimsy and ephemeral materials render them a somewhat disembodied quality that reconciles them to the spiritual realm. Appearing translucent and almost weightless, the figure in Untitled seems pivoted between the corporeal and the ethereal, as if attempting to chart transcendence through physical punishment and sacrifice. Its spare and stylized shape possesses a formal elegance and beauty that belies its pathos and underscores this hope of eventual salvation.
Coming of age in the 1980s, at a time when the representation of the body as a tool to assert the politics of gender and identity began to play a significant role in contemporary art, Smith's work finds affinities with contemporaneous artists such as Robert Gober and Ann Hamilton. Yet, her focus on the body and use of humble, pliable materials has roots in post-Minimal art of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the sculpture of Eva Hesse. Introducing soft, organic shapes and unconventional, malleable materials that referenced the body within Minimalism's hard surfaces and geometric forms, Hesse's work provided an alternative to the looming influence of Tony Smith, the artist's father and celebrated abstract Minimalist sculptor. Louise Bourgeois was another source of inspiration; her expressive, figurative format located psychological states such as anxiety, fear, loneliness, anger and aggression more explicitly within the body or its fragments. While Bourgeois created a private mythology based on childhood trauma and externalized much of her own experiences through her art, Smith's work aims at expressing a collective psyche, drawing heavily on Christianity and myth to render the universal human condition. Drawing from several historical precedents, but retaining her own distinct voice, Smith has carved out a unique body of work that positions her as one of the leading figurative artists of our time.