Artist Kiki Smith got her first look at her tapestries side by side with the lithography prints that inspired them.
“I’ve seen the tapestries, nine of them, in a gallery in France,” said Smith, the 2013-14 Fellow of the Institute for the Advancement of the Arts. “But seeing the prints and the tapestries — yeah, this is the first time I’ve seen them together.”
The exhibit, “Kiki Smith: Transformations” opened at UNT on the Square on Wednesday. The exhibit is the final part of Smith’s fellowship. Smith worked with University of North Texas students studying printmaking through the Print Research Institute of North Texas.
“Transformation” is, in part, a look at what you could call Smith’s studies.
Smith used the very images that have made her an internationally recognized and critically lauded artist: animals, figures, celestial bodies and trees. She placed those images into drawings and then began to edit them carefully.
“That’s something I wanted to get across to the students,” she said. “You can use a lot of things in your work. I threw a bunch of stuff on there and then worked from there.”
As she makes a circuit around the gallery, Smith points out a flower from a print she made in the 1990s, and a wolf she’s been creating for years.
The prints in the show are done on Nepalese paper, a paper that draws up and crinkles, looking alternately fleshy or hide-like. Smith used three borders on the prints and tapestries, which are about 9 feet tall — there’s a bar of deep color on the top, and two blocks of precise color at the bottom.
The prints — and their corresponding tapestries — are another matter. Nude figures share the canvas with woodland creatures, a birch tree that frames the left side of a tapestry, and eventually becomes the head of a snake. Look closely and you’ll notice disembodied eyes set into the trees and branches. Stars, water and birds make their appearances.
Smith hadn’t considered a tapestry until a gallery that represents her asked Chuck Close, a famous painter and a photographer, to commit some of his ideas to fiber panels. Soon, Smith was in on the tapestry project.
“Magnolia [Editions, the gallery] wanted me to make nine tapestries,” Smith said. “Tapestry is a form that I’ve admired for a long time. I had traveled to France to see the Apocalypse Tapestry.”
The Apocalypse Tapestry was created between 1377 and 1382 to depict the story of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelations, commissioned by Louis I, the Duke of Anjou. The tapestry was lost during the 18th century, recovered and restored, and is now displayed in the Chateau d’Angers.
“They were among the most beautiful work I’ve ever seen,” Smith said. “There must have been 25 colors.”
The French revived tapestry after World War II, a fitting response to the destruction and violence that ravaged the country, with its storybook landscapes, from the temperate coast to the lush wine country and rural farm lands.
“I always say the French invented cosmology,” Smith said. “I really admired the tapestry of Jean Lurcat. He was probably one of the best known artists in the revival of tapestry. His work is cosmology-packed, and I think that’s the part that appealed to me.”
Throughout her career, Smith has recorded her fascination with birth, death and archetypes of both. And while her tapestries have a primal feel to them, they are still personal to the artist. She pointed to the wolf in the print and tapestry titled Cathedral, in which the wolf levels his animal gaze at the viewer, a castle-shaped stack of eyed branches in the distance.
“This wolf is a friend of mine,” she said. “See, in the print, the wolf is crying blood. When I showed this to the friend, he said he didn’t like the blood. So it’s not on the tapestry.”
Finally able to view the prints and tapestries side by side, Smith said she saw how lines and colors came out differently when woven on a Jacquard loom.
Smith points to the tapestry version of Sky. A nude female figure seems to float above a body of water, in a starry sky. Doves and moths — inspired by the silkworms she tended for a friend in upstate New York — take flight with the woman.
“The body is a little more stretched in the weaving,” she said.
Of the nine tapestries Smith is making for Magnolia Editions, four are still in the layout stage, waiting to be transferred onto the Nepalese paper lithograph prints.
The show is much more theoretical than her work with students.
“I worked on printmaking with the students,” she said. “I just worked in the print shop, going in as many directions as I could.”
Students observed, asked questions and chipped in as apprentices.
“As far as the show, I wanted to see the prints and the tapestries, but I also wanted to show the students how the work you’ve done can help you move in a new direction,” she said. “This has really changed the way I work. I used to just do collage drawing. I don’t do that now. I worked on this [Earth] for two months.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
When: Through Feb. 27.
Where: UNT on the Square, 109 N. Elm St.
Gallery hours: 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Friday; 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 8 p.m. Thursday; and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday
Details: Admission is free.
On the Web: http://untonthesquare.unt.edu