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Kiki & Seton Smith: A Sense of Place 

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Goat Moth and Turkey Tails 2016 (top) set of 5 prints on bottom Goat Moth 2015, Kiki Smith (NWII photo/DiTolla)

When I walked into, Kiki & Seton Smith: A Sense of Place, I was sleep-deprived and dragging two of my kids with me, who believe it or not, were not as excited about seeing the exhibition as I was. Because of my two small distractions, I was worried I would not be able to fully engage with the work, but that worry faded as I walked through the gallery and was engrossed by each piece. These works have the ability to take you out of time and space to a new imaginary place. Even my daughters were pulled into this world as they delighted in Kiki Smith’s prints of wolf paws and her sculptures of birds.

A long time admirer of Kiki and Seton Smith, I was thrilled that both women were present at the opening of their self-curated show, which was sponsored by the Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University and the Lennie Pierro Memorial Arts Foundation. Judy Wukitsch, president of the foundation, spoke to me during the reception, “I feel that by honoring these two renowned artists, Kiki and Seton Smith, in their hometown, it offers glimpses into their background, ideas, and works, revealing an expanded world of possibilities to our neighbors and visitors. We walk the same streets, who knows what can be inspired?”

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Helper, Kiki Smith (NWII photo/DiTolla)

As I made my way through the exhibition, I compared the similarities and differences between the two artists’ work. The most notable contrast was that Kiki focuses on the living – humans and animals. Seton’s work centers on structures, with the sometimes-uncomfortable absence of people. Her large-scale, black and white photos of white houses in neighborhoods across the United States vary from being dilapidated to idealized suburban utopias. At times, both lonely and inviting, leading the viewer to wonder what happened to the structures. Questions about an unknown past haunt each visual. A sense of melancholy and nostalgia is evoked in each image. Seton grounds the viewer in an eerie, timelessness, but still a very real place.

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North Dakota Houses #15, Seton Smith (NWII photo/DiTolla)

One of the most striking photographs, North Dakota Houses #15, is an image of a small, battered house that appears to be abandoned. The grass reaches up to the porch stoop, the trees have begun a slow journey to merge with the roof of the house, and shrubbery surrounds the structure. The house seems to be giving us one last glimpse of itself before it is swallowed up by the landscape. Not sadness, or fear, but there is a profound acceptance of returning to the earth.

Seton’s portrayal of nature is the antithesis of Kiki’s series of self-portraits titled The Falls I, II, and III. In a trio of prints with hand painting, Kiki portrays herself in a space that hints at being a landscape with geometric rock formations, stylized trees, and linear cascading water. In each print, there seems to be icy, clean streams running from either the artist’s eyes, nose, ears or mouth and out into world. Kiki aligns herself so directly with nature that she becomes a vehicle for flowing water. The images bring to mind water sprites and fairy tale creatures. There is a clear distinction between Seton seeing nature as a force that will consume, while Kiki sees nature as a force to channel and become one with.

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Jewel 2004, Kiki Smith (NWII photo/DiTolla)

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Savannah/Charleston Slave Houses #17, Seton Smith (NWII photo/DiTolla)

This show offered an interesting glimpse into how differently two sisters with the same upbringing express themselves through their art. Even with the sharp differences in style, there are similar overarching themes, such as loneliness and how we construct memories. Leaving the show, I found myself thinking back to my own childhood and wondering how my children will look back at this time in their lives once they become adults. My hope is that they will be able to express their memories as poignantly as Kiki and Seton Smith do.

Kiki and Seton Smith will be holding an Artist’s Conversation on Tuesday, December 6 at 7:00 pm in Jubilee Hall at Seton Hall University.

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