Keeping Up with the Smiths

There's a gimmick at the heart of "The Smiths: Tony, Kiki, Seton," but it's a good one: Combine wildly disparate works by two generations of an artistic family and all but dare people to concoct connections among those works. The exhibition, now at Lake Worth's Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary...
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There's a gimmick at the heart of "The Smiths: Tony, Kiki, Seton," but it's a good one: Combine wildly disparate works by two generations of an artistic family and all but dare people to concoct connections among those works.

The exhibition, now at Lake Worth's Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art (PBICA), is the first show to bring together the art of Tony Smith, a minimalist pioneer who died at age 68 in 1980, and that of two of his daughters, Kiki and Seton, both of whom are now in their late 40s. (A third daughter -- Seton's twin, Beatrice -- died in 1988.) Included are more than 60 sculptures, paintings, drawings, photographs, and models created from 1954 through last year.

There are potential connections to be made, conclusions to be drawn, from the Smiths' output, I suppose, but viewers do so at their own peril. I don't doubt that there's a genetic component to the Smiths' gifts -- Tony's wife, Jane, was an opera singer and theater actress, and Beatrice was also a musician -- but the show is primarily a study in contrasts, a startling reminder of how talent, even within a single family, can manifest itself in such dramatically different ways. As a Frank O'Hara quote at the beginning of one of the catalog essays puts it, "It's noble to refuse to be added up or divided."

Tony Smith was an architect before he became a full-time artist at the beginning of the 1960s. He was, however, uncomfortable with the label: "I've never felt like an artist -- it's a conduit for spiritual things -- I've never felt in command of artistic media," he's quoted as saying in a 1966 interview. Still, Tony was already established as an art patron when he took up art. Jane Smith recalls having works by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman in their New Jersey home.

The show includes several of Tony's drawings, as well as some painted cardboard models for sculptures and a few oils. But the standouts are the architectural sculptures on which the artist built his reputation. The emphasis is on clearly defined geometric forms, with clean crisp lines and nary a curve in sight.

Some of these pieces are uncomfortably close to the clunky minimalist sculptures that pop up in urban landscapes as "public art." Others, such as the small, intricate bronze Fermi (1973), are mathematically precise but also quite graceful. And then there's the imposing The Keys to Given! (1965), a huge, freestanding steel sculpture painted black. It's like a giant cube with large sections missing, so that the structure becomes almost like a little building that you can wander around and even through. (The title alludes to the last line of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, which was a frequent source of inspiration for the artist.)

Kiki Smith (who was born Chiara but goes by a nickname that stuck) now has a reputation almost rivaling that of her father, although their work couldn't be more different. Granted, Kiki also often works in cast metal, but she achieves entirely different effects. She's known for her renderings of the human body, from individual cells to specific internal organs to bodies trailing their various excretions.

For the past decade or so, she has focused more and more on the female body, and several representative samples of that work are here, most dotting the museum's spacious main gallery. Two pieces from the "Moon on Crutches" series are both alien and familiar: silvery, stiffly posed, life-sized female forms fashioned from cast aluminum and bronze that lie tilted on wooden frames.

A few feet away is another life-sized figure, an untitled bronze of a crouching female nude with unusually long arms stretched out before her. It's vaguely unsettling -- those arms! -- but also oddly poignant. A similarly touching ink drawing attests to Kiki's mastery of other media: Pieta (2000), which features a woman with a dead dog draped across her lap. In the wrong hands, this could come across as a joke gone very bad, but Kiki makes it work. Other drawings and etchings upstairs confirm her drafting skill, including a lovely piece that juxtaposes two side views of a bearded man sleeping and awake.

Two of Kiki's pieces near the end of the show upstairs have been so subtly placed that you could easily miss them. Worms (1996) consists of dozens of the title creatures, which look like oversize earthworms, fashioned from polymer, oil paint, and pink Nepal paper, lying on a stretch of floor along a wall. And the disturbing Head with Bird I (Side) (1994), which has a bird of prey perched on a disembodied head, sits on the floor just around the corner.

The least-known of the Smiths is Paris-based Seton, who works almost exclusively with oversize Cibachrome photographs. The first thing that will probably strike you about her images is that they are all out of focus to some degree. This blurring, clearly, is intentional.

Next you may notice that there are no people in these pictures. Seton homes in on an architectural detail (although not from the sort of architecture her father might have designed) or a piece of furniture or a partially obscured view from a window.

Sometimes Seton will capture roughly the same view from slightly different angles, as in three of the six photos that take up one wall in the main gallery and that vary the view of rooftops and buildings ever so subtly. The diptych On the March (2001), in the same grouping, does the same thing with a light-flooded interior staircase.

Initially I questioned whether Seton's insistence on out-of-focus imagery might be overly mannered. But her pictures are so quietly haunting that I kept going back to them. They're like stills from someone else's dreams.

After drifting into a reverie over Seton's photographs, you can experience another kind of dreamy photography in PBICA's New Media Lounge upstairs, where "Oliver Herring: Spit Reverse" is playing.

This video installation consists of three projectors, each casting a slow-motion video onto the opposite wall. The people in the videos, which are sometimes as blurry as Seton Smith's pictures, are all engaged in the same activity: spurting streams of water from their mouths, sometimes individually, sometimes in groups, sometimes in pairs (including two brothers who look to be twins).

The catch is that Herring runs the videos in reverse, so that the sprays of liquid collect into streams that flow back into the spitters' mouths. Yes, I know it sounds disgusting, but there's also a strange beauty to this watery work.

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