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.

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.

Anneka French is a contemporary art writer, editor and curator based in Birmingham, UK.

She is editorial manager at contemporary art magazine this is tomorrow and reviews for other publications including Photomonitor, Apollo Magazine and a-n. Anneka was recently project co-ordinator at New Art WM, was writer in residence at In Between Time festival 2015 and was selected for a-n’s inaugural writer development programme 2015-16.

She has worked at galleries including Tate Modern, Ikon Gallery, New Art Gallery Walsall, Vivid Projects and Wolverhampton Art Gallery. Anneka was formerly co-director of Lincoln Art Programme, an Arts Council funded nomadic live art commissioning organisation based in the city of Lincoln.

Notable independent curatorial projects include a recent residency and upcoming exhibition with artist Mitra Saboury at Grand Union, Birmingham, and an exhibition of ten newly commissioned sculptural works at National Trust property, Croome, Worcestershire, on display until August 2017.

Public talks lectures have been given at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, and The Commandery and the Hive in Worcester. She regularly delivers seminars and lectures to undergraduate and postgraduate students at Birmingham City University and the University of Birmingham.