The female body. Its bones and limbs, its emotions, its animal instinct, its bodily functions, its secrets and anxieties, its sexuality, its illnesses and pain.
There is no part of it that has been left unexplored by the fearless American artist Kiki Smith, a pioneer of contemporary feminist art who has grappled with female beauty, shame, mortality and existence, right down to a woman's ribs and fingers and excrement and menstrual blood.
Works like Tale and Pee Body shocked the art world in the early 90s, both sculptures of women hunched over, with trails of excrement or urine behind them. Viewers labelled them disturbing, revolting, harrowing, emotional, intriguing and powerful.
She led the so-called "return to the body" of the 1980s after years of abstraction and minimalism dominated the scene, precipitating a career of deep impact, with more than 150 solo shows and art displayed in the world's most prestigious museums.
Now her own body, with which she has had a complex and dissatisfying relationship, is front and centre too. Her lower back, to be more specific.
When I arrive at Smith's grand four-storey East Village home on a very hot August afternoon, escorted by a young assistant through the bright red front door, past windchimes and a bouquet of dried wheat stalks, and up the stairs to a lofty living room-cum-studio, she is lying on the floor by the air conditioner rolling out her aching back.
With her unruly grey curls splayed across a mohair rug, she offers to conduct the interview from the floor before hauling herself up onto a turquoise couch and curling into a ball at one end with her bare feet and arms, lined with tattoos and gold jewellery, on display.
Smith, 64, is unpretentious to the point of seeming childlike; she is airy and gentle, often trailing off-mid sentence with "I don't know..." or meandering through vague thoughts before asking if she makes any sense.
She answers with a nonchalant "oh, nothing" when I ask what she has been up to.
In truth, she has been up to a lot, maintaining an extraordinary tempo of work in 40 years as an artist. She is preparing a February show of small nature sculptures at Pace Gallery in New York. She is experimenting with cyanotypes (processing photographs with cyan-blue print) and metalwork. She has two assistants that wander in and out, asking what paper she wants a lifesize flagellated Christ printed on and searching for a poster of bees that she wants to take back up to her 1690s country home in upstate New York (Smith and husband Zoran Skoko, an avid beekeeper, live predominantly in Catskill these days, the mountainous nirvana that inspired painter Thomas Cole). She has recently wrapped up a retrospective at the Haus der Kunst in Munich and a smaller group exhibition in Seoul. And, on top of that, a small selection of her art will exhibit at the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair this month.
The diverse collection coming to Sydney hints at the striking wealth of materials Smith has used over her career, like sculptures made of bronze and porcelain, drawings on paper sourced from exotic countries, tapestry, painted glass, printmaking, etchings, beeswax, feathers, precious stones, photography, even human hair sewn into felt for a work named Dowry Cloth.
"Kiki has never stayed in a safe place and never played to the market," her art dealer Susan Dunne, president of Pace Gallery, says. "She has always had a unique voice, she's constantly challenging herself and moving forward. She hasn't stayed in a set of circumstances that is commercially successful necessarily, or a set of circumstances that is safe and, as a result, both the market and the museums have responded.
"It just goes on and on with her, it seems that there's always a dialogue and that is exciting for her as an artist and the rest of us."
The daughter of actor and opera singer Jane Lawrence Smith and pre-eminent minimalist sculptor Tony Smith, Smith grew up in a Victorian manor in New Jersey where family friends like Tennessee Williams and Jackson Pollock floated in and out. Her sister Seton is an artist and Smith says she fell into a career in art because she didn't know what else to do.
Fascinated by body parts and inspired by audacious female artists like Nancy Spero and Cindy Sherman, Smith gravitated towards figurative sculpture that explored the Catholic obsession with the body and her painful relationship with illness and death. Her father died in 1980 after battling illness and her sister Beatrice (Seton's twin) died eight years later from AIDS, a disease that ravaged many of her friends.
Her own discomfort and anxieties about the fragility of the body were channelled into bronze sculptures of deformed women, casts of severed fingers and rib cages, drawings of disembodied organs and life-size figures made out of beeswax with their organs and entrails turned outward.
Her work was aggressively corporeal, a visceral statement on a woman's right to just be that was hard to ignore. She made bold statements on letting go - literally as it was with Tale - of the accumulative garbage of our own consciousness and experience.
But she gives me a funny look, as though she's never contemplated such a weird suggestion, when I ask if it felt terrifying or risky putting such graphic, personal art out into the world.
"No," she says languidly. "I guess I'm just obnoxious."
There was a time when she spoke of her art as a powerful process of reclaiming the body and "living through the shame of being female in public". Now, things seem less encumbered.
"With a lot of things, I don’t think about it too much, I just get in my head I want to do something and, for the most part, I just do it," she says. "There’s a great satisfaction in being able to manifest something, to take something that just struck you for a moment and let that fester and bloom and just see where it goes. My thing with artists is just trusting what comes to you."
I just don't know if I have the energy to get upset as much as I used to.Kiki Smith
Sometimes an artwork comes to Smith over five years, sometimes a few minutes. A distinct shift in her work from abject figurative sculpture to depicting nature and animals - a shift that some confused critics disparagingly described as a "sentimental" turn - came to her in a dream.
"I had a dream that said I 'had to get the bird out'," she says. "And then I made a sculpture of that."
After giving shape to Getting the Bird Out in 1992, Smith's work became dreamy and beautiful. Forest creatures, fairytales, stars, mythologies, cosmologies, religion, she-wolves, witches, spiders and exquisite flora felt like a natural progression for her, a new way of exploring the same concepts of creation, mortality, love and reality.
She has drawn forest creatures and magical characters on paper sourced from Nepal and Japan. She has made etchings and lithographs of wolves and girls. She has explored birds ("stand-ins for souls," she calls them) in almost every way; dead birds, evil birds, tiny birds, half-human birds. She has woven giant cotton Jacquard tapestries, trimmed with gold leaf and hand painted with celestial scenes, like the stunning three-metre Spinners that has been hanging here in her living room for eight months because she "can't be bothered" to do something with it.
By now, she's pacing up and down in front of me, trying to ease a cramped foot. "Oh f---," she mutters as her joints crack.
"I am a very sentimental person," she says, pushing back against the idea that works of animals and fairies should be understood by their content alone, rather than their form and processes and materials. "I don’t feel like I’m any less than I ever was but I think it’s good to stick to what you care about and... what you care about changes over time. I’m mid middle-aged now, and you have a different kind of energy."
As a young artist, she had a lot of rules about marking art. She loved the precise lines of artists like Roy Lichtenstein and found it infuriating that expressionistic painters could claim a particular colour depicted an emotion.
"I think getting older, certain things quiet," she says. "When you're younger, your emotions are much stronger. I just don't know if I have the energy to get upset as much as I used to... Maybe you get more tolerance or self acceptance for yourself. If you want to use the colour, go ahead."
What excites her now is finding new processes and forms, a new technique for print-making, a new way to scratch metal or paint glass. Increasingly, she digitises her drawings so she can transmutate them into whatever medium she wants - sculpture, tapestry, ceramic.
In typically understated style, she seems totally unaware of, or perhaps uninterested in, the impact her work has had, particularly the pertinence of it in the current day, where body shame seems more pervasive.
It's not something she thinks of. She's more concerned with those bee posters or the etching she's had sitting in the foundtry for months now. Just as she moved towards the female figure when it seemed no one else was in the 80s, she has moved away from it at a time when it is more relevant than ever.
Smith has never had a "fashionable style", New York Times art critic Holland Cotter once wrote in a piece of high praise.
"And maybe that's why, more and more, her art seems to occupy a universe of its own," he wrote. "A floating world where art, like religion, is both high and low, gross and fine, and always about the only essential things."
A floating world seems an apt description for Smith, with her laughter and gold jewellery and half-finished sentences breezing through. She floated into a career in art then abandoned a linear thread to her work in favour of floating between the things that mattered to her.
"I always like the idea that I’m just meandering around a garden, rather than I’m, like, getting anywhere," she says with a smile. "I wasn’t raised to have too many ideas about anything and I don’t, in a way, have some idea of how I’m supposed to be doing anything. I’m not getting anywhere, I’m not on some path or road, I’m just walking around and smelling the roses."
A selection of Kiki Smith's work will be shown by Pace Gallery at Sydney Contemporary at Carriageworks, September 13-16.