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Out of the Woods is a portfolio of five photogravure prints made by the artist at Universal Limited Art Editions, a fine art print workshop in New York. ULAE first invited Smith to make prints with them in 1989 after her early silkscreens were shown at the Brooklyn Museum. This series is one of several the artist has made experimenting with the sophisticated equipment available at ULAE. The portfolio was produced in an edition of forty-one; Tate’s copy is number thirty-eight.
The five prints depict the artist dressed as a witch. In a black cape, long skirt and heavy boots, she poses melodramatically against a dense black background. The images have been digitally modified, changing the relative size of parts of her body. The head is abnormally enlarged, while the hands are reduced. In addition, the artist’s body is truncated, making the figure appear dwarf-like. The digital manipulations give the prints a hallucinatory quality, enhanced by the density of the black tonality of the image. The photogravure technique enhances the deep blacks of the monochrome prints, giving them a rich velvety quality. Photogravure is a process in which a photographic image is printed using an engraving plate, enhancing the tonal variations of the original.
The prints include brief texts by the artist which appear under the images in one or two lines of elaborately looped handset type. Each text refers to one of the five senses. Untitled (Encryption) 3:5 refers to hearing and includes the lines ‘The witch’s familiars call forth the forest silent. She hears home.’ The figure stands erect, her body almost completely engulfed in shadow. She peers up to the left of the image. Her tiny claw-like hands are positioned below her face as if she is about to clasp them together. The oversized head and undersized hands in the image make the figure appear childlike. Her upturned gaze emphasises this similarity; she resembles a toddler looking worriedly towards a nearby adult.
The artist has explained that the suite of prints was inspired by the silent film The Wind, 1928, directed by Victor Sjöström (1879-1960). The film tells the story of a young woman, played by Lillian Gish (1893-1993), trying to survive in the harsh Texan prairie. In one of the most memorable scenes the heroine is lost in a dust storm. Smith has said, ‘One of my great ambitions in life is to remake Lillian Gish’s The Wind. It’s one of my favourite things. So this portfolio was about a woman lost in a forest – a lost witch’ (quoted in Weitman, p.29). Smith combines the atmospheric melodrama of Sjöström’s film with the dreamlike, claustrophobic world of fairy tales. She has explored the ambiguous, partly autobiographical figure of the fairy tale witch before, notably in a series of photographs and sculptures based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood made in 2000. She has said, ‘I have always thought of myself as the crone’ (quoted in Weitman, p.29). The fairy tale witch is a potent cultural figure, powerful and demonic. Smith’s depictions of her emphasise another side of the character, her vulnerability. In a related photographic work Smith depicts herself as a sleeping witch, merging the characters of Sleeping Beauty and the witch who gives her the poisoned apple. The lost witch in Out of the Woods is a similarly hybrid creature, simultaneously frightening and frightened.
Wendy Weitman, Kiki Smith: Prints, Books, and Things, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2003, reproduced no.132.
Ilka Becker, Kiki Smith: small sculptures and large drawings, exhibition catalogue, Ulmer Museum, Ulm, 2001.
Helaine Posner and David Frankel, Kiki Smith, Boston, 1998.