You’ve heard the saying: “Don’t let people walk all over you.” If you’re a woman, this has probably been said to you especially often. But how often is it meant literally? At Kristin Smallwood’s debut solo exhibition IUD, now on view at American Medium in Bed-Stuy, the only way to access the art is by walking over scores of women (including photos of the artist herself), adhered endlessly and stickily to the gallery floor. The female figures are grinning lipstick-painted grins while your boot presses into their torso and your sweat drips onto their breasts.
Smallwood’s exhibit is a collection of paintings, sculptures, and video pieces, all deeply personal in one way or another, and all dealing with the ways she experiences and copes with matters like sexuality, femininity, birth control, and men. In a statement for the gallery, she wrote: “IUD is about sacrificing your mind and body for anything and everything related to reproduction, love, and destruction. This is an intercourse of ideas around inherent misogyny in our society. It is an expression of what it feels like to be walked on mentally and physically by other humans and by devices such as birth control.”
But as the work for IUD was being installed at the gallery, Smallwood was admitted to the hospital, where she remained for over a week. Though it would be uncanny if she suffered an intrauterine-device-related complication, she was actually incapacitated due to another three-letter acronym: a UTI, or urinary tract infection.
“I’ve actually never had a UTI before, and I think I may have had this one for a few months but ignored all of what little symptoms I had because I didn’t think it could be possible,” she told me over email. “I learned my lesson because this infection spread to my kidneys and somehow caused viral and bacterial pneumonia in my blood and lungs.”
UTIs are unfortunately pretty common for people with vaginas— women have a 50 percent chance of getting one in their lifetime, which mind sound like an hilarious low-ball estimate to many women because recurrence is especially common. The infection most typically comes about through sexual activity, which introduces bacteria to the urethra from elsewhere via friction.
“A friend recently told me she has to take a small dose of antibiotics every time she has sex in order to prevent [UTIs],” she continued. “I am very thankful I don’t have to deal with that, but I think it’s apparent most people don’t know about that stuff.”
I can relate—I’ve had more UTIs than a roomful of people could count on their fingers and toes, and on multiple occasions it’s spread to my kidneys. The first time that happened I was in high school, and thought my debilitating 105-degree fever and back pain was just a bad flu, because these conditions are rarely, if ever, taught to people. Well, unless it’s coming from a doctor, explaining what you already have, with a hefty bill to follow.
The great void-like unknown of anatomy, medicine, and sexuality is one wellspring for Smallwood’s work. The title of the show, and the recurring literal and symbolic motifs within it, come from significant bodily and medical experiences she’s had, namely with Paragard, a non-hormonal IUD, which is a small copper device inserted into the uterus that acts as a long-term contraceptive.
“I’ve found that a lot of [people] don’t really understand how IUDs work,” she told me. “It’s a very invasive form of birth control and, even though it works, I think it’s pretty fucked up.”
When she chose to go on Paragard (a decision that she researched heavily), she bled every day for eight months. She consulted doctors repeatedly to make sure everything was fine, and they all told her to just “wait it out.” Smallwood told me that her periods, which used to be brief and relatively painless, lasted for seven days on Paragard, with cramps that sometimes felt like “a six-hour migraine in [her] uterus.”
She explained that she resorted to using “black cohosh pills to try and regulate [her] period.” This is pervasive in the paintings at IUD, as black cohosh appears in its natural form as a white flowering plant, among other herbs like parsley and oranges to represent vitamin C.
That isn’t the only recurring motif– snakelike phalluses are repeated too, occurring mostly where they shouldn’t, like replacing limbs or jutting from a pillow. This recalls a nightmarish realm, where a penis, already inherently invasive and penetrative, also worms its way into childhood toys and household items. Or, I suppose, a dreamworld where instruments for pleasure are everywhere. Aside from being freaky, it’s also pretty funny.
Smallwood said that, aside from sexuality, she also highly values humor in her work. I mean, her Instagram name is @therealboobs420.
I mentioned to her that some of her sculptural pieces are placed in such a way that people may accidentally brush by them, or even walk over them. “It’s interesting to me how if a sculpture isn’t put on a pedestal or displayed in a much more formal gallery setting people don’t tend to pay as much attention to it,” she replied. The body-pillow piece, The Perfect Man (not quite a man, but a body pillow with long floppy penis arms and legs, and a tiny penis head chained with copper chains to the ceiling) was originally supposed to hang, but when that didn’t quite work they elected to place it on the ground, “to make him more dominant and in everyone’s way.”
Another example is Baby Mobile, a delicate and (of course) copper piece recalling a whimsical creation to be placed in an infant’s crib, only with tiny 3D-printed IUDs dangling from (also, of course) a coat hanger instead of any child’s toys. It hangs low, much lower than say, the plush horse with fleshy dildos for hooves hanging from a pink noose. Smallwood said that choice was simply motivated by the fact that an actual baby mobile would also be low-hanging.
Other pieces take a darker turn– For Nikki is a dark gray dildo adhered directly to the ground, unassuming enough to accidentally be trodden upon. It has “ASSHOLE” carved into it, like how children sloppily scrawl their name into wet cement before it dries. Smallwood said “it’s actually the most fucked up thing [she’s] probably ever made,” and it’s “meant to be disrespected.”
“The original idea stemmed from a note I put in my phone a couple years ago about the idea of a woman who lost her husband putting his ashes in a dildo as an urn and masturbating with it every night,” she said. “I wound up using that idea [but] with my dead brother’s ashes which are mixed with the cat’s (long story) and dedicated it to his girlfriend by titling it ‘For Nikki.’ I was estranged from my brother who my Dad once told me ‘hated me until the end,’ and I basically never had a relationship with his girlfriend even though she lives with my parents and is getting a big chunk of money from them when they die; so the sculpture was kind of like an ultimate ‘Fuck you’ to both of them.”
Smallwood is unrelenting in her honesty– she’s an open book about how she incorporates her personal life into her art, which is certainly unusual for most artists who prefer to maintain a mysterious distance it seems. For example, the works in the show were inspired by the OkCupid screenshots she’d been collecting and displaying on her Instagram. “I wanted to try to find a way to bring the voice that the screenshots have into a gallery show without it being just printouts of [them],” she explained. But she clarified that the gallery show involved a lot more planning and work: “The screenshots are sort of like doing improv, but [IUD] was like a screenplay I wrote and performed.”
There is a performance component to the show too, which Smallwood is no stranger to: she impressed and shocked audiences at this year’s NYC Porn Film Fest with her poetry detailing penile urethra insertion. Her Instagram-chronicled online dating presence is arguably a performance in itself– Smallwood admits that she’s mostly just being herself, but sometimes she does some light manipulation in her conversation with men, such as “pretending like [she’s] incredibly stupid.”
Both video pieces in IUD feature Smallwood; one is more straightforward, showing the artist with some distorted genitalia partially-imposed onto her face (recalling a disturbing version of Snapchat face swap) lip-syncing to Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You. It’s titled The Perfect Woman– as in, a woman who has no mouth with which to speak, only sexual orifices.
The other video work is more multifaceted, with Smallwood dressed in a sort of “sexy baby” outfit, posing on a bed while a recording of a tense conversation between two lovers plays. The laminated transcription of the conversation, rendered in basic Cambria font, is available next to the video screen.
Smallwood revealed to me that before she went on Paragard she got pregnant by the man who’s portrayed in the video’s dialogue. “I induced my own miscarriage by overdosing on herbs which I learned about mostly through advice from a friend but also Google,” she explains. The flowers, fruits, and herbs found in her paintings then take on an even deeper meaning, as the very same supplements she used to regulate her cycle while using an IUD were also used to “self-induce an abortion.”
Despite all the heaviness (and with the help of it, too) Smallwood has produced an intriguing and varied body of work, replete with personal pain and frustration but still playful, a visually entrancing pastel world of phalluses and copper.
And despite her apparent disillusionment with contraception, she’s staying optimistic. “I know they are also starting clinical trials on a male birth control, which I think is great,” she added. “I have to say, it is hilarious to me how much focus there seems to be on side effects, including one I saw about men getting fat from their birth control. In my opinion a male birth control WITH side effects would be a move towards equal rights.”
Kristin Smallwood: IUD is on view through September 4 at American Medium, 424 Gates Avenue, Bed-Stuy.