Slippery signification: In conversation with Emily Mae Smith


Glistening droplets slide down highly polished android limbs, plump ripe fruit is laid out temptingly, saccharine sunsets glow behind perfectly formed wave crests reflected in oversized sunglasses. These highly-charged visual motifs in the hyper-realistic paintings by Emily Mae Smith poke an acrylic-tipped feminist finger at themes of gender, sexuality, capitalism and violence.

Emily’s recurring lexicon of symbolic motifs reference pop culture, mythology and art history. Dark humor and innuendo are the tools by which Emily destabilizes historically dominant social and political narratives, reframing the story with a feminist twist.

The ubiquitous anthropomorphic broom that appears across her work is an avatar for the artist, at once representing the artist’s paintbrush, a domestic tool associated with women’s work, and the phallus. In many paintings the broom is depicted seated at an easel, both the subject and maker of its own likeness. Emily is acutely aware of the power of representation and position of the artist as maker. This is reiterated when we see the broom take on the guise of female subjects from famous works of art or mythology—Medusa, mermaids, the Lady of Shallot. By substituting the broom figure for the female form, Emily foregrounds the act of representation and inserts herself as active creator in place of the passive female subject.

Closely related to this is the idea of the gaze. Historically, the female form has been the object of the male gaze, channeled through the work of male artists, and more recently, mass media. Subverting the male gaze is a dominant theme in Emily’s work, likewise achieved through the figure of the broom, as well as various recurring compositional framing devices that quite literally direct the viewer’s view or make looking the subject of the painting.

The tension between surface and substance resounds in Emily’s painting. The photo-realistic detail, pop aesthetic and highly finished style of her paintings belie a fiercely rebellious subtext that ripples below the surface, disrupting the pleasurable view.

Emily’s work was recently included in a group show at Perrotin Gallery in Seoul. Her first solo museum exhibition in the USA also took place recently as part of the MATRIX programme at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Connecticut curated by Patricia Hickson. This follows close on the heels of her inaugural museum show at Le Consortium in Dijon, France, curated by Eric Troncy. Emily lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

Photo by Steve Benisty

AMM: Hi Emily! You’ve been actively making art for over two decades. How has your work changed over this time? What have been some of the insights and influences that have shaped its evolution?

EMS: When I went through a particularly rough patch I was forced to work small and with a limited number of materials. It was painful but it helped distill my work into a more potent form—like when you cook something and all the water evaporates leaving something concentrated at the bottom. That happened to my painting. It was important.

AMM: Who are the people or experiences that have influenced you as an artist? In what ways did they shape the direction of your work?

EMS: Here’s a story: Around 2012 I got locked out of my studio building and while I waited for someone to show up and open the door, I found a discarded copy of Mary Karr’s memoir “The Liars’ Club” on the outside steps. I started reading it and couldn’t stop. It changed the way I look at personal experience and it gave me permission to put more subjectivity into my work.

AMM: Your paintings have a highly finished, almost airbrushed look to them. How do you achieve these results with oils on canvas?

EMS: In my opinion when one sees the paintings in person the surfaces do not look airbrushed. I mean no value judgment in that—each method of applying paint has unique qualities. I often paint in very thin transparent oil layers which allows light to pass through the surface similar to sunlight on still water. I do a lot of the gradients with careful color mixing, soft paintbrushes, and practice.

Big Sea of Tears, oil on linen, 67 x 51 inches

AMM: Do you have any studio rituals or routines? What is your process of working?

EMS: I tend to work near a 10am-6pm schedule. It varies, but knowing I need to be somewhere to take care of things is good for me. I started working jobs when I was 15, so there is still that worker in me who needs to show up and accomplish something.

AMM: You frequently make reference to specific historical art works and art movements in your paintings. Can you tell us more about how you respond to (and perhaps critique) art history in your work?

EMS: I develop personal relationships and responses to the historical works that I get involved with—and relationships are complicated things. I often see an alternate narrative, or perhaps an unintended subtext in paintings from the past that codify the way we see things now. So it’s important to me to unravel that thread.

AMM: What do the recurring motifs in your work, like the Fantasia-esque broom figure, the open mouth, breasts, fruit and water represent in your art?

EMS: These are all things with slippery signification. They mean things like labor, gender, power, control, mortality, transcendence, etc. They are forms doing the pictorial work of the intellect.

Medusa Moderne, oil on linen, 47 x 58 inches

AMM: Framing devices likewise abound in your paintings, either explicitly such as curtains, reflections in glasses, open mouths, or through more subtle compositional elements. In what ways and to what ends are you manipulating the viewer’s gaze?

EMS: That is a true observation. One of the things we seem to finally be discovering in the 21st century is the vast scale and range of human subjectivity. And to me that means context is really significant. Context is like a frame, and I want to render frames visible, acknowledging limitations, point of view, and correcting the assumed frames of the past.

AMM: Many of your paintings seem self-referential. In what ways do you engage your role as an artist and the act of painting in your work?

EMS: I do paint about painting at some level. To be honest I also think that’s about getting a seat at the table.

AMM: The surface aesthetic of your paintings is reminiscent of glossy-page advertisements and the subject matter is often hyper-sexualized. In what ways do you play with these tropes to convey feminist subtexts in your work?

EMS: The advertising-like effects get a viewer comfortable while the work is delivering a message that is more difficult. Subversion only works through familiarity.

AMM: Does your art in any way reflect your own psychological state of being?

EMS: My state, or an observed state, sure.

A Reckoning, oil on linen, 67 x 51 inches

AMM: Visual puns and inuendo feature in many of your paintings, often with a humorous note. What roles do humor and double meaning have in your art?

EMS: Humor is a tool for me; it is an equalizer and cuts through a lot of bullshit. It helps people relax a little and become more receptive to ideas they otherwise may find challenging.

AMM: What ideas or themes are you currently exploring in your work?

EMS: I’m working on a new solo show for the fall, I’m not yet ready to verbalize them. They need to grow some more first.

AMM: What are you excited about in the art world right now? What needs to change?

EMS: I’m seeing more women and people of color thriving in the New York art world, that is really exciting. I wish everyone would take more risks. There could be more rigor all around.

AMM: What are you reading, watching, listening to?

EMS: In my studio I’m listening to podcasts and alternately music with no words. Currently I’m reading “Ninth Street Women” by Mary Gabriel and currently I’m watching season 2 of “Big Little Lies” on HBO.

AMM: Are you working on any exciting projects right now that we should know about? What’s next for you?

EMS: I have a solo show at Perrotin Tokyo opening end of August. I’m excited to be going there.

Find out more about the artist:

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

The Gleaner, oil on linen, 67 x 51 inches

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