Emily Mae Smith: Heretic Lace at Petzel

Emily Mae Smith, Heretic Lace, 2019, Oil on linen, 48×37 inches

Walt Disney has taught us that cartoons can be used to distract us while conveying the most serious of subjects. Understanding this Emily Mae Smith in 2014, introduced into her developing iconography an anthropomorphized, androgynist broom consisting of a featureless phallic shaft attached to a twig brush. This broom, a descendant of the demonic mops portrayed in sorcerer’s apprentice section of Disney’s Fantasia (1940), has become a signature image in her work. Joined with icons associated with desire and fear, Smith has used this figure as both a male and female trope, as well as an alter-ego. To greater and lesser degrees Smith uses her glossary of icons in some cases to engage in heady meditations on such topics as death, vanity, desire, history, etc. and at other times to enigmatically introduce such subjects with little or no commentary.

Meanwhile, she also stylistically mined historical references to post-Renaissance and neo-classical painting; Rene Magritte’s semiotics (e.g., picture puzzles), Philip Guston’s studio symbolism, the style of such lesser-known figures such as the Italian pop artist Gnoli, as well as the patterns to be found in 1960s-70s art posters. Regardless of her chosen style, Smith juggles the recuperation of varied technical standards, the disposition of the masculine norms of Modernism, and the feminist critique of the masculine gaze underpinning so much Western art. Rather than being bound by the strictures of vanguardism and notions of art’s progressive development Smith chooses to exercise her prerogatives to invent when necessary, and to repurpose at will. By appropriating differing styles and devices, Smith sends the message that one style does not fit all messages — the potentiality and the adaptability of her medium is its message. This stance is central to her conception of the work painting does.

Knowing that painting and painters no longer need to be singular in purpose, Smith’s intentions seem in a constant flux, at times implying feminist and political critique, at others sentimental, cliché or a teasing surrealist juxtaposition of images and optical patterns reminiscent of 60s-70s Japanese graphic design. On occasion she knowingly and skillfully brings a subtle sense of profundity to her subject by producing a balance between style and imagery that at times generates speculation, interpretation, and self-reflection, while at other times one merely chuckles, or sighs. For instance, her present exhibition titled Heretic Lace consists of paintings that employ her signature anthropomorphic broom character in various settings and styles, as well as other graphic images that she uses to comment on the world of the senses. The title, Heretic Lace is taken from a pop-ish painting of the same name which, consisting of a segment of a slickly painted thigh with a garter belt, pulling taut a stocking whose lace-like pattern consists of rats and sheaves of wheat. Meanwhile elsewhere there is a greyish painting titled Painters Quarry consisting of a crypt-like opening almost filled with stacked skulls and bones. An inscription across the top of the opening identifies this place as The Studio.

Emily Mae Smith, Head Horizon World, 2020, Oil on linen 67×90 inches

Running the gamut from the kitschy to high-minded existential meditations on life and death, Smith impudently though respectfully exploits art history’s major and minor genres to construct pictorial allegories and metaphors based on contemporary themes. Though, Smith never truly veers away from an illustrative brand of naturalism her radical shifts between pop and 19th century naturalism reflects a generational sense of freedom in which continuity of style and content is no longer of valued. Instead, in Smith’s work there is a commitment to the idea the relationship between aesthetics sensibility, style and content are something that one can be put on or taken off as needed. This mash-up of historized genres, period styles give representation to the displacement and usurpation of painting’s performativity, its ability to make the unreal, appear to be corporeal — this is the work painting does. In this Smith returns to the Renaissance idea of painting being a mirror or a window on another world of limitless fantasies, allusions, and illusions, while alternately she adopts the formally limited flatness of modernism. This allows her to set the aesthetic sensibility by which her viewers may access her work’s deeper meanings.

For those who do not know the art historical back story, the source of her appropriated imagery, or their inside jokes— paintings such as Smith’s, though they are the product of a serious critique of such social issues as sexism — do not make explicit either their causes or consequences. The fact that they only imply such things in effect re-enforces the very social aesthetic they are meant to challenge. By occupying this double-bind, Smith self-consciously exploits it so as to insert herself into the very culture she would critique if not reform. In doing this she marks off the internal conflict of her work — to go on, she must sustain the subject of her critique, by giving voice to the victim — yet, refusing them an alternate identity. In this, she like others of her generation, walks a thin line between exposition and culpability for the post-politics of a post-modern culture committed to the view that everything is non-hierarchically entangled with everything. If there is a drawback in all of this it’s that Smiths use of art historical narratives and genres as analogies and tropes seemingly gleefully project a de-historized past onto a melancholic groundless, neoliberal present. As such, Smith’s work, despite its cheerfulness, humor, and criticality generally leaves one with is a sense of bewilderment, alienation, and the pathos in keeping with today’s world.

Emily Mae Smith, Gleaner Odalisque
Emily Mae Smith, Gleaner Odelisque, 2019, Oil on linen, 67×51 inches

All photo Courtesy of Petzel Gallery.

Emily Mae Smith Heretic Lace Petzel Gallery October 8 – November 12, 2022 520 W 25th Street, NYC