Hailing from Austin, Texas, Emily Mae Smith is a visual artist based in NYC. Here genre-defying practice challenges traditional codes of painting, and she journeys through art history and pop cultural influences including art noveau, symbolism, romanticism, and 1970s California illustration art, transmogrifying and reappropriating references as she goes.
From the decadent drawings of the english illustrator Aubrey Beardsley in the 1800s, to the broomstick figure from Disney’s 1940s fantasia, to the view from her NYC studio at sunset last night, inspiration can strike smith from anywhere. Here, she discusses the playful, satirical visual language she has honed in order to probe and decode the subjects of gender, sexuality, capitalism, and violence that are central to her work.
PERHAPS YOU CAN TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR EARLY LIFE TO SET THE SCENE. WHERE DID YOU GROW UP AND HOW DID THAT ENVIRONMENT SHAPE YOU CREATIVELY? WHAT PROPELLED YOU TOWARDS PAINTING?
EMS: I was born in Austin, Texas. In the early 1980s, when I was about 4 or 5 years old my family moved 70 miles west to a rural area in the region. Most people in the surrounding area had small farms and raised livestock. There was a lot of isolation which I consider nurturing in my childhood but frustrating in my teen years. There are some factors in all of this which I believe responsible for my grit. Like a lot of children, I always drew and made things. I also always liked science, I like figuring things out. My parents are both very creative.
They are not materialistic and were very suspicious of mass culture and authority figures. They did not know about an “art world”. They had the ethic of “do it yourself” with everything. They built our modest house, grew our vegetables. Our household was quite un-technological. The first time I saw the internet was in the library during my senior year of high school. In 1997 I moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas. It is a huge very diverse school. I got lucky that the art programme was pretty good, attracting some quality professors and interesting peers. Austin was an intellectually rich environment. Art was always the biggest box to get into – very flexible, wild west, write your own script; that kind of place. So I am an artist. I found painting to be the hardest, weirdest world to me. So I am a painter.
SO IF YOU WERE ASKED TO LIST YOUR CORE THEMES, WHAT WOULD THEY BE? AND WHEN DID YOU FIRST BEGIN TO HONE THE DISTINCT AESTHETIC STYLE OF PAINTING YOU HAVE NOW?
EMS Themes: Gender, capitalism, violence, feminism, labour, agency, painting history, scopophilia, visual literacy. I think my work really started to gel in 2013. I’ve been painting for over 20 years, but it took all this time to figure out how these ideas connect in a painted world. In 2012–2013 I lost my studio and had to paint at home with water-based materials, which were not my wheelhouse. It was almost like I had to start over. The limitations made me get really clear and deliberate. It was a crucible that was great for my work.
FRAGMENTS OF BODIES, BOTH MALE AND FEMALE, OFTEN APPEAR IN YOUR PIECES – A SLICE OF BUTTOCKS IN A SIMPLE LINE DRAWING, OR A BREAST IN RELIEF AGAINST A BLUE SKY, FOR INSTANCE. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE PRESENCE OF THE BODY, BOTH MALE AND FEMALE, IN YOUR WORKS?
EMS I think a lot about the discourse of painting being inherently problematically gendered in ways so deeply codified that it is hard to unravel. I am not talking only about statistics – numbers of male artists vs female etc. I am talking more about visual language invisibly operating with control and oppression.
For instance, the invention of linear perspective positions the viewer as the all-seeing spectator penetrating the world. This privileges a phallic notion of selfhood in painting, which persists into elevating what kind of subjectivities we value in art. When I am showing a body that is distinctly male or female I am showing this framework and that it can be tweaked, poked, interrupted.
WATER RECURS A LOT THROUGHOUT YOUR WORKS – IN LOOPING WAVES, MELTING ICE CUBES AND PAINTINGS APPEARING HALF-SUBMERGED IN BLUE LIQUID, FOR INSTANCE. THE SKY RECURS TOO, AS WELL AS THE MOON AND VARIOUS COSMIC REFERENCES. WHAT DOES ALL THIS ELEMENTAL IMAGERY, AND ALL THESE SUGGESTIONS OF FLUIDITY OR SUBMERGENCE, ADD TO YOUR WORK?
EMS In my work liquids are also signifiers for paint/painting itself. It’s important to not forget that these are painted images and are therefor not only symbolic but also structural. The watery boundaries are part of displaying that there are liminal spaces, inside-outside type discourses in painting, in which there are unwritten laws meant to be broken, invisible to those who have the privilege to be on one side of it.
There is the boundary of the body of the artist where subjectivity flows inside and outside oneself like a Klein bottle (I made a painting about that), and the boundary of painting as an institutional framework. For me it connotes actual depth within the painted idea. That is to say it shows that there are ideas being explored by my subjects from painted worlds we know little about – kind of like an alternate universe inside our own known one.
THERE’S ALSO SOMETHING DISTINCTLY ‘FEMALE’ ABOUT THESE MOTIFS OF WATER AND LUNAR CYCLES TOO ISN’T THERE? PLUS, FIGURES HISTORICALLY OR MYTHOLOGICALLY GENDERED AS ‘FEMALE’, SUCH AS THE MEDUSA OR MERMAIDS, APPEAR THROUGHOUT YOUR WORKS TOO, WHICH LEADS ME TO THINK ABOUT HOW AND WHY YOU PROBE NOTIONS OF ‘FEMALENESS’ IN YOUR PAINTINGS?
EMS I really believe that the notion of ‘femaleness’ being the true subject of an artwork is totally terrifying to the institution of painting. Western art has spent most of its history making sure that there is no way to represent it. The feminist lens is a useful one to view my work. I think the mermaids and mythical figures are creations which reveal a lot about human psychology, especially weird notions about society and women.
After all they are essentially monsters. Medusa has been written about extensively by Freud and later by feminist writers as a manifestation of castration anxiety. These mythic bodies are interesting vehicles. Paintings themselves are mythic bodies too! They are connected.
ON THE SUBJECT OF FIGURES, THERE ARE CERTAIN CHARACTERS AND AVATARS THAT RE-MATERIALISE WITHIN YOUR PAINTINGS. THE BROOM FOR EXAMPLE…
EMS I’ll explain a bit about the broom. If you think about the broom in Fantasia it is a faceless worker, a bewitched automaton that does the bidding of the ambitious apprentice. It becomes possessed, goes berserk. In that, it also undermines the apprentice. It’s this very lowly thing that became very powerful when someone tried to control it. I like that the broom is the ultimate figure of domesticity and labour.
I see them all the time in NYC streets, discarded on sidewalks or leaning in stoops. I started thinking about how the broom could be this awesome representation that could slip from worker to artist to woman. It looks like a paintbrush. I started painting a broom brush type figure that could have all this agency in painting. In my first broom painting “The Studio (Smoking Broom)” it is literally on a break smoking a cigarette – doing the opposite of broom things – not doing its job. It started as a stand in ‘woman’ and ‘worker on strike’. Strike as a form of protest.
The painting I was making was a protest of its own conditions. The broom looks like a paint brush so it also started meaning ‘artist’. At the time I was making paintings indirectly about my experiences as an artist and art-worker. I realised that the broom-woman replacement was making a phallic representation of woman-artist. It was like a light bulb literally went off in my head – the only way for me to deal with an art history rife with castration anxiety (especially the legacy of modernism) was to literally replace the missing phallus! So the broom-like figure, which has gone through a lot of permutations and changes, has the agency to move in painting and its histories because its image is bound up with our phallocentric myths of authenticity and creation.
RELIEVING DOMESTIC OR EVERYDAY OBJECTS FROM THEIR UTILITARIAN FUNCTIONS IS SUCH AN INTERESTING PREMISE. CONTINUING TO UNFOLD SOME OF THE OTHER RECURRING MOTIFS YOUR PAINTINGS INCLUDE, CHERRIES AND EGGS AND TEETH RECUR OFTEN…DO THEY HAVE A PARTICULAR SYMBOLISM?
EMS Generally, I think of the cherries as hyper-sexualized ridiculous ideas about femininity. Eggs are similarly overtly symbolic. I’m not that interested in what each of these means as a symbol – that’s kind of boring – which is why I’ve chosen them. They already exist in a popular world of references. It’s more important what they are doing and what is happening with them as phenomena in the paintings.
THE WAY YOU USE SPACE, AND HANG WORKS IN RELATION TO ONE ANOTHER WHEN YOU EXHIBIT THEM IS INTERESTING; THE OVERT CIRCULAR SHAPES OF ONE PAINTING APPEAR TO ECHO THOSE IN THE PIECE THAT HANGS OPPOSITE IT, FOR EXAMPLE. HOW DO YOU ENVISION YOUR WORKS TALKING TO EACH OTHER?
EMS I think this is one of the best parts of hanging an exhibition. There’s a lot to unpack in each painting, but the dialogue between them is how the larger themes become visible. This also influences how viewers move around the room.
THE WORDS ‘THE STUDIO’ RECUR QUITE OFTEN THROUGHOUT YOUR PAINTINGS. WHY?
EMS I took the phrase from the Art Nouveau era international magazine which was called The Studio International. Aubrey Beardsley did the cover art for the first issue. I found a lot of inspiration in the magazine, especially the bookplate illustrations. The established American myths about modern art are actually kind of a cult which I knew my work could never belong to so I was looking for visual languages that came from another side. Psychedelic art was inspired by Art Nouveau, and a lot of Art Nouveau was connected to Symbolist art and even the spiritualist movement.
The first “The Studio” paintings I made were meant to be humorous attacks on the patriarchy’s grip over painting’s practice and history. I’ve allowed this phrase to move around as a slippery signifier. I think the phrase now refers more to the hidden structures that create painting’s identity. The phrase should indicate that the painting is a discursive object, bound up in orders of desire, signification, and power. It should expose the myths about artists and art history, and in doing so expose what is hidden in these myths, especially what is repressed. I love the 1968 Sigmar Polke painting “Moderne Kunst”. It’s ironic, self-aware, funny, and kind of mean. It’s about art and its reception, perception, its identity. It’s a self aware painting. I think that the “The Studio” paintings are meant to strike a chord in this vein.
THAT COMIC VALUE YOU ATTRIBUTE TO POLKE’S WORK IS INTERESTING – WOULD YOU SAY YOUR WORK IS INTENDED TO BE HUMOROUS, PERHAPS SATIRICAL, IN SOME WAYS TOO?
EMS Yes, and Yes, emphatically!
SOME OF YOUR PAINTINGS HAVE A REAL GLOSSY SHEEN OF THE DIGITAL. DO THEMES OF ARTIFICE INTEREST YOU?
EMS Yes, artifice definitely interests me. As an American painter we have this legacy of Abstract Expressionism which has bound up the painters’ mark with an idea of authenticity. I find that absolutely ridiculous. I consciously play with undermining that notion.
TALK TO US ABOUT YOUR OFTEN BOLD, BRIGHT COLOUR PALETTE…
EMS There are paint colours available today which didn’t exist 100 years ago, which is probably part of it.In my work the characters are objects and a lot of the colour choices I make actually come from observation, however the sentiment is internal/ intellectual. The colour gradients in my work come from working both in the academic sense of carefully observing and translating the nuance of light and colour and of observing visual culture. They are also derived from my observations of the sky. My studio window faces West and I see great NYC sunsets.
BACK TO GROWING UP IN TEXAS, THE SKIES ARE UNRIVALLED IN CRAZY COLOURS AT DAWN AND DUSK. WOULD YOU SAY YOUR WORK HAS CHANGED OR EVOLVED OVER THE YEARS?
EMS Ingraduate school (Columbia University 2004-2006) I had a hard time discussing my work in terms of gender. It was frowned upon. Issues of economy, gender, and race were kept separate. This was before intersectionality – which makes so much sense now.
I didn’t really feel that I was inhabiting a woman’s personhood until I was about 30 years old (I turn 40 this year). I previously felt heavily defined by economic class division and other situations. My experience as an adult woman has absolutely radicalized me. When I really started to face that, my work got a lot more interesting. It was a fight for me.
WHAT REALLY MAKES YOU WANT TO PAINT? WHAT SORT OF MOOD MIGHT SPUR YOU ON? WHAT ARE THE IDEAL CONDITIONS TO WORK IN?
EMS When I go to some museums and commune with art kin its really stimulating. I think my favourite museum is the Gemaeldegalerie in Berlin which is only European painting from 13th to 18th century. So many of the paintings from pre-Renaissance are absolutely bonkers, I know I am looking into another world. I want to do that.
The museum was recommended to me by two artist friends – Anne Neukamp and Renaud Regnery. Ironically my best work has come from working in unideal conditions like not having enough time, money, or hours. Some kind of urgency always seems to make my best work.
FINALLY, COULD YOU PICK A PARTICULARLY MEMORABLE PIECE TO TELL US ABOUT THE STORY OF MAKING IT? THE PARTICULAR TIME OR EXPERIENCE THAT LED TO ITS CREATION?
EMS This is such a nice question. There is a painting “The Studio (Prehistory Pastoral)”, 2016. I started this painting in 2014 and felt too embarrassed by it to finish. I didn’t think anyone would understand it and I lacked the language to explain it. The painting has an up-skirt view of a lady’s behind, there are dinosaurs, and a volcano.
It felt like I needed my brain and the culture at large to catch up so that I could put it out in the world – like finding a good time to launch a ship. Over time and many paintings later that happened, and I finished it in 2016. I’m now very proud of it, and it has a prominent place in my latest museum show in Dijon at Le Consortium.