Essay by Barry Schwabsky

Perrotin, Tokyo

Aug 28 – Nov 9, 2019 

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Emily Mae Smith doesn’t mind pointing out that while she’s been painting for some twenty years, her art really began to come into focus around 2013. That tells you a lot—about why her work can have the freshness, energy, and go-for-broke ingenuity of an emerging artist relishing her process of self-discovery, while still also showing the impeccable technical fluency and conceptual sophistication that usually only develop with considerable experience. And Smith has evidently been looking as long as she’s been painting: her references encompass a big chunk of the history of Western painting, including often-overlooked episodes like nineteenth-century Symbolism, as well as a vast swath of the popular or commercial arts, from Art Nouveau graphics through Disney animation to the psychedelic posters of the Summer of Love.

Her determination, in accordance with the times, was to put her own perceptions and experience as a woman into the picture—and to have fun doing it. But as a representationalist, she’s indirect: Perhaps surprisingly, the body hardly appears in her paintings—unless you count the occasional mouth. Or not even a mouth, often just a homeless tongue or a set of teeth as identical and linearly aligned as the ice cubes in your freezer tray.

Instead, her figural stand-in of choice is the humble (and distinctly unvoluptuous) besom broom. It represents domestic labor of the kind to which women have been consigned for millennia, but in the sequence of the Disney classic Fantasia (1940) based on the story of the sorcerer’s apprentice, set to the famous score by Paul Dukas, the broom becomes the implement that rebels against its would-be master. “It’s this very lowly thing that became very powerful when someone tried to control it,” as Smith says. And of course in this, the broom also resembles its smaller cousin, the paintbrush.

These days, art making seems to have bifurcated: On the one hand, there is work whose form is fundamentally driven by its subject matter, often rooted in what’s sometimes called identity politics: queer issues, racial issues, decolonial issues, and, of course, feminist issues among them. On the other hand, there is work that—though it may be worlds apart from anything you’d classify as modernist in style—continues to pursue the modernist intuition that art is before anything else an investigation of what art itself is or can be. Understanding how deeply gender and sexuality are woven into the very fabric of art as it’s come down to us, Smith is that rare practitioner whose work’s political and formal substance are so perfectly fused as to be indistinguishable. But—in contrast to the sorcerer’s apprentice— her mastery of her tools is complete; she doesn’t even have to set them to work. She puts them into play.


Courtesy of the artist & Perrotin
Photos by Maiko Miyagawa and Charles Benton 



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