Emily Mae Smith: Heretic Lace
October 8–November 12, 2022
In critiquing the aesthetics of the digital, or even the expanded imaginary realm of our contemporary society, Emily Mae Smith brings to bear many of the compositional fixtures and iconography of the history of Western European painting. And it is dark, devastating, and relentless. She cuts down every refuge of the collective unconscious from Disney sentimentality to nostalgia for early video games (Atari aesthetics), and even the smug, flaccid horror of Von Dutch. She also merrily skewers The Artist’s own sense of self-importance. The paintings in the exhibition Heretic Lace follow two thematic trajectories, both allegorical: a series of implied self-portraits as the possessed broom from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Fantasia set against various art historical genre backgrounds and a set of diagrammatic set-pieces, frozen morality tales, that pull from video-game imagery and the artist’s own glossary of symbols.
Executed with a perfectly placid oil-on-linen photo-realistic precision, the artist makes it clear that her vehicle is image; brushstrokes are banished. Like a complicated biblical parable, dripping with implication yet inscrutable in meaning, a painting like Gateway Madonnas (all paintings in the show 2022) presents an implied lesson or explanation. A simple gate is topped with a stepped upper story populated by bouncing eyeballs, while the gate itself appears guarded by a formation of five pairs of gleaming luscious cartoon lips. The lips are both sexy and ferocious, the eyeballs cheery but horrific, and the gate seems a concoction from an old Atari Q*bert game, combined with an enigmatic, cloudless blue sky. It’s an indictment of the very notion of “rendering” or “animation.” The sense of alienation that games invite is distilled and heightened. Where exactly do we want to be when we plumb our imaginations for alternative realms—is this it?
Smith’s stand-in for herself and the viewer, in the form of the wily Fantasia broom, is just as eviscerating. In Poetry (Toy in Blood), the broom sits hunched over in a field of over-sized predatory blue irises, the figure set heroically against a massively oversized harvest moon, hands dripping with luminous, deliciously candy-like syrup blood. In A Candle Makes its Own Fuel, the broom reclines in a Dutch interior, backlit from the ubiquitous cruciform leaded glass windows of Vermeer and de Hooch, initially appearing to relax; upon closer investigation, we notice its straw sweep foot is quietly ignited. The broom is featureless, with simply a wooden handle for a face, but the languid poses in which Smith positions her figures indicate indifference, calm, or listlessness in the face of tragedy. On September 11, 2001, the cartoon network never stopped its programming—supposedly a calculated gesture to distract children from the progressive horror of that day. Smith’s critique seems to imply a similar complicity in Disney’s jovial and disingenuous anaesthetization to the world’s increasing collapse, playing out in real time.
Feast and Famine Redux, Painters Quarry, Ginkgo Eater, and Precarious Persuasion all follow a format of placing a mostly flat and repetitive pattern against a single, vibrant, volumetric gesture which posits an action against a largely homogenous mass. In Painter’s Quarry, alternating tiers of dry, defleshed long bones and gaping skulls rest in a masonry maw, which again seems to refer to the virtual architecture of video games like Minecraft or Castle Wolfenstein. At the top of this stony mouth of hell are inscribed the words “THE STUDIO” implying the futility of artistic creation. In Precarious Persuasion, a gleaming, three-pronged fishhook is launched onto a sea of alternating but identical fish, while in Ginkgo Eater, the very luscious set of lips, with requisite glistening tongue, seems to lustfully devour layer after layer of rainbow-colored ginkgo leaves. Heretic Lace II toys with our desires by mixing sex with disgust: a garter belt fastener holds up a skein of fabric depicting rats devouring wheat—fertility left to rot.
Smith’s avatar of the broom has played many roles over the years—as odalisque, ingénue, neglected stepsister—frequently a victim of misogyny and the perennial feminist underdog for whom to root. The brooms in the paintings of the exhibition Heretic Lace are far more empowered and have begun to enact retribution as well. Unfortunately, as is clear in Habitat, being the hero of one’s own narrative begins to have a downside. While the broom stands with hand on hip, feet parted, presenting a certain Gainsborough-esque swagger and nobility, a woodpecker gnaws at its head and rats run up and down its rush legs. The woodpecker and rats might spell inevitable disfigurement and possible destruction, but it’s clear from the little pegs emerging from the broom handle that these guests are not unwanted: the artist, and her avatar, have instigated their own end.