Perrotin is presenting an exhibition of Emily Mae Smith, for the very first time in Paris. Entitled Harvesters, it features new paintings and works on paper by the American artist.
I am thinking a lot about painting's pictorial relationship to labor. For me, this means I've been looking at a lot of paintings that show women as either laboring peasants or as idle myths. Jean-François Millet's painting The Gleaners from 1857 is an example.
A few years ago, Emily Mae Smith selected an unexpected yet inexhaustible muse: a simple straw broom, dually anthropomorphic and gendered (the artist applies the pronoun “she”). In the exhibition Harvesters, we find “her” without the round glasses the artist frequently accessorized her in, and is seen either resting languidly in a wheat field (Harvester), disguised as a scholar-candle and burning down while reading a book of spells (The Alchemist), feasting (or rather attempting to) in a Flemish interior (The Wooden Spoon), standing in a damp cave with a paintbrush in hand (The Grotto), carrying a message in the street (The Messenger) or hidden behind a wall of ginkgo biloba leaves (Blush). She is proud or overwhelmed, weeping or focused on a task—even crucified.
This omnipresent figure shouldn’t be viewed as a character switching between costumes or settings, returning from one season to the next to parade before our eyes. The remit of Emily Mae Smith’s paintings is symbolic, rather than narrative. Her images evoke mythology, still life, and even those lovely allegories so common among Belle Epoque masters. Unlike Baldessari's mocking message circa 1968 (“no ideas have entered this work” proclaimed of one his paintings at the time), the images here are loaded with ideas, values and symbols.
A perfect analogue to the paintbrush, the broom is, in fact, a gleaner gathering crumbs: gleaning those morsels still available from the mostly male-dominated history of art, in an attempt to make something new: a cartoonish figure of late postmodernism. [...] A simple tool for the dirty work of cleaning, erected amidst a cavern of irises, becomes a glorious feminized allegory for creation. By the same logic, the artist reframes the rat in a positive light. This intrusive and harmful pest, an insult commonly thrown at women, occupies a prominent place in two of the most attractive paintings of the exhibition—which could just as easily have been titled “the contemporary condition of the female painter facing the aggressively masculine history of art.”
This show is not using the face motif much. However, there is imagery of the eye liberated from the body. In one painting an eyeball sits where a globe would normally be. The eye is a roving independent searcher. There is a tension between being looked at and doing the looking.
That a simple broom can synthesize so many pictorial and political questions is quite magical. We start wondering about artists who might have invested an unexpected motif with as much determination.
– Text written by Jill Gasparina
Born in 1979 in Austin, Texas, USA
Lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, USA
Emily Mae Smith creates lively compositions that offer sly social and political commentary, with a nod to distinct historical painting movements, such as symbolism, surrealism, and pop art. Her lexicon of signs and symbols begins with her avatar, an anthropomorphic broomstick figure. Simultaneously referencing the painter’s brush, a domestic tool associated with women’s work, and the phallus, the figure continually transforms across Smith’s body of work. By adopting a variety of guises, the broom and other symbols speak to contemporary subjects, including gender, sexuality, capitalism, and violence.
Smith has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Le Consortium, Dijon, and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.