On ViewPetzel Gallery
October 8–November 12, 2022
The possibilities of painting are on full display at Emily Mae Smith’s current exhibition, Heretic Lace, installed at Petzel’s new Chelsea space. This concise show of eleven paintings demonstrates Smith’s command of her medium in strategies such as bravura brushwork, naturalism verging on trompe-l’il, seamlessly liquid gradients, and backlit contre-jour effects. These moments are painting for painting’s sake, but they also permit the artist—along with her broom- or brush-like avatars, alter-egos, and fellow travelers—to initiate a discourse with/in Painting. The challenges Smith sets for painting, and that art returns, are not always fully satisfied, something she has confronted by portraying a paintbrush-wielding broom in the guise and posture of Ingres’s Oedipus explaining the riddle of the Sphinx (The Riddle ). In a wide-ranging conversation held in October 2022, Smith and I discussed labor and class and their avoidance by the art world, the importance of getting the angle of a fishhook just right, and the impact that can be felt when we open art up to a painterly new broom.
Amanda Gluibizzi (Rail): This is your first show with Petzel. Did you approach it differently at all? Is this generally about the size of the show that you prefer to have?
Emily Mae Smith: The new Petzel gallery space is really big and open; I was rather intimidated by the scale that I saw on the floor plans (the gallery was under construction the whole time so I could only look at floor plans). But my studio remained the same size, and I had the same capability to make what I do within it, so I didn’t really scale up at all. Most of the paintings in the show are 67 by 51 inches. I chose to do more work within that scale, which I call my “medium-big,” because I was thinking that I know it can hold a wall, but in a large room that size it is still intimate. It still feels like an approachable painting with an entire image you can hold. So yeah, I was scared. And then I just said to myself, “You can only make what you can make, and just go forward.” I made the whole show within the year. We were also working on the monograph for the past year, and by the time January rolled around I really needed to focus on the paintings. It ended up being kind of a tight deadline. But I tend to work in about that range of time; every show, it's been that way.
Over the years I have noticed through experience that I need about seven pieces to do a solo show. Recently in larger gallery spaces it finally started adding up to a few more. So, I’m surprised it only took eleven paintings to do what I wanted in this exhibition. I thought I might need more, but that did it. We didn't want to overhang; we wanted to give everything enough air to breathe. My ideal viewer likes to spend time looking at the individual paintings instead of only standing back in the room and surveying the scene. I was trying to create the environment to encourage that kind of viewing.
Rail: As you were saying that, I was realizing: Yes, that’s totally what I did. I walked in and of course looked to decide how I wanted to move into the space, but then you’re absolutely right: I stood in front of each image individually. Are you five-foot-seven?
Smith: You mean my height? I’m five-foot-four.
Rail: Okay, so you’re making paintings that are slightly larger than you? So it’s interesting to think about making a painting that's larger than you but still feels intimate.
Smith: Yeah, I’ve noticed that with representational images and objects, you need to paint them about thirty percent bigger than real life to look like real-life size. It’s something to do with perception. I think that is a known convention, but I remember figuring it out in practice for myself when I was in undergrad. I was working on a project, and I stood against a wall and traced a line around myself to get the shape of what I wanted for my artwork. And then I stood back, and I was like, “Am I that small? That looks like a tiny person, that looks like a child.” I remember being in conversation with my schoolmates, and we deduced the thirty percent problem. It’s fascinating.
Rail: It’s so funny the way that the rule of thirds works in basically everything about art.
Smith: Yeah, tell me what you mean.
Rail: Oh, just, you know compositionally: the triangular composition is so much more interesting, for example, than a square composition, which is so much harder to do. And breaking a painting down into thirds makes it easier to digest as you're either scanning it up and down or walking back and forth…
Smith: I see what you mean. I noticed a while back, and I think this is also another conversation I've had with other artists, where extreme symmetry looks alien to us, as some perceptual phenomenon, but we are, externally, mostly symmetrically based ourselves. It’s so strange that we perceive symmetry as somehow extra-human, non-human, or otherworldly.
Rail: Are you thinking about that when you’re making paintings like Feast and Famine Redux (2022)?
Smith: I am. I’ve played with symmetry for a while, and there’s a bilateral repetition on each side that is meant to invoke something conceptually through challenging perception. It’s also supposed to instigate something in the perceiver. This weird bilateral framing device is to me like painting from an “other” perspective, or an “othered” position.
Rail: I remember reading in a book called The Survival of the Prettiest about how bilateral symmetry is important with babies because they are these alien beings. Part of the way that we embrace them is not just that they look totally helpless, which they are, but also that they are the closest human beings get to bilateral symmetry. They are these things that are totally other but also are so small that we have to take care of them biologically.
Smith: That’s so fascinating. I love that. It reminds me of the books I've read about dogs and their history, and how dogs are like wolves arrested in a puppy state. And they were trying to do the same thing with foxes to see if they could engineer them to be more dog like. They could, and as they arrested them into their perpetual puppy state, their eyes got bigger and bigger. Like this architecture of cuteness is like a real thing.
Rail: Exactly. Why is cute so uncanny? That’s a weird rabbit hole to go down; why is it that I love the cute but also, I don’t want to be cute?
Smith: In making paintings there is always a tension of grabbing the viewer and bringing them in, so a form of seduction, then also a form of flipping the script and delivering a wallop. So it’s like the rope-a-dope in boxing, feigning an innocence—you know, like, “I won’t be difficult!”—and then they become comfortable. So then you can go in with, “Oh hey, now that you’re relaxed, I’d like to point out that there’s a big problem that I’m here to tell you about.” Which is a funny thing to think about.
I went to college from 1997 to 2002, and then grad school 2004 to 2006. Back then there was so much suspicion about painting being capable of being relevant at all. We were still very much in the death throes of painting and social practice was huge, and so, over time, I sort of adapted to this position that people are very suspicious of a painting. People didn’t walk up to a painting and say “Okay, I'm ready to believe.” They’re immediately like, “Is this thing trying to trick me? What is this bullshit? I don’t know. Also, it’s probably irrelevant.” Or it’s the pinnacle of propaganda. Either way there’s such a big umbrella of suspicion. And then I noticed there was an extra level of it as a woman painter. Like, you probably couldn’t make anything really meaningful anyway, maybe good for a girl. So, how to break through that membrane is part of what has formed the way I paint; what I am doing technically, but also even the imagery, like the big hook. A hook to get you in or a hook to catch or almost a desperate tentacle reaching out trying to grab someone or something, even if it hurts you, you know?
Rail: You have this fascinating hook in Precarious Persuasion (2022) that is hanging over differently scaled fish that are rendered completely differently; a hyper-realistic or naturalistic register over this intense patterning.
Smith: Yeah, that painting is—I don't know, it stands for a lot of different things for me. I don’t expect every viewer to get this [laughs], but it’s a metaphor for light and painting and how light behaves in indirect oil painting specifically, how it will go through all the different layers and bounce back, and why oil paintings can have this jewel-like surface. In other works in the show, I’m utilizing that strategy to make the paintings function. But in this case, I’m almost illustrating that as a kind of a metaphorical circumstance. Those little fish at the bottom are almost like pigments suspended in a medium. But then I also am doing something that’s about different kinds of precarity. You’ve got this deadly-looking hook, but it’s got a mouth that’s kind of screaming, so maybe it’s afraid. Then you’ve got these fish who are probably about to be hooked, but they’ve got teeth. So, maybe they’re aggressive? There’s this very weird tension of who’s in a more precarious position. And I painted that work with really bright colors, almost garish, popping pigments, which I love to use, and I think is also a precarious thing to do. Not necessarily the palette of “Hey, look, take me seriously,” and so there’s a kind of precarity to going there.
Rail: I think because of the scaling, the overlapping of the fish—what I mean is both that they’re fish, which would have scales, but also they are creating scales of themselves—they wind up being super dynamic in this kind of strange way, almost like fish-Tetris or something like that.
Smith: There’s different kinds of spaces, right? There’s isometric perspective, where things are stacked, but we would still perceive them as trying to illustrate something being in space or not. The other funny thing is how that painting plays around with the synthetic. Even the painted metal of the hook is, I mean, obviously it’s paint, but it’s painted to look like it’s shiny and metallic. And that is probably the only painting in the show that was painted from life.
Rail: Oh, tell me more about that.
Smith: I have an actual treble hook, which is what that three-pronged hook is called. I painted the background, I painted the fish, I kind of figured out the spatial situation. I had the hook, and I was holding it up in front of the painting to render the correct perspective and shape and everything. And then I photographed the hook, with my phone, holding it up in front of my painting. Then I had the hook the way I wanted it, and then I could paint it. I don’t believe I used such a relatively traditional, direct observation process with anything else in the show.
Rail: If you see that painting in the gallery, you might sense that, but then everything is so bordering on surrealist, if not surrealist, that you might not believe that it could be real. I think it also reminds me of one of those fair games where you bring the hook down and try to grab something and it never works because the game is rigged. And that feels somehow appropriate to talk about painting, you know? The game is rigged, but is it rigged for or against painting or for or against the viewer?
Smith: A million times yes, like totally. I think about that all the time. Feast and Famine is also about gatekeeping. We have a rigged situation, and we have this gatekeeper: who’s the viewer and who’s the viewed? And who’s allowed into this game of art history?
I hear from all different kinds of people, whether in person or Instagram, or on the Internet, at different levels of perceiving different things in the work. And I love that. I like the idea that there’s something to apprehend here for you. It doesn’t have to be everything that I’m saying it is to me. One of my teachers in graduate school said, “Oh, the only for sure thing in painting is that nobody’s ever gonna get one hundred percent out of it, what you think you’re putting in.” And it’s like, wow, that’s dark. But also, kind of true. And when you throw time into the mix, they can get something so outside of what you ever thought you were painting. I love pre-Raphaelite painters and symbolist painters, and weird late-nineteenth-century academic paintings gone kind of awry. Those paintings are sometimes depicting something so much bigger than the artist even knew that they were doing. Like the William Holman Hunt painting of The Lady of Shalott (1888–1905), he thought he was painting this tale—I think he was very hardcore Christian—and he thought he was painting this moralistic tale of what happens to a woman when she has fallen. And a fallen woman, well, you could fall by just looking at something wrong, or behaving inappropriately or whatever—and he’s painted this incredible painting of this fallen woman. But what he’s also painted is the prison-like condition of femininity in the late-nineteenth-century Victorian imagination. He thought he was doing some kind of moralistic Arthurian tale, but he ended up painting an entire societal condition. And I love that painting. It’s so strange.
Rail: Do you go to museums? When you're thinking about The Lady of Shalott or you’re thinking about Gerrit Dou, do you go and look at the painting, or do you look at a reproduction?
Smith: Both, it depends. There are works that I’m not going to have access to, or I’ve never seen, but I see in some other way in a book or something. And then I feel compelled to work with them and think about them. If I’m able, I want to see everything in person. The ability to travel and go see things is such an incredible privilege. And it’s not something I’ve always had: I grew up in very rural, very isolated, Southwest Texas. I didn’t get on an airplane until I was eighteen. I never saw much artwork outside of a museum in the state of Texas until I was practically an adult. I was like someone who was art-starving, and now I just want to see it all and interact with it all.
Rail: What about living in New York City? What about the city’s museums and galleries? How was that for you when you first came here?
Smith: In college I lived in Austin, which is a small city. It was relatively cosmopolitan, but when I was there, it didn’t have a big art scene. But there were plenty of people making contemporary art and talking and there was a lot of flow to and from New York, because there were a lot of teachers at the university who were either former New Yorkers or were going back and forth. And I always gravitated to those people. I started visiting New York when I was about twenty or twenty-one, going to galleries, going to openings, checking stuff out, and sort of getting myself together. And then ultimately, when I decided to apply to graduate school, I only applied to Columbia. Because I just wanted to live in New York, and I just was going to apply to school where I wanted to live. This otherwise would have been such a difficult move for me, and the decision to go to graduate school was also just a way to get here—I took out an unbelievable amount of student loans to pay for the enterprise. There was no other way I was going to pay for transporting and starting my life here. How was I going to move to the city and have a place to work? Also, I always had a job since I was fourteen or fifteen. And when I moved to New York to go to graduate school, it was the first time I didn't have a job, ever. It was like my job is to be here and go to school. And that was really weird. At that time most of the galleries were in Chelsea, there was a tiny burgeoning Lower East Side scene, but it hadn’t exploded yet. And the Tribeca revival hadn’t happened yet. So also going to see artwork was a relatively centralized activity, because you could pretty much go to Chelsea and see most of what was happening.
So, I eased into it. I had a lot of time doing visits and little trips to New York before I moved. Much of the culture shock was really class-based for me. I don’t think I had ever lived somewhere where simultaneously so many people were so extraordinarily privileged and also so many people were so extraordinarily underprivileged, just that huge range. And then how class and regionalism were playing out in what was happening in graduate school and elsewhere was heavy. That was really hard. People made fun of my name all the time. Emily Mae from Texas? Where’s your horse? Stuff like that. It was cruel. And there was a lot of animosity because of the George Bush presidency and all this stuff that I obviously didn’t have anything to do with. Somehow it was my fault? I was hurt too, because I felt that I was very intellectually prepared and creatively prepared to have these difficult discussions and talk about critical theory and do all this grad school stuff. And people kept treating me like I was not capable, you know, like, “Oh, you can't be in this group discussion we're having because you’re probably an idiot. We've decided.”
Rail: Yeah, because you have a middle name. Who’s parochial here?
Smith: That was really shocking. I think I've been here almost twenty years. Almost gotten over it. Where I’m from, for the people who wanted to be artists and get involved in the art scene, you really had to go East Coast or West Coast. You were going to choose a coast. I just felt more interested in East Coast and, it’s closer to Europe, and I wanted to travel more, and I had friends who were living in Europe. I wanted to see things.
I’m so glad people who live here or are traveling here are going to go see my paintings in person, because they’ve always been meant to be seen in the real. We’ve had this pandemic and part of the explosion of the art industry is that it is also a digital industry, but I think people lose sight of the fact that these are paintings first and foremost, and they’re very much about painting and being paintings. I really had to struggle to justify why paint, again because of the time that I was going to school and what kinds of arts discourses we were having. To be able to have that more intimate and sensual experience with actual light bouncing off that painting into your eyeballs is important to me. It guided what I would make to put in this show. Because I wanted to talk about the material and the light and the kind of conditions of creating inside and around this medium. And then to do that knowing people could come see in person—it’s totally different, I think, to be with the object.
Rail: In your current install, the painting that does that the most is Ginkgo Eater (2022). I was there at around 4:30, and the way that the light was hitting it, it just became very clear how intensely complex that painting is. The different layers that you’re dealing with, and not just thinking about fat over lean and stuff like that, but also the way that you’re developing the leaf pattern is exceptionally difficult to work out for the non-practitioner. I was there for quite some time, because every time I figured out which was the last layer, I realized that I had no idea what I was thinking, and I had gotten way too cocky. And I had to step back from it again.
Smith: Oh my God, you saw so much. I’m just so thrilled and touched. That painting is just so much about the delight of the game, of the layering. Part of it is done in grisaille with transparent glazes, part of it’s not. And, like you said, it’s about working out what to paint first. And then in what order. Yeah, that’s awesome. You saw it.
Rail: It was almost like a textile experience, when you’re trying to figure out what’s warp and what’s weft, and how is this woven? And how do I unravel it?
Smith: Oh, my God, thank you.
Rail: I think that’s a smart painting to include the licking tongue because that’s what you want the person to do in front of the paint, not to actually lick the painting, but to relish it, to really ruminate on it and to try to figure it out.
Smith: Yes. The cascade of the color and the light coming down the space—the tongue is going to deliciously lick the wonderful substance that is the painting. And then the physical part, the mouth is bound by the edges of the painting so that it’s enjoying itself, this Möbius loop of pleasure.
Rail: That’s a very sticky situation. It was fun to walk around the show too, just to see several of your broom paintings. I was struck by the different costumes that the brooms are wearing and had a bunch of different thoughts. Is this a stand-in for you? Is this a stand-in for this figure from a famous painting? Obviously, yes, possibly to both. But then I really started thinking about how the broom could almost kind of be like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, this utterly charming being who goes through not just life, but lifetimes, and is able then to be this seducer or seductress and, in the broom’s case, is therefore able to live simultaneously in multiple guises and in multiple time periods. I loved this idea of developing that story of the broom as a lover and then figuring out: a lover of what? A lover of paint, a lover of painting, is that a brush? Is it able to be phallic while at the same time being female? How do you feel about something like that, about me developing this narrative for it?
Smith: All of those points are so much a part of what that object/being is supposed to be doing. It is in some way me, but more in an avatar sense. Even more in the sense that it occupies conditions that I’m interested in, or it behaves in my interest in the situation of the painting. In Beholder (2022), for example, we have a very famous theme—a woman in a window—which we’ve seen in quite a bit of art history and as a sort of touchstone of what paintings look like and do. Through time, we start to understand that the woman in the window is really no woman at all; she’s a sort of container of the projections of the creator or the viewer. The woman in the window is not a person, it’s often just a repository for the need to control and allegory for power dynamics and sometimes subjugation. You know, in a lot of those Dutch paintings, one of the famous themes is the lazy maid. Like, let’s make fun of maids.
Rail: They don’t have a hard enough job.
Smith: Yeah, maids don’t work hard enough. And we really don’t have any respect for women anyway, especially ones who have to work, yuck. So placing the broom in that space is to turn the mirror back onto the genre and say, you’re just painting castration anxiety. Here’s the phallus; we can put it back in the painting so that this anxiety can go away, so that then we can move on, into new territories of subjectivity being expressed in painting. I read Orlando last year. I was thinking about it a lot with my last show, and I think this show is starting to be able to present more complex ideas from the last show that are carried through into this one. And the broom is a brush. It’s also a sweeper or a cleaner. It is also a gleaner, like the gleaner of what’s been cast aside in our canon of art history, going back and sweeping up and gathering what was cast off (like ornamentalism) in our great march to Modernism and saying, wait a minute, I think we left some important scraps back there, can we go pick those up and bring them forward because I think they’re going to help us. I get to do things in paint with this form that I would find hard to explore otherwise. Sometimes it’s straw, sometimes it’s hair that forms the kind of pants or the legs. It’s one of the only places where I am doing expressive brushwork, because so much of the paintings is controlling light and image and form in a way that it doesn't make sense to do with expressionistic mark making. There’s a repository of all the ways to paint inside the broom, as well. The legs are crazy expressive lines, and then the body is just a gradient form. And then it’s available for all this work, this tool, which really is a tool.
Most people in the art world are not comfortable with or even have experience with class strata. It’s often skipped over that the broom is a domestic servant, a laborer. There’s a lot about the discourse of labor, and it’s so interesting how in the art world, because we work in rarefied echelons and are so often talking about a marketplace and there’s so much money involved, that it’s the thing that people are still afraid of: class.
Rail: Speaking of that, Gabriela Rangel, one of the authors in your monograph, had this observation that I thought was just spectacular. She pointed out that in several of your broom paintings, there is also a dormant broom, a broom that is—I don’t want to say merely a tool but is also just an object. As far as we know, it’s not sentient. I was thinking about that when you were talking about class, about this idea of who has agency, or who might feel that they do versus people who perhaps don’t feel that they have agency and how that might then inform our understandings of class constructs. And the way that the relationship between those two brooms in a single painting could operate.
Smith: There’s a sort of becoming-animated and moving toward escaping circumstance. There’s one painting where it’s as if the broom has come alive and is peeking outside of the closet to maybe put on some shoes and make an escape. It’s an interesting observation that the issue is more legible in the double broom paintings. I’m going to think about that some more.
Rail: It’s a remarkable thing that you’ve happened upon.
Smith: It’s really remarkable, this little tool. It also helped me get to where I wanted to go with all the paintings that don’t incorporate the broom body. I think these ideas have been in my work for a long time. I think that my work is more object oriented and still life than it is figurative. These objects become vehicles to do all those jobs.
Rail: I was curious to ask you about the broom’s posture. I could recognize the paintings that they’re from, but they don’t necessarily have the posture of the figures that are in the paintings. A lot of the postures reminded me of fashion models; there’s a certain slouch to your brooms that quite frankly, even a lazy maid would not have had in the Baroque period. I don’t think she could have had, depending on what sort of undergarments she was wearing. What’s going on with the slouch?
Smith: I guess it’s part of the twist of the broom not doing labor or doing other labor or doing totally unexpected labor. It is not erect and at attention. It’s also the soft phallus. So, it’s a kind of a feminizing sort of position, not a turgid, erect form. Sometimes the position is more like a fashion model type thing; that high fashion slouch: rolled, curved-over shoulders. I’m sure I just absorbed that culturally.
The one that is slouching in the chair in the painting A Candle Makes its Own Fuel (2022) is sitting in a room based on a Pieter de Hooch painting. That de Hooch room has a mother nursing a baby and an older child playing with a dog on the floor, almost imitating the mother nursing the baby. It’s literally domestic grooming. The broom in the chair has completely had it. It can’t even sit up straight or care, no work will be done. It’s the end times, and it’s on fire. It’s totally lacking the feminine perfection that the historical painting was setting up.
I’ve had so many weird gender conversations around this broom-figure-object-body-thing. I had so many people say, “Look at that one. It’s a man.” And I'm like, “Oh, really? Why? Like, why do you think so?” And they say, “Oh, the way it’s sitting, or whatever.” Of course, you know, it’s not, because it’s all a construct. And it’s a painting, it’s not even a broom. I just think that it’s interesting: what kind of architecture it recalls for behavior and for body positions, and how we attach that to gendered bodies or notions.
Rail: It does have both this Ur female and Ur male situation happening.
Smith: There was a nineties Versace book I really liked, called Men Without Ties. I found it in the dumpster room of an artist’s studio building, an artist I used to work for. It was around 2012, and I was cutting it up and making collages out of it because I was doing painting constructs in which I was trying to think through the idea, is the painting itself gendered before we even come to it?
Rail: Oh, that’s a good question.
Smith: Because of framing, and because of the kind of white patriarchy that’s gate-kept this thing of “Painting,” it’s not neutral at all, it is rigged before we get there. There was something interesting going on in this Versace book with gender and power inversions and bendings, and I was trying to incorporate that into the physical body of a painting itself, which is sort of where the mouth frame with teeth comes from. Originally, the mouth work points out the rigid square, the patriarchal framework in which one is then supposed to work inside of painting. But who gets excluded from being able to contribute and make meaning in the medium, who gets chewed up—
Rail: —and spit out?
Smith: Over time, I started bending the rectangle of that mouth to transform the frame. There is something about having digested a lot of images of people in catalogs and magazines. It’s probably the first stuff I spent a lot of time looking at because where I grew up the only access to high culture was fashion magazines in the grocery store. In the 1990s, Harper’s Bazaar was doing interesting articles on artists. I was in high school, and that was the first time I saw contemporary women artists where there were articles about them, and images of them, and it totally blew my mind. Later on, I ended up meeting the writer—Jim Lewis—who did those articles, and I was like, “Oh, my God. You changed my life.” I was joking but also not! It was very strange. Totally pre-internet image circulation, visual culture stuff.
Rail: It’s a strange thing to put yourself back in that mental space and to think, “Oh, I have to save that magazine because how will I ever see that image again?”
Smith: Yeah, we used to have stacks of magazines. What a funny world that was. Strange time to be alive. It’s cool to traverse that territory.
Rail: I’ll end on a stupid question, how about that? I noticed that when the brooms face away from us, they have eyelashes, but when they face towards us, they don’t. I was curious about that. Why is it that they get to bat their eyelashes at us when they’re not facing us?
Smith: I guess it is a kind of formal thing: how do you know what direction this tube is looking if you can’t see a facial feature? And when it’s not looking at us, it’s important. Like Barbara Krueger’s Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face (1981).
There’s one I’m working on in my studio now where there’s a full decapitation. But the broom head is turning around looking at itself from the decapitated perspective. As I’m looking at it right now, I’m thinking it needs an eyelash, because you just can’t tell the gaze direction otherwise. And that’s how I’m going to do it, with the eyelash. It’s something that dumb sometimes, you know. But yeah, just a little line. How efficient.
My partner Adam, who’s an artist, saw it and he said, “This painting is going to hinge on what the decapitation surface looks like. Is that a bloody stump?” I’m like, oh, no, I think I know what it’s gonna be. It’s not gonna be a bloody stump. It’s gonna be something else. You’ll see.
Rail: But now you’re like, ooh, bloody stump.
Smith: There is a lot of blood in this Petzel show for sure! I think this one is a little more magic like the Gustave Moreau painting of a floating head, L’Apparition (1876). I think that’s one of the great symbolist paintings. It is in a way, more and more about some kind of escape of the self.
Rail: So, it could be like gushing blood, but the blood is actually like rubies.
Smith: Or gushing light, I think like that—the interior is perhaps more magical than we assumed.