Emily Mae Smith - 20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design Day Sale in association with Yongle Hong Kong Tuesday, November 29, 2022 | Phillips

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  • “When I discovered it, I loved the idea that this word – ‘The Studio’ – would encapsulate everything you needed to know about art in some way […] The Studio becomes a container for me to write new myths and new stories.”
    —Emily Mae Smith
    Born in 1979, Emily Mae Smith is a Brooklyn-based visual artist from Austin, Texas, who has captured the attention of the artworld with her lively compositions that nod to art historical allusions with a twist. The present work, The Studio (Horror Vacui) is fresh to the auction market. Painted in 2018, the moody composition depicts a desert landscape at dusk, illuminated by both the sun and moon positioned almost in total eclipse. The landscape setting is framed by a dark border that resembles the shape of a window or portal, conjuring optical fantasies of illusionism as Smith critically manipulates traditional framing devices to beckon the viewer in.


    In the foreground, the silhouetted forms of an hourglass, Banksy-esque rodents, and tall stems of wheat are outlined in the same shade of dusty red that spell out ‘THE STUDIO’ at the top of the work. Taking from the work’s title, the phrase is often seen inscribed on Smith’s compositions, as she uses it to both point towards the physical location where she labours at her paintings, as well as draws from its symbolism to recall wider ideas about places of creation. In her first institutional solo show held at Le Consortium, Dijon in 2019, Smith dedicated a room to a selection of these ‘Studio’ pieces, which she has continued to work on since 2014. Presenting an enormous range in the art historical touchstones referenced, including the monthly fine arts periodical titled The Studio, founded by Charles Holme in 1892, they are united as a body of works by the obvious inclusion of the text, and by the broader ideas that Smith finds embedded in the concept of ‘The Studio’ itself.


    ‘Horror Vacui’, on the other hand, takes from the Greek phrase kenophobia, meaning ‘fear of the empty’. Used in visual art to describe the filling of the entire surface of a space or artwork with detail, ‘horror vacui’ has been explored throughout art history by artists including Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, and Jean Duvet, who overloaded their work with rich, congested detail.



    Left: Aubrey Beardsley, Design for the first issue of ‘The Studio’ An Illustrated Magazine of the Fine and Applied Arts, No. 30, September 1895, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
    Image: V&A Images / Alamy Stock Photo

    Right: Jean Duvet, The Fall of Babylon from the Apocalypse series, circa 1555, Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
    Image: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Graphic Arts Council Fund in memory of Hilda Hunter (M.73.13)

    Contrastingly, whilst Smith’s Horror Vacui situates together a variety of details, the surreal combination instead evokes an air of ambiguity which invites Smith’s viewers on a hunt of sorts to try and bridge the clues. For the present work’s reference to the passing of time against a twilight background, the surreal clock landscapes of Salvador Dalí spring to mind. The typeface of the text, on the other hand, is not dissimilar to that of 70s album cover art. Weaving together visual wit, personal iconography, and a wealth of allusion, the present painting is loaded with ideas that Smith reworks with an acute graphic sensibility, perfectly exemplifying her unique ability to delve deeply into the formation of subjectivity.


    Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory, 1931
    Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
    Image: © The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence,
    Artwork: © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2022

    Currently the subject of significant commercial and institutional attention, Emily Mae Smith has received important solo exhibitions around the globe, including at the Le Consortium, Dijon in 2018, Perrotin Gallery, Tokyo in 2019, the SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah in 2020, and Rodolphe Janssen Gallery, Brussels, in 2021. Most recently, Smith presented her first solo exhibition in Paris in October 2021 and her first monograph was recently published by Petzel Gallery.


    Her work belongs to multiple public collections, including the Whitey Museum of American Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, among others.

    • Provenance

      Galerie Rodolphe Janssen, Brussels
      Private Collection
      Acquired from the above by the present owner


The Studio (Horror Vacui)

signed and dated 'Emily 2018' on the reverse
oil on linen
62.2 x 45.7 cm. (24 1/2 x 17 7/8 in.)
Painted in 2018.

Full Cataloguing

HK$400,000 - 600,000 

Sold for HK$630,000

Contact Specialist

Danielle So
Specialist, Head of Day Sale
+852 2318 2027

20th Century & Contemporary Art & Design Day Sale in association with Yongle

Hong Kong Auction 30 November 2022