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  • Overview

    Painted in 2018, Emily Mae Smith’s Alien Shores portrays an anthropomorphic broomstick figure – the artist’s signature avatar – looking outward towards a surrealist horizon. Gushing with deep, saccharine colours, the composition demonstrates Smith’s commanding ability to conjure an intelligible image with only formal suggestions: uncertain forms, subtly morphing hues, and a space devoid of place and time. Although she has been creating work continuously for the past two decades, Smith cannot be tied to a specific category or genre of painting. Her figurative work instead positions itself amidst a myriad different styles, spanning Pop, surrealism (as envisaged by the movement’s forefathers, but also as later interpreted by the Chicago Imagists), portraiture, and satire. With each work, the artist forcibly steps into a tradition of painting that has relegated women to the sidelines for centuries, using humour as a framework from which to build her imaginative visual universe. Currently the subject of significant commercial and critical attention, Smith was the subject of a solo exhibition at the Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, last year, and is once again at the heart of an institutional show at the SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, running until 1 January 2021.  'Literally, a broom is a tool, but it's also this visual tool that communicates stories and ideas in my paintings. This agent, like some kind of secret agent, going through the history of art, disturbing constructs, making some trouble, or behaving badly, but is never doing the work of the broom. The broom is never sweeping!' —Emily Mae Smith 

    In the melancholic scene that is set out for Alien Shores, Smith selects a household object to fill a role that, in a legacy of similarly themed paintings, would have traditionally been cast female. Complicating the viewer’s traditional understanding of notions of subjecthood and musedom, Smith thus inscribes herself within a lineage of artists who similarly employed iconographic symbols to convey wider-reaching truths – namely corporeality to signify gender-related complexities. Specifically, Smith’s Alien Shores recalls Christina Ramberg’s enigmatic renderings of hair, torsos and fragmented limbs encased in lace or tightened by corsetry, which investigate notions of fetishisation and the male gaze. Yet, realising the extent to which women alter their bodies to meet male expectations of how beauty should be embodied, Smith departs from the depiction of human bodies entirely, turning to humour to reveal her subject matter’s deeper ramifications. ‘That’s like how comedians work. They tell you really painful truths about the world as a joke’, the artist said. ‘Letting the humor come out was this big turning point, and then finding appropriate vehicles to create series helped me, too, because I could just keep digging. That’s when the broom appears’.i 

     

     

    Detail of the present work
    Detail of the present work

     

    The Broomstick as a Metaphor

     

    Further elucidating the origins of ther broomstick figure, Smith explained: ‘It initially came while I was re-watching Disney’s Fantasia, specifically that sequence when the broom is bewitched by the sorcerer's apprentice. It was just performing the labor, completely unappreciated for doing all the hard work in making the sorcerer’s castle function. I so deeply identified, not only as a female but just as a working class person. As a person who grew up working. […] So I was like, “Oh, that broom. I’m the broom. We're all the broom. Well, some people aren't.” When the broom got free, it started to do interesting things. Sometimes it looks more like a mop, sometimes it looks more like a paintbrush; and attributes of the broom become visible in other objects’.ii Merging notions of femininity, domesticity, and pictorial magic, Alien Shores embodies Smith’s idea that creativity in the hands of a female figure becomes inherently adversary, standing against centuries of painterly tradition. By endowing the female body with the deeply unsensuous and unglamorous form of a broom, which conveys all the complexities of gendered social standings, Smith successfully eludes the traps of representation that have plagued the canon of Western art history for centuries, and enables a playful basis from which to envisage the genre of portraiture. With its traditional-made-pastiche subject matter, Alien Shores dismantles pervasive parameters whereby female subjects fall victim to the audience’s voyeuristic gaze.

      

    Emily Mae Smith in Conversation

     

    In a 2019 interview with JUXTAPOZ Magazine, Emily Mae Smith revealed how her idiosyncratic visual language came about, elucidating namely the origins of her hallmark broomstick figure.

     

    JUXTAPOZ: I was about to ask about the themes in your work. A lot of them are about feminism, gender roles, and women's position in modern society.

     

    Emily Mae Smith: I remember being in school thinking, “Okay, I’m kind of interested in this stuff. I’m just painting the way I see things, my ideas. I’m a painter. Don't call me a feminist. I'm a painter first.” Over time, I think, in my adult life, I experienced a lot of class struggle, so eventually, even though I grew up relatively privileged, I started to realize really how deeply ingrained a lot of the struggles were, and how deeply buried those things were in gender. At first, I started to address that through humor.


    J: Humor, you mean like a caricature or something?

     

    EMS: Yeah, because, at the time, I thought this reality is invisible to other people. If I paint it, it becomes visible. That’s like how comedians work. They tell you really painful truths about the world as a joke. They make you laugh or reveal it in a way that brings you into their world rather than making you afraid, so you come at these issues with humor. I had kind of repressed that in my art, so it was like a revelation. Finally, I could paint things that were really horribly painful without feeling super self-indulgent or giving into some romantic notion of the artist as carrier of the world’s pain. I could make more about states of being, conditions in society, and how they're connected to aesthetic conditions. Letting the humor come out was this big turning point, and then finding appropriate vehicles to create series helped me, too, because I could just keep digging. That's when the broom appears.


    J: Yes, the broom. Please tell us a bit more, as it’s probably your most recognized image.

     

    EMS: Literally, a broom is a tool, but it’s also this visual tool that communicates stories and ideas in my paintings. This agent, like some kind of secret agent, going through the history of art, disturbing constructs, making some trouble, or behaving badly, but is never doing the work of the broom. The broom is never sweeping! It initially came while I was re-watching Disney’s Fantasia, specifically that sequence when the broom is bewitched by the sorcerer’s apprentice. It was just performing the labor, completely unappreciated for doing all the hard work in making the sorcerer's castle function. I so deeply identified, not only as a female but just as a working class person. As a person who grew up working. I've had a job since I was 14, but I also went to school, so I’m very lucky to benefit from education but also be a working person. So I was like, “Oh, that broom. I’m the broom. We’re all the broom. Well, some people aren’t.” When the broom got free, it started to do interesting things. Sometimes it looks more like a mop, sometimes it looks more like a paintbrush; and attributes of the broom become visible in other objects.

     

    Read the rest of the interview here.

     

    i Emily Mae Smith, quoted in ‘Emily Mae Smith: A Clean Sweep’, JUXTAPOZ Magazine, 6 May 2019, online.
    ii Emily Mae Smith, quoted in ‘Emily Mae Smith: A Clean Sweep’, JUXTAPOZ Magazine, 6 May 2019, online.

    • Provenance

      Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin
      Private Collection, Europe (acquired from the above)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Berlin, Contemporary Fine Arts, Emily Mae Smith: Feast of Totems, 8 June – 14 July 2018

    • Literature

      'Emily Mae Smith: Meditations and Fantasies', Elemmental, 18 October 2018, online (illustrated)

Property from a Private Collection, U.S.A.

1

Alien Shores

signed and dated 'Emily MS 2018' on the reverse
oil on linen
137.2 x 116.8 cm (54 x 46 in.)
Painted in 2018.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
£40,000 - 60,000 

Sold for £277,200

Contact Specialist

Kate Bryan
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4026
[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 20 October 2020