Best of "Kin": New Works by Emily Mae Smith
We suggest you spend Halloween at New York City’s Simone Subal gallery in order to catch the spell of Emily Mae Smith and a coven of canny creatures in celebration of the closing night of her show Kin. Known for her anthropomorphic broom, which functions as a Swiss Army Knife with a brain, Smith creates a modern mythology, alluding to traditional tropes and cultural tradition, all presented in a satiny seduction. Like Cindrella, sweeping away with her broom, Smith’s subjects are used to working closely with Mother Earth and all her creatures, including the mighty mice who appear in Kin. In portraying traditional symbols of wheat and gingko leaves, Smith alludes to the fortitude of flora, fauna and the feminine, as well as their strength. But this is no peaceful pastoral. The images gleam like shiny objects, but look behind that sheen, and there’s a glorious grit. You just never know what’s behind the mask.
Known for using certain images, not for their explicit appearance or meaning but for their qualities and atmosphere they evoke, Smith is often composing humorous and highly appealing scenes while concealing sly feminist agenda elements within. So while the images of wheat, harvest mice, and ginkgo leaves might seem to be used for the construction of harmonious, nature-glorifying compositions, they've been also the oldest known surviving species on the planet and hence, the fitting allegory for the subjects that the artist is interested in. At the same time, these particular symbols are easily put in a relationship with one of the artist's most iconic characters, a leading role and a form of alter ego of sorts, the “broom lady." Made from otherwise worthless hay straws they allude to the conventional ideas of female-oriented domesticity and labor that have been a frequent subject in classical art. But in Smith's pictures, these humanized objects are regularly misbehaving and disobeying the role they were forced into, and can be seen in a moment of leisure, contemplating, or observing the world around them. With eyelashes and pouty lips as a giveaway of what or who they represent, this time they are paired up with wheat mice, an overlooked and neglected but incredibly resistant critter, along with a number of other historic and artistic tropes that fit the narrative she is working with.
It's the unbreakable spirit and nature of these tiny creatures that Smith is referring to in her works, as she depicts them interacting with wheat and thus interfering with the human world and putting its existence in danger. This is arguably, as well as literally, coming to the front view in multi-layered Hair Horizon World (2020), in which little rodents block the view of a stereotypically advanced, industrial landscape. The rich, linear layering of this image breaks apart from a woman face made of ginkgo leaves for hair and round glasses, over mice on wheat silhouettes, all the way to breasts shaped factory structures in the distance. By focusing on a more graphic visual language realized through translucent layers of oil paint, bold outlines, and almost vector-like gradients, Smith accents the urgency of the subject matter. Through such a conspicuous approach, she is creating somewhat of a surreal, timeless, and allegorical warning sign or snapshot evidence of the perpetuating injustice and inequality. —Sasha Bogojev