The Pond Society is pleased to present Habitats, Emily Mae Smith’s first major institutional exhibition in China. Habitats foregrounds Smith’s signature broom figure, which stands in as both her alter-ego, as well as a surrogate to demonstrate her reversal of masculinist pretensions of adopting the female figure as a vehicle for expression, playfully embodying phallic forces. The broom recalls an object often hidden away in the shadows, allegorizing the way many female artists were omitted from art history’s limelight. Throughout her oeuvre, Smith has sought to revise male-dominated art tropes in a pictorial saga that refigures the oft-feminized tool into various canonical and pastoral contexts on her own terms, blending a Surrealist spirit with the flair of Pop Art and her feminist aesthetic. Engaging with subjects such as gender, violence, and capitalism, Habitats furthers Smith’s investigations into the conventions and iconography of the history of painting.
In Habitat, an anthropomorphized broom roams, with its hand pocketed in bristled legs, amidst a wilting wheat field. Its head, pierced by two sticks that support both a squirrel and pink-bellied bird, reveals composure despite an incessant woodpecker deepening a gash at the broom’s side. Not even the rodents scurrying their legs incite fluster. The avatar, though empowered, suggests the inevitable downfall tied to accomplishment.
Nonchalance carries over to A Candle Makes its Own Fuel, which features a broom resting in a tufted desk chair, while its toe, once ablaze, suffuses into smoke. Referencing Pieter de Hooch’s A Woman Nursing an Infant with a Child and a Dog (c. 1658-1660), this work depicts the broom in the stead of a breastfeeding caregiver and replaces de Hooch’s roaring fire with a self-immolating burning, redirecting the energy. A yellow glow emanates from the window, illuminating the foregrounded broom from behind in contre-jour light, a technique that Smith achieves in her emblematic layered washes of color.
In The Apparition, a play on Gustave Moreau’s 1876 painting of the same name, the broom itself becomes the light source, its severed head floating up to look back at itself, redirecting the gaze upon oneself. Here Smith plays with the conditions of visibility that figure so heavily in much of Western art. Her broomstick sitting in a window replaces Gerrit Dou in a take on his painting Self-Portrait, ca. 1665, in a gesture of self-reflection, not only literally but also in the practice of creating paintings about paintings.
In Heretic Lace II, an intricate pattern of rodents and sheaves of wheat decorate a stocking hoisted by a garter belt against a flesh-toned gradient. The patterned imagery further illustrates Smith’s fascination with the gleaner, a subject in Smith’s work since 2018, historically describing a person who gathers what grain is left in a field after a harvest; or, in Smith’s world, picking up the scraps that remain for the women and underdogs. The sheer fabric also intimates at the laborious process through which the painting was made, bringing to life in glazes of paint the tangled filigree of vermin that thinly adorn the stocking wearer.
Precarious Persuasion and A Golden Bough both colorfully punctuate the exhibition. In Precarious Persuasion, a three-pronged fishing hook faces a stand-off with a threatening school of teeth-baring fish set against a sherbet-hued sunset. Similarly, ginkgo leaves fall in ominous moonlight in A Golden Bough. For Smith, the juxtaposition of these characters aptly represents interactions within the structure of indirect painting—an approach Smith uses to attain seamless shifts in color by starting compositions in a monochrome and building up layers of transparent paint through which light can pass. Figuring as a whole, these technical metaphors signify the canvases as existing in the space of painting beyond their confines.
About Emily Mae Smith
Emily Mae Smith was born in 1979 in Austin, Texas. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Recent solo exhibitions include: Petzel Gallery, New York (2022); Galerie Perrotin, Paris (2021); Rodolphe Janssen, Brussels (2021, 2016); Simone Subal Gallery, New York (2020, 2017); SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah (2020); Marion Art Gallery, Rockefeller Arts Center, SUNY Fredonia (2020); Galerie Perrotin, Tokyo (2019); Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford (2019); Le Consortium Museum, Dijon (2018); Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin (2018); Galerie Perrotin (with Genesis Belanger), New York (2018); SALTS (with Adam Henry), Basel (2017); Mary Mary, Glasgow (2016); and Laurel Gitlen, New York (2015). Select group exhibitions include: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (2022); The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Los Angeles (2022); 58th October Salon, Belgrade Biennale, Belgrade (2021); Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus (2021); Arsenal Contemporary, New York (2021); Cleveland Institute of Art, Cleveland (2020); Public Art Fund, New York (2020); Petzel Gallery, New York (2020); Hauser & Wirth, New York (2019); Arsenal art contemporain, Montreal (2019); Gio Marconi, Milan (2019); Peter Freeman Inc., New York (2018); Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York (2018); Lumber Room, Portland, OR (2017); König Galerie, Berlin (2016); The Moore Building, Miami (2015); and Skirball Museum, Cincinnati (2014).
Smith’s work is included in collections such as Arsenal Contemporary, Montreal; Blanton Museum of Art, Austin; The Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn; Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus; The Consortium Museum, Dijon; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas; The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Museum Brandhorst, Munich; Powerlong Art Museum, Shanghai; Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Zuzeum Art Centre, Riga.