studio visit, brooklyn
interview by MAURIZIO CATTELAN
portrait by ALEX ANTITCH
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — How would you define yourself: two-dimensional or three-dimensional?
EMILY MAE SMITH — I think of my work as two-dimensional. They are paintings, and though they are concerned with the world, they are pictures that depend on how we see and understand images.
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — And what about you?
EMILY MAE SMITH — I am a painter.
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — How do you see things, really?
EMILY MAE SMITH — I often see a disconnect between the way I know / believe the world to be, and the way the world is presented to me. I often wonder whose subconscious desires and anxieties are being played out in the world. It gives me a disassociated alien perspective sometimes. I think that allows me to see new juxtapositions I can paint.
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — Did the Internet change our perception of objects?
EMILY MAE SMITH — The Internet seems to have a flattening effect, but it is possible that this is part of a greater perception shift already derived from globalization. Like any other institution, it affects the way we consume art. Sometimes that’s a tragedy; sometimes that’s extremely useful. I don’t place a moral or value judgment on it.
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — Are you inspired by the past?
EMILY MAE SMITH — I’m game for anything from the history of visual culture.
I have a profound love for painting. Seeing old paintings is a total party for me, and visual strategies from the past are useful tools in my work. Some past ideas (not to mention present ones) are terrifying, and therefore also a form of inspiration. Nostalgia, however, is a different story. I want to avoid that in my work.
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — From which artists do you draw the most inspiration?
EMILY MAE SMITH — It is an ever-changing sea, but here’s today’s list: Ingres. His figures and flesh are not human. Art Nouveau illustration. Magritte. Forever. His works on paper are really biting, pointed, political, hilarious, and absurd. Picabia. An enfant terrible. I enjoy his relationship to “vulgarity.” Christina Ramberg, Barbara Rossi. These are female artists from the Chicago Imagists scene.
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — Where are you now?
EMILY MAE SMITH — I’m at my studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It’s probably one of the last industrial buildings in the neighborhood. They all eventually become condominium complexes. Gentrification is on hyper-speed again, like in the pre-Great-Recession days. However, I love this studio; it’s changed my life. I have a wall of windows and high ceilings, like in an old factory.
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — What do you think will happen there in 15 years?
EMILY MAE SMITH — I don’t know. I’ve had to move studios almost every two years. I’ve been in NYC for
11 years. It’s always changing here — for better or for worse, who knows? Williamsburg is like the new TriBeCa or something. Maybe all the artists will go upstate or to Jersey City. Or maybe all the New York artists will start off wealthy and have no concern on this matter. And then there won’t be any more marginalized people here as artists. I worry about it.
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — What shoes are you wearing?
EMILY MAE SMITH — Chinese Laundry black velour work boots.
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — How much does your private life influence your paintings?
EMILY MAE SMITH — A lot. My private life partially shapes my worldview, which shapes my paintings. In addition to my ideas, I put my positive and negative emotional energies, crazed tension, jokes, anxieties into the work. I don’t want to speak for others, but
I think the situations in my artwork are not only personal, but bigger than me. There is also my relationship with Adam, which gives me excitement. We are both artists; we bounce ideas off each other and dialogue all the time. Having that has allowed me to take risks and be bolder in my paintings.
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — That sounds dangerous. Don’t you feel like sometimes you could copy each other’s ideas, even if unintentionally?
EMILY MAE SMITH — No, that is not a concern. My work and his work are very different.
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — What are you working on now?
EMILY MAE SMITH — Some paintings of large faces, but the face is not really human. They are psychological portraits for the broom character that has been appearing in my paintings as the protagonist for the past year and a half. I am also expanding the satirical mouth motif from my smaller paintings into larger, more complex works.
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — How do you come up with these images?
EMILY MAE SMITH — Honestly, they almost always present themselves to me fully formed in my mind. Then I draw the image/idea and figure out how to bring it to life as a painting. The mechanics of the painting are part technical process, part discovery. Ultimately, I need the painting to serve my initial vision to be successful.
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — What is your relationship with brooms?
EMILY MAE SMITH — It started with my laboring in the art world, doing random jobs to get by while making my work. I thought, “I feel
like that broom in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” And then the ideas took off from there. I liberated them from the film’s menial
labor and reproduction role. Increasingly, I am making close-up paintings of my broom’s face, which is starting to look like a tube being and bears no reference to any broom, except one of my own invention. It’s also kind of a mop at this point; it might become another creature soon. It’s an avatar. The broom is also a way to address painting the figure in a reflexive way. With it, I can talk about the gaze, subjectivity, power, authorship, the phallic nature of art. You can say more difficult things with a character. The broom is my little Tom Thumb, traipsing through a painting, getting into trouble.
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — If you were not an artist, would you be a dentist?
EMILY MAE SMITH — You must be asking that because of the mouth paintings. I never thought dentist per se. I can imagine surgeon or carpenter as options. I love working with my hands, problem-solving, mechanical things, using tools.
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — Is The Studio a real place or is it just in your mind?
EMILY MAE SMITH — It’s both. It’s the place where the artist works; it’s the social construct under which the art exists and the artist labors. For Warhol, it was The Factory. For me, The Studio is a more private and fraught place. And then because I take myself so seriously, I have to laugh at myself, too. The Studio can become a parody.
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — Who is this ass?
EMILY MAE SMITH — It’s a slippery signifier. The ass is sometimes a tragic figure, the butt of the painting’s joke. In certain paintings that emphasize dynamics of power and control, it means the corporeal body. In some of the newer paintings, the ass is the sassy aggressor, like a comedian, blowing smoke and gas in the face of an adversary. There is a cartoon drawing by Magritte in a 1939 letter he sent to Louis Scutenaire, which features a figure, pants down around the ankles, Belgian helmet perched above the behind, and a puff of air with bullets coming from the exposed ass. Below it is written “face à l’ennemi” [facing the enemy].
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — Have you ever tried to paint realistically?
EMILY MAE SMITH — Yes. Some of my paintings have realistic elements. The bricks in the painting Scream (2015) are an interesting case. I painted some realistic facts about bricks in the work — they have texture, light on them, and so on. However, I painted them entirely from imagination. I didn’t want to look at a real wall while I made it.
I walk by real and faux brick walls every day in Brooklyn, and I just absorbed the idea of them. The fact that faux bricks exist to emulate some authenticity of real bricks, which are an impoverished material, is absurd. Painting them this way seemed more “real.”
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — Scientists are exploring the fourth dimension, while you are going back to the two-dimensional. What do you find so fascinating about flatness?
EMILY MAE SMITH — It took me a long time to add more flatness to my paintings.
I increasingly have emptied them out, trying to remove anything that is not essential. It’s been part of my maturing process. That has allowed me to focus and direct the viewer’s attention more clearly. I could make more pointed statements and be funnier — rawer — this way. So, flatness has a lot to do with focus for me, like concentrating a laser. I like a certain amount of limitation. I love science; it’s kind of my hobby.
Somehow, that fourth-dimension type of wonder is inside the painting for me. The constraints of flatness and the boundaries of painting seem to open up more possibilities to me.
MAURIZIO CATTELAN — Why do you make art?
EMILY MAE SMITH — I just have to.
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