This feature article on Emmitt Smith, a recent graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, was commissioned as the 2017 artcritical award at that institution. Now in its third year, this award is given during the Annual Student Exhibition by faculty vote to a graduating MFA student who receives an article in these pages.
Spend a little time talking with artist Emmitt Smith and it quickly becomes apparent how wide-ranging in scope his art practice aims to be. Ten minutes into our studio visit, Smith had already excitedly gushed about the artifice at the core of everything from reality television to Google Maps and the touristy Hilton Head Island (his South Carolina hometown). Somehow, the conversation took a sudden turn to a decidedly less-contemporary topic: the work of Hudson River School painter Frederic Church. Smith quickly grabbed a catalogue and turned to a painting Church made of the Andes from memory, ten years after he had actually visited them. “None of this could really have existed there. The palm trees couldn’t exist at that altitude” Smith gleefully tells me. For Smith, the paintings of Church are yet another instance in which the world becomes simplified, manipulated, repackaged, and then presented back to us as the “real thing”. Smith’s own work doubles both as a catalogue of these altered realities and as an attempt to strike back at our culture’s rampant obsession with manufactured fantasy.
Smith’s recent paintings consider one of the most ubiquitous of scientific artifacts: the map. In Smith’s densely layered canvases, maps are revealed to be less an objective scientific representation than a space of projected fantasy. 1992 (2017) finds Smith repainting the globe from memory (perhaps taking a cue from Church). Smith’s own hand is deeply present in his canvas, and he verges far from any attempts at “correct” map-making. The continents, painted over hazy washes of neon pink and deep purple, form slippery blobs that only vaguely recall their real-life counterparts. If longitudinal and latitudinal lines promise to help situate the viewer in this shaky geography, their undulations ultimately lead further astray. Hidden beneath this disorienting display is barely perceptible thin yellow text, which reads “The Real World.” While Smith may be making a joke here, he is also sincerely asserting that his own distinctively hand-made geography is as “real” as any of the other systems of mapping we are typically accustomed to.
By coyly manipulating the formal aesthetic of the map, Smith’s paintings address the political tensions that lie at the heart of the traditional map’s claims to an objective gaze. In many of Smith’s paintings, the process is deliberately laid bare for the viewer to see: in too much world (2017), for instance, each line of the globe is painted so that the previous layer remains visible along the line’s edges. The painting thus resists the typical process of “flattening” that occurs in digital imagery by insisting on an image’s depth and history. The emphasis on lines also evokes geographical borders and delineations of space. If maps typically present these borders as naturalized entities, devoid of historical specificity, Smith’s paintings insist on the border as an arbitrary conception.
Other of Smith’s “maps” paintings address the role that technology and data play in shaping our perception of geography. In mapstraction (2017), an oblong globe sits squeezed into a rectangular frame, its surface covered with webs of yellow lines and circles. Smith explained to me that the painting refers to an app called Flight Radar, which promises to show you all of the flights currently en route at any given moment. If Smith’s canvas seems to offer the viewer an informational graphic, the overload of data ultimately only blocks the viewer from coming to any sort of comprehensible conclusion. As Smith explains, the mapping of yellow lines “collapses into an abstraction that in the end defeats the purpose of having any sort of graphic.” The painting, too, seems to humorously depict the consequences of a “globalized” society: the web of connected cities threatens to strangle the world, forcing it to lose its spherical shape.
While Smith’s map paintings convey the fictions inherent in what is presented to us, other works by him aim to uncover the dangers in what remains hidden. In the desert of the real (2017), two camouflaged cacti emit bright red wifi signals. Yet, the cacti fail to merge into their backgrounds, instead seeming to awkwardly jump out at the viewer. It recalls just how imperfect any attempts at combining natural beauty with technological utility are.
On view in Smith’s studio were works that continued to toy with the wifi motif, bringing it into conversation with the benchmarks of 20th century abstraction. On the wall were small, monochromatic renderings of the wifi signal, evoking the canvases of both Frank Stella and Ad Reinhardt. Wifi signals are at once ubiquitous and invisible, their availability subtly shaping how we move through the world. Smith’s paintings give them center stage, yet even here they seem to threaten to disappear into the ether. It’s a reminder of how often we remain at whim to forces which remain invisible to us. Smith’s practice presents us with a world that is consistently lying to us—often in ways that we never realize. By visualizing those manipulations, Smith is trying to give viewers the tools to see through the artifice that pervades our world of digital imagery.