New York

Emily Mae Smith, Medusa, 2015, oil on linen, 38 × 27".

Emily Mae Smith, Medusa, 2015, oil on linen, 38 × 27".

Emily Mae Smith

Emily Mae Smith, Medusa, 2015, oil on linen, 38 × 27".

Christina Ramberg once took René Magritte on a blind date to see Disney’s Fantasia, but they couldn’t concentrate on the screen because of all the heckling from Joe Brainard and Evelyne Axell in the back row. So the four of them left the theater at intermission to chill out at Emily Mae Smith’s exhibition “Medusa,” where they all got along quite nicely. The end.

If that scenario sounds like your idea of fun, then Smith might be your kind of painter. The visual wit, wealth of allusion, and crisp, sure-handed execution of the Brooklyn-based artist’s modestly scaled paintings, whose protagonists are often animated besom handles reminiscent of the ones that afflicted a sleepy Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice, are immediately beguiling, but the works’ humor may also, unfortunately, lead some viewers to underestimate her talents. Emotive bombast on the one hand or preening rigor on the other gets most of the kudos; Ad Reinhardt was probably smart to reserve his comic sensibility for his cartoons while keeping his paintings all tight-lipped and severe. But that’s not Smith’s way.

Sometimes the humor can be kind of painful, as in Over the Shoulder (all works 2015), in which a stiletto heel snags what appears to be a long pink tongue (in cartoons, tongues hang down to the ground with regularity). The idea is rendered all the more vivid by the fact that the image is a picture-within-a-picture, framed by a mouth geometricized into a perfect rectangle with a row of teeth at top and at bottom, all crowned by the typical cartoon baddie’s twirly handlebar mustache; the base plane on which heel pins tongue is the bottom row of incisors. That rectangular mouth shows up again in Medusa, where it’s the one feature that turns Smith’s broom-handle protagonist into a sentient being—in this case, as the head of serpents makes clear, the mythical Greek monster with poison snakes for hair. The real star of the painting, though, might be its simple but effective background fade from pink to red, which helps the green serpentine coif really pop. Smith’s formal decisions are consistently so well judged they might be overlooked.

Eyeless, the broomstick head itself is as evasive as it is confrontational. It’s only when the viewer considers it as part of the ensemble that she guesses that the mirrored shades in Still Life must hide the same blank surface; the same goes for the clock-face eyewear that is Smith’s brilliantly disquieting invention for Waiting Room. In The Mirror, a bevy of broom handles—outlined in black on a yellow monochrome ground—lounge like odalisques around a giant red hand mirror, whose abstract reflections are copped (a heavy-handed move, this) from Roy Lichtenstein. In Smith’s world, Mickey’s no-longer-phallic broom may represent woman as put-upon domestic instrument turned rebellious, but if you think the otherwise unseen gent with the sinister mustache must be her enemy, guess again: Scream shows the facial hair as a removable fake, a disguise worn and then removed by Ms. Broomstick herself. Smith’s satirical take on gender politics comes up oddly bereft of villains on whom to pin the blame. Is she letting men off the hook? Maybe it’s that she’s just not that interested; I remember what Hélène Cixous wrote forty years ago, that “only an oblique consideration will be found here of man.” Smith’s fascination is instead with the complications, ambivalences, disguises, and false-bottomed certainties of a constantly mutable female identity, which make her laugh, as Cixous would have said, with the laugh of the Medusa.

Barry Schwabsky