The Butcher’s Daughter
Carrie Mae Smith paints hermetic moments of material configuration, teeming with suggestion. The subject matter is undeniably mundane; consisting of cutlery, chinaware, dishtowels and cuts of raw beef arranged simply and set against a pure white background. Yet the work does not feel devoid of or detached from life. Instead, it feels deeply interwoven with it—rich with the potential for reflections concerning gender, class, materialism, and memory.
Paradoxically, floating the objects in empty space is precisely what gives them cultural weight. They become symbols—things that in and of themselves do not hold a narrative, but that through ubiquity call to mind specific social settings and conventions.
In Smith’s Towel series, for instance, we find in each work the same white dish cloth, hung on the same white wall. The only variation from piece to piece is the manner in which the folds lay and the shadow that those folds create. In this way, the series is reminiscent of academic studies of drapery. Yet Smith’s paintings are not studies for larger scenes of heroic men or bloody battles; they do not aspire toward the old academic ideal of grandiose history painting. Instead, the works hold a quiet power and capture a force more potent and elusive than any emperor or army could hope to be: culture. Each work is a representation of one object, yet viewed together, the tea towels merge into an honest, unified representation of domesticity. The mundanity, isolation, and repetition within the series, then, are tantamount in importance to the object represented (the towel)—aesthetically, they are indicative of the societal expectations and unspoken realities of domestic life.
Notions of class also bubble beneath the surface of Smith’s paintings. Certainly her towel series speaks to this (in its juxtaposition of the academic with the domestic,) but her tableware series is perhaps the starkest example. Here we find the tools of fine dining—tea cups with saucers, gold-rimmed plates, silverware and a single white napkin—yet curiously there is no food or drink. The chinaware is all empty, and it seems it will remain empty—arranged for the shelf rather than the table. This gives the objects a certain sense of purity, a pristine cleanliness heightened too by the whiteness of the background. The preciousness is in direct contrast to Smith’s meat series, in which there is no tableware at all. In place of porcelain, we find bone—raw cuts of beef and pork exuding a rugged, brutish sense of masculinity.
But there is also a more intimate aspect to the series. The artist’s father was a butcher. To paint meat, then, seems as much a product of personal history than of culture. The same can really be said of all of her works (and of mass produced objects more broadly). Knowingly or not, we hold memories in things. Sometimes those memories are very specific—we may remember the cause of a decade-old chip in a teacup, for instance; and other times those memories are abstract—an unexceptional object may evoke an intense feeling of the past without reconstructing any particular event. Regardless, this is where the power of Smith’s work resides: in its ability to act as an empty vessel—to hold without prejudice both personal and cultural histories—where material and memory are not mutually exclusive but inextricably bound.