Austin Smith was four years ahead of me at our high school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. We had the same art teacher, the amazing Peg Pasternak, whose investment in her students cannot be overstated. Today, we’re both still in touch with her, but while I’m here in Ann Arbor determining what to do with my looming adult life, Smith is dazzling the world with a new form of portraiture.

“When I was younger my main medium of art-making was drawing and painting — and I was always drawn to creating portraiture,” Smith said in an interview with The Daily. “The work I make now feels very similar to past work I would make, and I see it as an evolution in the way I create portrait imagery.”

Now 24 years old and living in New York City, Smith is a self-proclaimed multimedia artist. He works predominantly in the fields of fashion, textile and set design. Career interests aside, he’s quickly become known for his innovative use of the human body, most often his own, as a canvas. A mere glimpse at his Instagram profile, @empty.pools, transports his 41,500 followers into a form of fantasyland only a supremely imaginative mind could conjure up. Photos of Smith’s face covered in nails and colorful acrylic squares mingle with portraits of his naturally blue eyes exuding a reptilian shade of green, the skin surrounding them covered in (temporary) tattoos and plumes of dark purple makeup.  

“I don’t know, I’ve only been making this type of work for less than a year,” he said of his inimitable self-portraits. “I’m happy that it’s spread as much as it has and I’m not really sure I know the full scope of my reach.”

So far, Smith’s reach has extended to some of the most influential figures in fashion. Though not a model by trade, he has walked runways for the likes of Moschino, The Blonds and Opening Ceremony, all of whom admire his work so much they permitted Smith to apply his own facial tattooing for the shows. Those of us among the fashion set know how big of a deal that is — it’s not every day you see a designer eschewing the accepted standard for relatively uniform makeup among models.    

“Having people notice my work feels amazing, and it’s all happened in the last year or so,” he said. “When I stopped being afraid or doubt the ideas I had artistically is when I felt like what I was making actually could be impactful to a lot of people. I met (Jeremy Scott, creative director of Moschino) out one night at a Ladyfag party I was hosting. We got dinner and he asked me to be a part of his show. You never know who you’ll meet on a night out in NYC.”

And so it was his charisma, coupled with his unabashedly raw artistic vision, that has cemented Smith’s status as the new golden boy of the New York cool-kid scene. His work serves as but one possible introduction to the present conversation surrounding the role of body in fashion.

“I’ve never thought of what I do as body modification, because to me, modifying your body is a more permanent thing.” When I asked how, then, he would classify his portraiture work, Smith wondered aloud: “More like ‘body adornment’?”

Whether in the form of permanent modifications or temporary, illusion-inducing effects, body alteration has always existed in fashion — albeit in forms that are perhaps less about expression and more closely related to aspirational femininity. Take the corset, the dramatic waist-cinching garment that has its roots in the 16th century. Panniers of the 19th century added boning to the lining of women’s skirts to create a larger-than-life circumference of the hips. The bustle, emerging around the same time, was the originator of the faux big-booty effect. In the late 20th Century, designers like Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto began pushing boundaries of the body in a more abstract direction. Kawakubo’s Spring-Summer 1997 collection, which featured pieces with goose down-filled lumps intended to distort the shape of the female figure, is perhaps one of the most poignant examples. Smith may work predominantly with the face rather than with garments, but the concept of physical transformation for art’s sake is a concept that has carried over into his portraits.  

Regarding artistic inspirations, Smith cites Pierre et Gille, Dave La Chapelle, Petra Collins and the Instagram-famous duo Fecal Matter as some of his greatest. He is aware, though, that not everyone views his brand of physical transformation, from creating wire facial jewelry to applying copious amounts of temporary tattoos, as an art form.

“I think some people have trouble seeing what I do as art, or have a hard time separating me from the images, and assume I’m just parading through life as a monster,” he said. “I don’t mind that, though. I like what I do not being for everyone.”

Though Smith does not classify his work as body modification, I couldn’t resist asking him what he thought of New York’s A. Human exhibit, a recently opened gallery experience in Manhattan that claims to serve as a “fashion showroom from the future” devoted to otherworldly adjustments to the body. Models within the space are said to tout everything from “biological heels” — shell-like appendages extending from the soles of the feet like fleshy, ingrown stilettos — to a pair of turquoise shoulder horns designed in collaboration with fashion designer Nicola Formichetti.

“I’ve been meaning to go,” said Smith of the exhibit. “I do feel from images I’ve seen that it’s pulled a lot of inspiration from lesser-known artists I follow. I find with everyone sharing their work online now, it makes it easier for larger entities to steal ideas from emerging artists with no repercussions.”

Of course, every artist deserves credit where credit is due. It’s clear that Smith is actively seeking out opportunities where he’ll receive his fair share of acclaim. He’ll be debuting a beauty-related project with magazine Dazed on Sept. 26 and said there are more collaborations with the publication to come.

“I think people are becoming increasingly more interested in showing their true selves — especially in this politically conservative climate,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to step out into the world the way you truly want to, and that type of confidence scares people.”

Smith’s trajectory makes it glaringly obvious: Self-expression is valuable in its every manifestation. Even if you give a few people the heebie-jeebies along the way, you’re bound to make your high school art teacher very, very proud. 

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