Zak Smith champions every punk kid fervently doodling in the back of class, absorbing the more stimulating parts of the lecture and weaving them in coded form into drawings produced on notebook pages. Manic and intricate, Smiths work seems feral or raw but is actually the product of a dedicated art education, including a coveted MFA from Yale University which Smith earned in 2001.
In the Whitney Biennial, Smith exhibited Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow. Through seven hundred small drawings in ink, paint and mixed media, Smith deployed a range of styles, metaphors and imagery to capture and represent the convoluted novels blizzard of allusions and converging plots.
Smiths first solo exhibition of acrylic and ink paintings on plastic-coated paper, 20 Eyes in my head, was held at the Fredericks Freiser Gallery in 2002. While the paintings often disaffected models seem to merge with clutter that surrounds them like insulation, Smiths deft attention to detail and focus on formalism are almost refreshingly reactionary. Inspired by comic-book graphics and scenes from everyday life, he paints like an Impressionist living like gutterpunk.
Smith will be exhibiting at the Nathalie Obadia Gallery in Paris in Winter 2004.
Ana Finel Honigman: Are you chronicling something personal or even generational with your choice of models and settings?
Zak Smith: If this is my reputation, it is probably an echo effect of stuff we say to sell the work. Mostly I paint people I know. Anybody can do that. I don't think I'm chronicling anything more important than anyone else. I like the way things look. Things should look good. I am not at all interested in the sociological aspect of anything.
AFH: There are sub-cultural connections between the people you paint, so arent you representing some of the sociological aspects of punk?
ZS: No. Originally, I painted girls I went out with, girls I knew or girls I fucked. If there is a cohesive look, it has more to do with my taste than any cultural meaning. Lately, I've been painting people I don't know for a project titled "Girls In The Naked Girl Business" and now, the girls I paint get a percentage of the final price so we are working together. I don't like to treat people as models. I like to treat them as people for whom I am making a portrait.
AFH: Do you consider your portraits to be a collaboration between you and your sitter?
ZS: At best I do. I tell my sitters that I want to make the definitive great portrait of them. They only work with me if they've seen my stuff and
like what I'm doing anyway.
AFH: What do you think of art with a political agenda or the goal to edify the viewer?
ZS: I don't think art in the gallery system can effectively change or
undermine anything. If you want to undermine something, then go out and do it.
AFH: So you think art should be completely separated from theory?
ZS: At a certain point you have to take a long view at the thing
itself and decide whether it, as an object, not as a reference to someone else's ideas, is interesting.
AFH: Do you think art is less effective at conveying ideas or emotions than other forms of expression like music, cinema, literature or theory?
ZS: Yes. Very few artists manage to get across the emotional content of even the most half-assed song. You hear a sad song and everyone knows it's sad but a piece of art can be endless contested- half of the audience will think it's sad, half of the audience will think it's just numb or ironic or deadpan or whatever. You can scream or whine when singing and the audience knows you were screaming or whining when you sang that thing but unless you are an Expressionist slinging paint, then there's no physical evidence of what you were going through while you were making your picture.
AFH: What about art expressing an intense love of another genre, like music?
ZS: The problem with art like that, like this current wave of rock&roll art, is that it's much easier to illustrate the theatrics around the music than to translate how the music actually sounds. You can't draw or paint or even film the rush that makes that stuff good, so instead, these artists just talk about meaning instead of creating or even re-creating pleasure.
AFH: But your contribution to the Whitney Biennial was a series of illustrations from passages in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, right? What was it about the book that inspired you?
ZS:I liked Gravity's Rainbow because it was extremely dense and intricate. I want all my work to be like that and I thought it would be an interesting project to make a visual equivalent to the things I liked in the book. I liked the writing.
AFH: What do you like in art?
ZS: Art should look good.
AFH: Alright, then what doesnt look good enough?
ZS: Minimalism, conceptual art. If you like a big blue wall, you shouldn't have to go to a gallery to see a big blue wall. If you like a shark, you should go to an aquarium to see a shark. I feel like most of that art exists for people who only allow themselves to think about or look at things when they're in museums - which is pathetic.
AFH: Cant the museum's function be to spotlight beauty or intellectual potential in mundane things, like sharks...
ZS: If you're an idiot it is. A museum should be like a nature preserve. You don't want to fill a museum with house-cats. House-cats are great but they can survive perfectly well in other more suitable settings but a three-toed sloth would be extinct without the nature preserve. Museums are for culture that would not be allowed to exist if we let capitalism run wild.
AFH: Are you saying art is too weak to survive on its own?
ZS: In a financial sense, hell yeah. The art world should be a venue for things too complicated to survive in the normal mass-volume market economy. Visually, though, good art doesn't need a gallery or museum context to be good. If one of my paintings were hung upside down in a bathroom in a bar in Mogadishu, I would want you to be able to say, "wow, that is an amazing fucking thing."
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.