A few years back, when a selection of Zak Smith’s work was in its first museum exhibition, I approached several art magazines about writing a feature on him. I had been writing for both publications, but they took a pass. I wondered why. Could it be his employment as a porn actor, which had recently become public knowledge? Smith is represented in a number of prestigious institutional collections, and gets plenty of press and attention (and does very good interviews), but has received little critical analysis.
The last porn star to make a mark in the art world was Ilona Staller, aka Cicciolina, who collaborated with Jeff Koons in 1990-91 for his "Made in Heaven" series of larger-than-life photos of the couple in kitsch-romantic embrace. But porn as art is hardly the same thing as an artist making porn.
It didn’t appear, too, that Smith was making any particular kind of esthetic statement with his erotic sideline. Rather, he seemed to be following his curiosity, like the punk nihilist he apparently was, casually stepping from the art grid into the world of commercial pornography, albeit the "alt-porn" segment of the adult film industry, which features tattooed and pierced models. For further research, see www.altpornsucks.com.
Smith works as an alt-porn star under the name "Zak Sabbath", and now has published We Did Porn (TinHouse), an engaging "memoir with drawings" of time spent in and around the industry. Smith has given pseudonyms to most of the characters in the book, some obvious, like "Tasha Rey" for Sasha Grey. Anyone very famous, male or female, enters the narrative under the name "Dwight Eisenhower." Another character, "Osbie Feel", has a name from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and is the pseudonym for the real-life director Benny Profane, who took his own pseudonym from Pynchon’s V.
Smith entered the porn world accidentally (in the book he calls it a "detour") through his involvement with the works of Pynchon -- his illustrations for the 760-page 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, titled One Picture for Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow, were featured in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. (Incidentally, feminist pornographer and sex columnist Tristan Taormino is Pynchon’s niece.)
Osbie Feel / Benny Profane asks Smith if he would agree to having some of his pictures used in one of his porn films. Smith jokingly replies it would mean a lot if he could fuck some girls in the movie. "Well, we need a punk and there aren’t any so send photos," the director says, and so Smith’s in.
At first scan, We Did Porn seemed a combination of Ron Jeremy: The Hardest (Working) Man in Showbiz and Julian Schnabel’s CVJ: Nicknames of Maitre D’s and Other Excerpts from Life. Jeremy’s memoir rehearses many of the clichés of his profession: he wanted to be taken seriously as an actor; making a sex film is not erotic but tiresome. Smith agrees, and describes his work in similar fashion.
As for Schnabel’s much-mocked autobio, written at the height of the 1980s art boom, it has a self-congratulatory quality that is also present in Smith’s book, and as with Schnabel, I’m not sure that so many people envy his life as he seems to think. Some might find the book misogynistic, for its frequent use of terms like "pussy," "cunt," "boobs" and "tits." The vulgarity is certainly a mechanism to salve inevitable emotional wounds, however, for Smith, in yet another cliché, is just a kid looking for love.
But Smith is also a littérateur. Amid a certain surface snideness and beatnik noir offhandedness, We Did Porn has passages of rich topographic description. The book tends to break into episodes while simultaneously tracking local ephemera and current national and international news, similar to the way that Smith’s comic-book drawing style amalgamates simultaneous details of a particular moment or location. The book is interspersed with pages of reproductions of Smith’s drawings, which as it happens, are directly inspired by the alt-pornstar milieu, and include many portraits of comely young women with black lipstick and magenta hair. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Smith explains, also drew the friends that he had sex with.
Along with sex encounters on and off camera and a number of sporadically interwoven themes are digressions (reminiscent of Willem de Kooning’s observation that "an artist is a kind of homespun philosopher") on Freud, Milton, the Bible, semen as writing, what it means that most porn stars were victims of sexual assault or abuse, and an intricate, informed analysis of Sasha Grey’s appearance on the Tyra Banks show, We Did Porn does have a telos of a sort, and it progresses towards a deeper involvement with one of his sex and film partners, Candy Crushed, who along with another performer-girlfriend likes to watch tentacle porn and wants to make a tentacle sex movie.
(This subgenre, where in certain Hentai narratives monsters with tentacles rape schoolgirls, crosses over into science-fiction and apocalyptic literature, as well as being found in several passages of Gravity’s Rainbow, and is the subject of Smith’s drawings series "100 Girls and 100 Octopuses." It is also present in Japanese woodcuts -- see Hokusai’s Diver and Two Octopi -- and a Gustav Klimt painting.)
The many crosscurrents in Smith’s works are fun, but more compelling is the fact that Smith does not seem so much involved in critique as something else from literary post-modernism -- he’s leapt into his own work as a character. How and why he is involved in an industry that services the easement of surplus desire is the most interesting aspect of his new project.
I thought of Slavoj Žižek’s performance in the recent film Examined Life, where the philosopher rants in front of a huge mound of garbage: "This is where we should start feeling at home."
As Smith relates in the book, the adult film industry is bigger than the automotive industry and Hollywood. This vast stratum deep in our contemporary culture is as unacknowledged as the huge amounts of trash we produce. It makes sense for an artist to dwell in that landscape, to participate in and observe the political, economic and emotional activity therein.
Like his master, Pynchon, Smith seems headed towards the historiographic, creatively narrating an alternative history, in this case, of a very recent past moment, from what might be perceived as the center of our authentic cultural life. (We Did Porn seems to all take place in and around the year before Obama’s election) This is what the writing and the drawings do. The book does not so much introduce an attitude as proffer experience, in this way its message is very DIY, particularly towards all passive consumers of porn.
JOE FYFE is a New York painter and art critic.