"If You Want Something Done Left, Do It Yourself," Oct. 13-Nov. 11, 2007, at Fred, Ltd., 45 Vyner Street, London E2 9DQ England
Everyone knows that avant-garde artists hate the "establishment" and love noncommittal sex. Zak Smith is making a living combining the two.
This mohawked art star is best known, of course, for his appearance at the Whitney Biennial in New York a few years back, which showcased his intricate drawings illustrating Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow one page at a time. Not content simply to be a hot art-market property -- his 2001 Clarissa Looking Like a Pink Floyd Groupie sold for $20,400 at Rago Auctions last year -- Smith went on to don the mantle of porn star, acting in Benny Profane’s 2006 "alternative porn" Barbed Wire Kiss. According to a witness to the shoot at Fleshbot.com, "Smith handled his first scrutinized scene with aplomb."
This month, the 31-year-old artist, anarchist and porn star has a solo show at Fred in London. Smith’s first U.K. exhibition presents about 200 small works from the series, "Drawings from around the time I became a porn star," a few abstract paintings and several portraits from the ongoing series, "Girls in the Naked Girl Business." As it turns out, the connection between Smith’s two pastimes is not random -- making art about his sex life and living his sex life as art are both facets of his DIY punk ethos.
Few artists boast both a Yale MFA and a working porn name ("Zak Sabbath"). But Smith’s intimate relationship (in all senses) with the models in his "Girls in the Naked Girl Business" series makes his work down-to-earth rather than theory-laden. When asked how his adult career is going, for instance, Smith replied, "Well, Sasha Grey just ate out Mandy Morbid in my bathroom and then bought me lunch at Taco Bell -- it's hard to complain."
Smith’s works at Fred, then, are really about community, the community formed by shared transgression. In his own way, Smith is a paragon of integrity, adamant in defense of his counterculture ties and annoyed that his politics are often disregarded by the public. Shown in their own intimate habitats, Smith's subjects are embedded in intricate graphic compositions of pattern and texture, giving the viewer a glimpse into the guarded lairs of punk's femme fatales.
In his recent works, Smith has severely reduced his palette, presenting isolated points of color against a chaotic and obsessively complex black-and-white background -- as in Mandy Morbid II (2007) -- the better to isolate the important details. Smith’s interiors speak volumes about his subject, whether it be the bohemian clutter that is a sign of anti-materialism or the stuffed animals that suggest hidden vulnerabilities on the part of their goth-girl owners.
The deviance of Smith’s punk pin-ups goes beyond brazen sexuality and in-your-face individuality, which can be admirable. Smith's subjects are role models for desire at its most abject. Bella Vendetta (2007), for example, stares down the viewer with defiance, as if she’s expecting a fight. In fact, Smith confides, Bella is a purveyor of "blood porn." She hangs from flesh hooks just for "fun."
In nihilistic punk style, this community is defined by violent rejection. Smith’s works at Fred specifically imply a forceful reaction to the pretensions of the art world, confronting it an alternate set of "artists" who fully embrace their exhibitionism. To market-oriented artistes and theory-minded critics, Smith presents a milieu the appeal of which is considerably more primal and unmediated.
His more abstract compositions bear out this analysis. If the art influences Smith cites are Nicholas DiGenova, Phil Frost, Sean McCarthy and Peter Callesen, the abstract acrylic Sol LeWitt, I spit on your grave (2007) makes his real (negative) influence clear -- the hues of blue and violet are soothing in color, rich with immediate pleasure, but the shapes are frenzied in form, as if to mock the Conceptualist control that underlies LeWitt’s esthetc. Even more explicitly about such rejection is the wondrously complex composition of interlocking blocks of skittering color titled The Title Didn't Really Explain Anything So He Went Back to Looking at the Painting.
The third work completing this theme is Things I Drew and Pinned to the Wall. Echoing the all-over intricacy of the other two, the work features a pair of painted scissors hanging from one of the color dots at the bottom, making it clear that we are looking at a drawing of the dense grid of the artist’s riotous compositions pinned up in his apartment. It is the image of art as riotously self-involved, immersed in the immediacy of living.
Smith’s anarchism is the glue holding his worldview together. And so, his works are hedonistic -- but also achingly earnest. When some of these drawings debuted last summer at Kavi Gupta Gallery in Chicago, Smith titled the show, "Half the Artist’s Proceeds from this Show Will Go to Benefit the Victims of God and Capitalism." This time out, a portion of the artist’s profits are being donated to Food not Bombs, the West Memphis 3 (see www.wm3.org) and other anarchist and activist causes. He mocks the "platinum and Lucite" installations and "Prada cufflinks" of his peers in the art world. Avant-garde he is; ironic he is not.
EMILIE TRICE is a writer based in Berlin.