They’ll Fix You, They Fix Everything
During my interview with Zak Smith, I was taken by something he said mid-way through. I asked him to tell us three things no one knew about him and his response was, “well most people don’t know who I am…”
That kind of struck me. Why? Isn’t Zak Smith the kind of person we’d want to know about? He’s smart, talented, original and he’s a rebel. Although a seemingly nonviolent one. I always appreciate a constructive rebel.
As an artist, his work has been included in several public collections: The MoMA, The Walker Center, Saatchi Gallery, London; The Whitney. He’s exhibited at major shows worldwide.
He’s a porn performer, he shoots with his live-in girlfriend Mandy Morbid – and others – his stage name is Zak Sabbath.
He’s a writer. His published memoir “We Did Porn: Memoir and Drawings” is about his time in the industry. He’s a regular columnist for Artillery, the LA art gallery scene pub. And, he illustrated “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon, where his drawings filled every page.
His appearance and work ethic could seemingly contradict each other in certain circles. A tattooed punker with a Mohawk, I wondered if he stood out at Yale where he got his MFA. Probably less so in New York during his undergrad at Cooper Union. Highly disciplined, he paints 14 hours a day seven days a week.
“George Bush went to Yale,” he said. “So it’s really not that big a deal.”
How does his laid-back attitude fly in the sometimes ‘hoity-toity’ world of art where he defies odds as someone who is really ‘doing it,’ supporting himself solely from his artwork for the past 10 years.
“The thing about the art world being pretentious is that the root of the word is pretend. So I feel like what happens is that there are a lot of people who are not that bright or well educated but they have a vocabulary that makes it seem like they are. On the flip side, if you’re someone who’s interested in words and underlying ideas, they kind of just ignore you and leave you alone. I’m kind of idealistic so the pervasive dumbness probably frustrates me more than it should.
“There’s still a kind of Medician structure in the art world. Where most media is based on a mass-market model that if people like it it’s valued, art is based on one wealthy person buying one painting and then the artist’s work goes up in value. But the collectors already have to own old art that was once considered valuable and then the new artists are considered. Built in conservatism by personalities that got famous buying old, boring art.”
His own art is not boring. It’s edgy, sexual, sensual. His use of lines masterful and a nostalgic or dreamy quality fills each page. You can sense that he was there, in that room and that the experience left an impression. Maybe causing you to want to go inside, join a threesome, grab a shot, a cigarette or caress the soft flesh of one of the many naked women he portrays.
It takes him a month to finish each painting, which are primarily acrylic and ink. “I see the person and then I spend a month thinking bout it. So it has to be something I am interested in.”
Many of his peers have not seen the same success.
“I don’t feel that art has been exploited in the same way TV, music and video games have in competing for people’s attention. Many people who are talented have been pushed off into other fields because they don’t fit into the current definition of the fine art world. The fine art world doesn’t recognize creativity the way they do it and so they don’t know what to do with them.”
“How do you change it?” I asked.
“Well I write about it and other people write about it but it isn’t really getting injected. A lot of artists who are really good don’t have careers and aren’t known about, versus other artists who aren’t good and are the public face of art to people who don’t know anything of art. It would take a reinvention of the establishment.”
A reinvention of the establishment is something it seems he should be very good at by now.
Raised in a household of somewhat failed artists, he decided to do his own thing pretty early on. His mom and dad were both writers who, “wanted to do interesting things but didn’t. They made compromises…So in that way, they were a good cautionary example.”
This translated to university professors later in life who, “were very great people but none of them were making the kind of art I liked and didn’t like the kind of artists I liked. So It was really hard for me to be like ‘oh wow, whatever this teacher says, I’ll listen to…’ because I didn’t have the sense that they knew what they were talking about.”
And that attitude may be just what’s required to take down the old Medician ways of thinking in all wakes of life.
Which is why, in my opinion, Zak Smith is the kind of person we would want to know about. Someone who consistently has had the courage to be and do exactly what he wants. For me, doing your own thing always had to accompany drugs, alcohol, anger or destruction. It’s nice to see a person whose paved their own way, perhaps including, but not relying on those things. From a family who also made compromises, I can see the difference.
Zak Smith currently lives with his girlfriend in LA, for more of his work visit http://www.fredericksfreisergallery.com
Written by: Honey