The Rumpus Interview with Zak Smith


Nobody ever asks me, “Why make paintings?” Is wanting to spend your time around attractive women who like to have sex much more difficult a desire for journalists to understand than wanting to dip wisps of horsehair into a wet lake of colored goo and smear it all over a piece of paper until it looks pretty?

Michele Knapp: Hello Zak.

Zak Smith: Hello Michele.

Michele: You have had extensive formal training in art at prestigious institutions, including a BFA from Cooper Union, studying at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and an MFA from Yale.
In response to a question about your training, you once said, “Everybody who’s any good paints totally differently than anyone else who’s any good . . . so there’s not a lot of technique to learn.” What did you gain from your years in art school?  How has your training influenced your work?

Zak: In art school you learn mainly two things:

– that no matter what kind of pea-brained crap you see in a gallery, there’s some kid somewhere who honest-to-god thought that that was actually a good idea even if s/he wasn’t going to get paid for it and,

– rich people will pay legal tender for anything at all as long as it’s in a gallery and called “art” rather than on ebay and called “random table scraps and crayon ends I glued to a piece of felt” so you might as well make whatever the hell you want.

Michele: I read that you moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 2007.  Why that particular move?

Zak: New York’s perception of itself is that it’s soooo smart and soooo tough.  And it’s not.  On the subways after 9/11 they had these little Public Service Announcements on the train saying “I looked up, and where there used to be towers there was just broken dreams and empty sky”. This is a message from the democratically-elected government of the world’s most important city to its allegedly tough, smart citizens concerning its and their response to a sociopolitically momentous crime that affected allof their lives. This is the post-9/11, post-Giuliani, post-Bloomberg reality: New York is a vapid, high-rent hipster-hole where grown men wear scarfs indoors. Not that LA isn’t, but at least in LA, they know it.

Michele: Has it resulted in any changes in your art work?

Zak: Since I moved to LA, when I paint a portrait of a girl, she’s slightly less likely to be a dominatrix and slightly more likely to be a stripper. There hasn’t been any noticeable effect on the abstract paintings.

Michele: How does your environment influence your work or the way in which you work?

Zak: When I lived in New York and I painted a girl sitting on her bed, there was a fire escape out the window, so there was a fire escape in the painting and I had to figure out what made fires escapes interesting to look at.  Now there are palm trees out the window, so there are palm trees in the painting and I have to figure out what makes palm trees interesting to look at. Everything else is the same–they sell liquitex acrylic and needle-width brushes on both coasts.

Michele: Why work in porn?

Zak: Nobody ever asks me “Why make paintings”?  Is wanting to spend your time around attractive women who like to have sex much more difficult a desire for journalists to understand than wanting to dip wisps of horsehair into a wet lake of colored goo and smear it all over a piece of paper until it looks pretty?

Michele: You have said you are involved with porn “mostly because the social life of the art world is like living death.” Do you need to work in porn in order to socialize with people outside the art world?

Zak: No, especially since my girlfriend does porn. But I do think it’s important that people know that the social life of the art world is like living death. It is a lot like living death. Think about living death: Like, if you died and yet also walked the earth, what would that be like?  You could do nothing fun, and would be constantly faced with situations which only made you want to do things which you could never actually achieve (like, say, somehow ensure that the assistants who designed and constructed all the art for the artist standing next to you actually got all the money that that artist made just for signing it, or, say, grab the hors d’oeuvres tray and shove it into that artist’s eye socket), and no-one would listen to anything anyone else said or wrote, and no-one would think seriously at all about anything and yet simultaneously no-one seemed to have a sense of humor about anything and you would constantly watch unholy outrages against both reason and your fellow human beings being perpetrated in a thousand ways and you would never see anyone worth having sex with and the only music playing would be Britpop or DJs re-mixing Britpop and the only thing to look at would be Andy Warhol or re-mixes of Andy Warhol and the walls would be white and the food would be vegetarian and in very small portions, and, in short, you would be consigned to never knew beauty, pleasure, intellectual stimulation, or visceral experience in any form forever.

That would be living death, right?  That would also be the art world.

Michele: You have said sex in porn does not allow for the freedom of a “normal sexual experience,” and it leaves you wanting a sexual experience “without rules.” You have said you do not watch porn. You have indicated that you earn considerably more money from your paintings. If it isn’t about the people or the money or having satisfying sex or being able to watch yourself having sex on film, then what is it about?

Zak: I never said the sex wasn’t satisfying, it just isn’t as satisfying as camera-free sex.  Also- and maybe your readers are unaware of this phenomenon- sometimes after you have sex with people in porn, they decide it would be a good idea to have sex with you again, not-in-porn- and sometimes more than one of them decide this simultaneously.  Sometimes this strikes you as a fine and worthy decision for a young lady to make and you feel as though it would be boorish and unseemly not to accommodate them.

Michele: How would you define alt porn?

Zak: Normal porn works like this: you fill every female role with a blonde built like a girl on a mudflap or the nearest available equivalent. Fill every male role with a guy built like a professional football player or the closest available equivalent, and film them using TV-commercial lighting and camera angles having fetish-free sex in a place designed to look like it’s expensive and clean and in the San Fernando Valley.  Break one of these rules and you can call you product “niche porn.”  If you break three or more of them and think it’ll make you money, you are eligible to call your product “alt-porn”.

Michele: Are you still working as an alt porn actor?

Zak: Once in a while someone asks me to do something.  I’m not with an agency–I never was.

Michele: Do you have any new films being released soon?

Zak: No features- the last one was “Hospital”.  There’s internet stuff a few times a month.  Mandy’s having surgery for endometriosis in a few days, so we’re kinda waiting to see how she feels before making big porn plans.

Michele: Tell me about your decision to illustrate Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

Zak: The sentences in that book are intricate and gorgeous and hallucinatory and manage to integrate ideas about millions of different things in the past, present and future into a coherent reality that has something to do with life as it is actually lived here and now on earth by real people.  I always thought it would be good to make pictures that were the same way- so I figured a useful exercise might be to just draw the things in the book.

Michele: Was it your idea to publish the images in a book?

Zak: Yes, but, to be fair, it is always my idea to publish any picture I make in a book.  In fact, it is always every artists idea to publish everything they make that they like in a book.  Except the worst artists, whose only idea is to sell it for lots of money to a rich person so that only that one rich person ever gets to see it.

Michele: How did Tin House Books end up publishing the work?  Did you shop your work around or did they approach you?

Zak: They approached me.

Michele: Do you have any interest in another art project that crosses over into literature?

Zak: Right now I’m working on doing the exact same thing with Cormac McCarty’s “Blood Meridian“- every single page- only this time I’m doing it with 5 other artists- Matt Wiegle, Sean McCarthy, John Mejias, Craig Taylor, and Shawn Cheng. We split up the pages 6 ways and are doing it in 6 different styles.

Michele: I understand you have a new book coming out in July, We Did Porn.  Tin House Books describes it as a combination of illustrations, memoir, and lyric essay.  Can you tell me more about it?

Zak: “Lyric essay”?  I need to talk to somebody at Tinhouse about that.  Ummm–anyway, yeah, it’s 300 pages of stories and writing about working in porn and–in separate sections–100 pages of drawings and paintings of the same stuff and people.  Notes on the Adult business in two forms.

Michele: How did it come about?

Zak: I realized I had an awful lot of things I saw or thought about or thought people might want to know about porn that were occupying my brainspace in the form of words rather than in the form of pictures.  If you’re an artist, the pictures pile up in your brain and sooner or later you have to get them out or you can’t get anything else done–you can’t go to the post office, you can’t buy soup, you just sit there watching TV and trying to forget, if you’re a writer then the sentences do the same thing–they pile up until you get them out of there.  So I started writing the sentences down.  Then I realized there were an awful lot of them.

Michele: What led you to writing?

Zak: I was always writing or trying to write.  I read a lot, both my parents were writers, once in a while I did articles for art magazines–this will actually be the third book I’ve written–but, very luckily, the first one to be published.  The other two were in high school and college, respectively, and also they both sucked.

Michele: Do you intend to continue to pursue writing along with your painting?

Zak: If it keeps pursuing me.  If it will agree to just shut up, I’ll leave it alone.  So far, writing is not shutting up.

Michele: How did you and Shawn Cheng come up with the idea for On the Road of Knives?

Zak: Did you know you are the first interviewer ever to ask me about the Road of Knives?  Anyway, we came up with it because we both like to play games.  And we were trying to figure out what it is about games that we like, and so we came up with a project that kind of distilled games down to the things we liked best about them and left out all the other stuff.  So we came up with The Road of Knives–which is kind of a play-by-mail chess game and kind of a watch-the-creative-process-at-work post-modern art project and kind of a comic book.  It’s also a nice way to try out new techniques and way to make pictures in a sort of low- stress way.  Also, there are monsters in my brain and they want out.  If you have girls and monsters and abstract paintings and sentences in your head and you only let out the girls and the abstract paintings and the sentences then you are walking around all day with a head full of monsters, which is no good for anyone.

Michele: What led you to include a third artist, Nicholas DiGenova?

Zak: Well, looking at Nick’s work, he just seemed like an artist who had the right skillset.  He could improvise with what you gave him without losing any of his own style.  A lot of artists don’t work that way–they have a specific thing they need to do and it’s hard for them to integrate some random image into that withiout altering it beyond recognition.  Like I’m sure Sean McCarthy could draw a beautiful thing for the Road Of Knives, but his art is so much about manifesting his twisted inner reality that even though Sean could easily draw, say, a mouse-snail wearing a hat made of teeth, he could only do it if was HIS mouse-snail wearing a hat made of teeth that he made up that day after having a horrible dream about a horrible trip to the dentists office.

Michele: Is there any end in sight or do you intend to continue it in perpetuity?  Would you like this project to end up published in a book?

Zak: The idea is to do it forever, but to publish it periodically every few years.

Michele: What are you reading now?

Zak: “Lost in the Funhouse” and “The Floating Opera” by John Barth,  “Infinite Jest” (again), “The Biographical Dictionary of Film” (always and constantly and randomly), Lankhmar stuff by Fritz Leiber, Katherine Mansfield’s “Prelude”, “Critique of Dialectical Reason” by Sartre, “The Brief and Terrible Reign of Phil” by George Saunders, “The Futurological Congress” by Stanislaw Lem, Bukowski’s “Burning in Water Drowning in Flame”, a collection of Aime Cesaire poems, “Things That Never Happen” by M. John Harrison, A Dorothy Parker collection, Cortazar’s “Final Exam”, Updike’s first rabbit book, “Pricksongs and Descants” by Robert Coover, “Sixty Stories” by Donald Barthelme, another collection of Sartre essays, “Stormbringer” by Michael Moorcock, a colection of Nabokov short stories and “The Year of Eating Dangerously” by Tom Parker Bowles.  I need ones to read, ones to read out loud with Mandy, thin ones for plane rides and other thin ones to read out loud with Mandy on plane rides.  Plus sometimes extras because Mandy has an an anxiety disorder so if she reads to much of “Infinite Jest” she starts to get a panic attack.

Michele: What are you working on now?

Zak: A portrait of a girl who works at Cheetahs, some drawings of a miniature city I built out of model-kits and old junk, Road of Knives, Blood Meridian, and an essay on going up to Las Vegas with some of the nominees for this year’s Adult Video Awards ceremony.


See Also: The Rumpus Reviews Waltz With Bashir

See Also: The Rumpus Interview With Margaret Cho