Zak Smith in Conversation with Sean McCarthy



Zak Smith: There’s a lot of “stoner” art being made these days–like some half-assed faux-naive drawing of a yeti riding a bicycle into a bee’s butt or something. Your work isn’t like that–yet it does seem to have something to do with the kind of doom/stoner metal being put out by like Sleep or Electric Wizard or Monster Magnet back when they were good–can you talk about this stoner aesthetic or mood?  About paranoia?  About hallucination, paranoia, altered perceptions of time–anything like that?

Sean McCarty: Well, of all the metal subgenres, I tend to like the stuff classified as stoner/doom the best.  It could partly be a matter of logistics on the part of the musicians: a pot habit doesn’t seem to require enormous sums of money to keep it going the way a heroin or coke habit does, so at least in that sense the pothead feels less pressure to make commercially viable work and is correspondingly free to indulge the compellingly ridiculous ideas that come from smoking pot. That’s definitely something I like about a record like “Dopesmoker” by Sleep: tons of effort and technical ability mobilized in the realization of a really stupid concept, something like, “Let’s make one epically long track, like, an HOUR long, made up of one simple crushing riff that modulates almost imperceptibly throughout, with about four solos and lyrics that conflate becoming a stoner with making a religious pilgrimage.” I like the same thing about Peter Saul‘s late work, the way he takes really stupid ideas and makes loud, crushing, beautiful paintings out of them. I think that’s the thing that’s missing from the stoner art you’re complaining about: it has the stupid ideas but lacks the effort, concentration and obsession necessary to get them all the way back to interesting. Otherwise, I appreciate the irresponsible impulse.

As for hallucination, I like the idea of having access to the invisible world, but I have an intense fear of drugs and insanity. I’m already deeply paranoid as a result of the atmosphere of my formative years and have spent the last decade working to become less so.

Smith: If I were to, like, sit down with a bunch of grad students with degrees in art history and a slide rule and try to plot the course of 21st century art history, we would never in a million years come up with an artist like you–you don’t make installations, use expensive technology to re-mix crap we’ve all seen a million times before into videos, or glue your own pubes to graph paper in the shape of, like, Afrghanistan or Andy Warhol’s head–why not?  What gives?  Why are you not following the program, buddy?andrealphus

McCarthy: I’m not so sure there is a program. I think the practices you mentioned may be ones favored by certain powerful art world types at the moment, but, taking a broad view, I think they’re just a handful of a vast number of proliferating viewpoints and practices available today. For my part, I make art primarily for myself, as an end in itself, not as a means to success in the art world. In fact, I see success exclusively as a means to doing what I want to do on a day-to-day basis, not the other way around. Therefore, no matter how successful I might become illustrating some fashionable theory or fulfilling some abstract historical process or exploiting the labor of assistants, if I’m not enjoying myself, what’s the point? Beyond that, most of my favorite artists have been misfits and cranks and malcontents of various kinds, and I look to their example for guidance and hope.

People often speak of artists that rely heavily on appropriated images (i.e. other people’s pictures) as being “like DJs”–which I feel is very true, in that they both suck.  You, on the other hand, make your own images; and you like the Melvins, who make their own music.  How have the Melvins influenced you?  What areas of experience do they explore that you might like to?

McCarthy: Besides simply enjoying their music, I’m interested in the Melvins as mannerists and/or formalists. I see characteristics of their music as being analogous to those of mannerist art (discord, strain, capricious elongation of forms, eccentric compositions, large discrepancies in tone and scale, etc), which I also like for, I think, similar reasons. I say formalist most obviously because their songs often have nonsensical phonetic lyrics, suggesting that they consider their sound and formal structure to be more important than their subject or meaning. Also, I like that they approach punk-influenced heavy metal with such perversity and humor. I would aspire to achieve a similar kind of thing in my work, to start with something most responsible intellectuals would think of as stupid (making pictures of monsters) and do it with as much intelligence, conviction and good humor as possible. They’ve also managed to be successful while pretty obviously making exactly the records they’ve wanted to make over the past quarter-century, without an eye toward trends or chart success.

Now, I realize that one often does so at one’s peril, but I have to disagree with you somewhat about artists who rely heavily on appropriated images. There is a fine and noble tradition of collage—from, say, Hannah Höch to the Bomb Squad—that takes existing cultural artifacts as its raw materials and, through various processes of cut-and-paste, turns them into something new and interesting. I think Max Ernst‘s collage novels are the best work of his career, and balaamthey’re made up entirely of images from Victorian engravings. John Wesley and Gary Panter both trade in appropriation, but translate their borrowed images into formal languages that are unmistakably their own. Which is not to say that there aren’t terrible artists who’ve based their careers on the wholesale theft of other’s images AND formal inventions. Compared to the artists I just mentioned, Licthenstein, for example, is a vampiric cipher, which is maybe way those reflectionless mirror paintings seem to be the most personal images in his oeuvre.

Your work is influenced by, or at least coincidentally resembles, images from the history of demonological thought.  Given that we are all 21st century human beings and we all know religion is total bullshit, what’s the continuing appeal of demons?

McCarthy: Demons interest me insofar as they’re embodiments of evil, harm, distress or ruin depicted as animal hybrids. They represent a fortuitous combination of form and content for me. I don’t think I have to believe that I could draw a pentagram on my floor and stand inside it and recite some incantation and call one of these things into being in order to make compelling art out of them. I like what Francis Bacon used to say about the crucifixion, that it was an amazing structure from which he could hang all of this form and feeling, despite being an atheist.

Smith: Your art doesn’t make me ask ‘Is it art?’  Is this a failing?  Why or why not?

McCarthy: When I’m feeling generous and optimistic, I see the essentially modernist project of making work that causes people to ask “is it art?” as a process of opening up possibilities that could subsequently be made good or interesting. Unfortunately, many art professionals have tended to see this the other way around, again, as an end rather than as a means, as though the point of art is to perform an infinitely regressive ontological interrogation of itself.  Also, of course, the originally transgressive impulse to defy categories has by now become a thoroughly academic and frequently tiresome cliché. It’s particularly troublesome in the paradoxical desire of certain art institutions to take it upon themselves to nurture a dying ideal of an avant-garde.

uvallRegarding my own work’s relationship to this question, what’s weird is that it seems to prompt it from the other side, to cause some people to question its status as art as opposed to that of illustration, which drives me up a wall.

Smith: Are you an expressionist?

McCarthy: Certainly not in the way that the artists of Die Brücke were, for instance, at least in their conception of the relationship between form and content. I’ve always felt that there was something basically false about the idea that a more hastily made mark is inherently more expressionistic than a carefully made one. Maybe more like the way David Foster Wallace defines an expressionist in his essay on David Lynch, as someone who uses “objects or characters not as representations but as transmitters for… internal impressions and moods.”

Smith: That Dead Kennedys song “Your Emotions Make You A Monster”–what do you think of that?

McCarthy: I like it a lot, although I think the sentiment it expresses is actually closer to “Blindly Accepting Society’s Values And Repressing Your True Emotions Makes You a Monster.” Which, admittedly, would make a much weaker refrain. I think the lyrics to that one were written by the guitarist.

Smith: Your work went through profound changes during the George W. Bush era–did the atmosphere of those bleak days influence your perception of the world?

McCarthy: Certainly. The Bush years were, for me and a lot of people, full of pervasive feelings of incredulity, helplessness, resignation and bemusement. I think there may be some connection between that and the kind of angry whisper of the small black-and-white drawings. Oddly enough, I’m working now to increase scale and to bring color back into the work.

Smith: The black-and-white in your work, and the use of extremely sharp and textured drawing, sometimes seems like a kind of appeal to the tactile memory rather than the visual one–is this an accurate perception?  Can you talk about the relationships between the tactile, the sensual, the emotional, and the psychological?

McCarthy: That’s an accurate perception; in fact, I’m very happy that you say that, because I want the main effect of the work to be visceral. I’ve wrestled with this issue since I first read Francis Bacon’s interviews with David Sylvester in college. He talks about wanting his work to act directly on the nervous system of the viewer, and opposes this idea to illustration, which for him means a way of making an image that communicates with your brain through some boring, roundabout story. I would like to bridge that opposition, to use what most people would think of as illustrative mark-making to make images with a visceral impact. I’m not sure if it works for everybody, but your comment has given me hope.

I would like to answer your second question and to talk about about those relationships, but I fear that for me they lay quite outside the realm of the verbal.

Smith: Your work argues for the relevance of the psychological and the pathological–do you feel these ideas are underrepresented in contemporary art?

McCarthy: In some ways, sure. For instance, I think a lot of art world people would claim that “relational” art is the representative art of our moment and, while I’m no expert, it seems to me that most of the relational art I know about allows very little room for the pathological. The enjoyment of most of it (I’m thinking of famous stuff, like Rirkrit Tiravanija‘s meals served in gallery spaces or Felix Gonzelez-Torres‘s piles of candy) seems to be predicated on the assumption of an audience of cheerful, well-adjusted upper class folks who get their kicks easily.

Smith: What are some important differences between you and classic surrealist like Dali?  A pop surrealist like Giger?

This question makes me really uncomfortable, but I’m going to try to answer it (sort of—I actually don’t want to compare myself to those artists) because I hope I can use it to clarify a couple things. First, regarding pop surrealism, I should say that I’m just as bored and frustrated by the Juxtapoz crowd as I am by the October crowd. It’s an adolescent ghetto and I’d never want to be stuck there. That said, like a lot of people I was really into Giger as a teenager and his stuff soaked itself into my impressionable consciousness to such a degree that I haven’t felt the need to look at it in fifteen years. At this point, I feel like I can get most of what I like about it in purer form from Bellmer. I do think Giger’s a great creature designer, and I’m very grateful for his work on the first two Alien movies, but I think his paintings’ compositions are usually pretty static and boring. Dali was great when he wasn’t being a self-parody; I think his paintings, when they’re good, are way better and weirder than Giger’s. They’re also funny sometimes, which Giger’s things never are.

Smith: You’re from Texas–has this influenced you in any way?  In the way you see people?

McCarthy: I spent twenty-three years there so I have to say yes, but it’s hard to I have profoundly mixed feelings about Texas. When I was young, a lot of what as identifiably Texan about my surroundings was horrible and repulsive: I hated country music and anything cowboy-related, I hated the landscape, I hated the heat, I hated good ol’ boys. But the food was good, and I was generally happy about the Mexican influence on the local culture: bright colors, dancing skeletons, etc. As a teenager I discovered the Butthole Surfers, who were originally from San Antonio and prior to 1994 were freaky and interesting and a reason to feel some local pride. When I got to UT Austin, I discovered all kinds of local stuff that I loved and that had an enormous influence on me: Sound Exchange was covered floor-to-ceiling in Frank Kozik posters and had a Daniel Johnston mural painted on its exterior; that’s where I started buying his tapes. A little later, I bought a bunch of his drawings at Austin Books & Comics at $5 for b&w and $10 for color; apparently he’d bring in piles of them periodically and trade them for comics. I took painting and drawing classes with Peter Saul, and had a bunch of other great professors: Richard Jordan, Sarah Canright, Michael Ray Charles, etc. Sarah had known Jim Nutt in Chicago and brought him down as a visiting artist. I became aware of Chris Ware’s comics and learned that he had gone through the art program a few years before me.anastomosis

Smith: Is Texas fucked?

McCarthy: Yes, but not irredeemably.
Smith: It seems like you–in common with a lot of contemporary artists interested in drawing who aren’t hippie scum–took some measure of inspiration from comic books.  What were some of your favorite comics?

McCarthy: When I was a kid, my taste in comics was pretty conventional; I liked Garfield best when I was really little, Calvin and Hobbes when I was a little older, X-Men as an adolescent—I followed it seriously during most  of the Marc Silvestri years but started to lose interest once Jim Lee came on. I loved The Dark Knight Returns, Arkham Asylum, Walt Simonson’s Thor, etc. I stopped reading comics for several years, but started to get back into it after discovering Jim Woodring‘s Frank in college. Lately Henriette Valium is my favorite. He’s horribly underrated, I guess because his imagery is sociopathic and his drawings are dense to the point of being nearly unreadable, but those are things are like about him.  I also really like Mat Brinkman’s comics, especially Multi-Force. I was very happy to discover recently that PictureBox is putting out a collection of those.

Smith: What was the last thing you heard someone say or read that made you go: yeah, totally–that is exactly right?

McCarthy: I just finished reading Delacroix‘s Journal, which is full of good stuff; here’s the last entry:

“The first quality in a picture is to be a delight for the eyes. This does not mean that there need be no sense in it; it is like poetry which, if it offend the ear, all the sense in the world will not save from being bad. They speak of ‘having an ear’ for music; not every eye is fit to taste the subtle joys of painting. The eyes of many people are dull or false; they see objects literally, of the exquisite they see nothing.”

Smith: Grab a painting off the web from art history that you like and tell us some things you like about it.

haarlemMcCarthy: This is a painting I began seeing recently at the Met—”Hercules and Achelous” (1590) by Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem. It’s hardly my favorite painting or anything, but when I first saw it at the Met I was really surprised, because you rarely see a painting of its size and weirdness suddenly appear in those fusty European painting galleries. I like the bull (of course)—I like how its hindquarters are more or less just a cube and the way the rest of the body seems to ooze out from there; I also like the contrast between the fuzzy modeling and the hard edges, like you might see in a ’60s Paschke. I like how its left front leg ends in a phallic nub. I like the shape that the bull and Hercules form together and the way it stretches across the composition and sort of politely touches the left and right edges. I like the bizarre smaller scenes in the background, particularly the one on the left, which appears to be a man, naked from the waist down, killing a dragon just underneath the bull’s ball sac. I also think that the expressions on the faces of the bull and the lion skin are hilarious.

Check out more of Sean McCarthy’s work on his website.

Zak Smith is an artist who first came to prominence with his mammoth work Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow. Smith's paintings and drawings are held in major public and private collections worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. We Did Porn— a book includng drawings and stories about his experiences working in the adult film industry— his third book and his first to include writing— will be published in July 2009 from Tin House Books. He lives and works in Los Angeles. More from this author →