Many subway stops away from the veneer and whistlestopping that is Manhattan's art scene, artist Zak Smith is somewhat reluctantly easing his way into the picture from his overcrowded Bushwick apartment.
NEW YORK — Many subway stops away from the veneer and whistlestopping that is Manhattan's art scene, artist Zak Smith is somewhat reluctantly easing his way into the picture from his overcrowded Bushwick apartment.
Despite the room's distractions — and there are several, including a multicolored beanbag chair, a paint-splattered table, neatly folded T-shirts thumbtacked above the baseboard, a row of books lining the floor, and too many cassette tapes to count with a steady glance — visitors are immediately drawn to the highly detailed painting pinned to the wall.
The painting, "100 Girls and 100 Octopuses," is actually 100 individual ones — each of which took two or three days to complete. Images of half-dressed women in suggestive poses are set against colorful, intricate designs. The nearly yearlong project has just opened at the Fredericks Freiser Gallery and some of the paintings from his forthcoming series of portraits, "Girls in the Naked Girl Business," will be included in "Pictures of Girls," a book DAP is publishing and will release next month. The Walker Center of Art and the Museum of Modern Art have Smith's work in their respective collections.
Getting Smith to discuss his work can be a task. In fact, he offers the most insight by describing what he does not do. "The best thing an artist can do is not to give someone else a message. When someone sees my paintings, I want them to see a life, a real life, other than the one they are living. That is harder than it sounds. When you meet someone, you don't feel the weight of their whole life."
Given his intricate patterns and varying hues, it makes sense Smith is an admirer of Persian miniature paintings, where everything appears to look as though it is made of a different substance. Even Smith's personal style is a study in design. Half his scalp is shaved to show off an elaborate tattoo while the other half has a neon mohawk, colorful tattoos decorate his arms, seven earrings line his left ear and his attire is a Batman T-shirt and cargo shorts. "Simple" is not a word that jumps to mind. But then again, he is not after the ordinary."It is an important skill to be able to think up a project that will keep me interested for the length of time needed to finish it," Smith explains.
Andrew Freiser, co-owner of the Fredericks Freiser Gallery, which started working with him in 2001, says, "When I saw Zak's work, I immediately realized that it is more complicated than any other artist I can think of. And in that complexity, he is tremendously profound."
Smith raised more than a few eyebrows when he cobbled together 700 drawings, painting and photos for "Pictures of What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel 'Gravity's Rainbow'" at last year's Whitney Biennial. With a bachelor of fine arts degree from Cooper Union and a master of fine arts from Yale, the 29-year-old Smith is not keen on gladhanding. "I really dislike the social world of the art world. That is not fun to me — going to openings and such," he says, seated on his tattered, black frameless futon. "But it might be nice to have a better perspective of what people think of your work. That is always helpful."
In truth, he has had little time for socializing of any kind, something that has become a bone of contention with friends. They are resigned to visiting his apartment, where he has been holed up working for the better part of the last year. "People come over sometimes with movies. But if they bring a movie with subtitles, it's tough. I can't paint and read subtitles," Smith says, adding, "I feel like it's almost like prison.'"
But now that the show is up and the book is almost out, the workload should lighten up. "I would like to travel around a bit. But I get worried that anything I decide to do that will be fun, I will find a way to turn it into work," he says.
That was the case with something as simple as reading a Pynchon book. And Smith's portraits feature friends, like the one of his ex-girlfriend with the tuft of blue hair and fishnet stockings. Even a block party wound up being an exercise in art, with Smith spending six hours sketching portraits for the neighborhood kids — all for the fee of a can of Coke. Pretty generous for a guy who started out designing tattoo screens and Tazmanian Devil stickers and now commands $10,000 for a portrait.Part of his appeal is his ability to blend street graffiti with Elizabeth Peyton-type portraiture — something that makes him marketable beyond the art world especially with younger people, said DAP director of communications Alex Galan. Smith's "Picture of Girls" is practically an ode to The Suicide Girls, the American cult of neopunk, slightly Goth women, he said. That might explain why the book will be available at Urban Outfitters and other unexpected spots, as well as traditional art stores like that of the Whitney Museum of Art. The tome, which will be shipped in mid to late October, features an interview with Smith by Shamim Momin, a curator at the Whitney.
Though his profile in the art world might be on the rise, Smith doesn't see himself burning out any time soon. In fact, what an artist doesn't do can be as revealing as what one does. Recalling how he was once asked to draw posters for a designer, Smith, a Syracuse native, says, "I just said, 'No,' and you can do that. It was more a question of 'Why would I?' If you're an artist, the only advantage you are sure to have is you get to do what you want. If they take that away, you might as well take a job that pays better."
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