Art, Sex and Octopi: An Interview with Zak Smith

January 21, 2014

Zak Smith is a lot of things--artist, writer, porn star, firebrand--and everything he does rings with a consistent kind of brutal, carnal honesty. His graphic, grungy style of drawing is influenced by comic books and alternative porn, and he even completed a series of 100 drawings featuring women and octopi, Dream of the Fisherman's Wife-style. Smith also recently composed a set of tips for art critics, which I'd recommend to anyone who spends time looking at art, critics or not (or are you now?). Zak Smith received his BFA from Cooper Union and his MFA from Yale University (on a loan, long since paid off), and currently lives and works in LA.


I write for both the Illustration and Erotica sections, and your work seems to tread a perfect line between the two. Where do you see your work falling?

I just paint what's in my head & about half the time that's someone's pussy. I don't think that's actually too unusual.

I'm just an artist--real illustrators and people who make erotica are both way more disciplined than me: they have to know it'll look like sneakers or boobs before they start working, I have no idea. I just throw paint at the empty paper until it stops looking bad.

 If my work ever comes out with the clarity of illustration or erotica, it's just luck.


What is erotica anyway?

What's "make out music"? For me, it's Eyehategod.

Like all other art labels, it's a label you put on a picture so you can sell it. In this case, a label that implies there'll be a boner or whatever.

I mean, it works, me and Mandy once bought our girlfriend the Juxtapoz erotica book for her birthday because, hey, she was a stripper-illustrator, she was into it. So: good label. But just a label.

Some say that much of the work coming out of the contemporary art world right now is simply “pretty drawings of pretty girls.” Do you have any opinion on this?

Are these the same people who complain comedians are just funny?

But my first thought's actually: Really? I can't remember the last time I saw a decent drawing come out of the contemporary art world, much less a pretty drawing. Much less a pretty drawing of a pretty girl.

Humans have had 300,000 years to get used to how beautiful women can be and we still haven't managed it--one can come along any hour any day and just knock you flat. And that's a human fact, that's the human experience: we try to think of modern, productive things to do all day and then just there's women and all the things women can do and it's this neverending miracle that makes the world keep moving. And it's terrible: not "terrible" in the sense of "bad" but in the old old sense way back in the etymology: "terrible" as in the trembling you feel in front of something divine. 

Pretty isn't easy or common. The world is ugly and boring and wants to stay ugly and putting materials on paper, 90% of the time, just ends up making it uglier and it's depressing and makes you think life isn't worth living and humans can't do anything new or interesting. Most art ideas suck and most artists suck at executing them even when the ideas don't suck. Pretty takes long hours and thankless experiment. Pretty is Velasquez and Jackson Pollock's Lucifer and Lolita and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Pretty is the only thing that makes having eyes better than being blind.

If someone ever, even once, made something actually pretty instead of ugly and boring—especially pretty in a new, different way--that's so rare and special and is such a contribution to what's needed that we should buy that person their own island.

Your “100 Girls, 100 Octopuses” projects is one of my favorites. What inspired this piece?

I figured if I did the same picture 100 times maybe one or two of them might be really good. I needed an animal that didn't mean anything obvious (people like to look for meaning because they are stupid and have weird class aspirations) and that could fit into the picture in lots of different ways: a cat always needs something to stand on, but an octopus can hang from the ceiling. And I hate painting fur. 

The idea to hook them all together into one big building only happened after I'd finished two or three of the paintings. 


As an artist interested in both writing and art, do you have any interest in graphic novels?

I like them--I think a lot of the best artists in comics are hampered by the deadlines they have to work on. You can tell when, say, Olivier Coipel is working on a short or long deadline.

The danger there is when the audience kind of skims past an image because they are only looking at it as a way to carry the plot, and, also, when the artist lets it. You have to say "Every inch of this has to be beautiful, even if no-one will notice".


Where do you see your writing going, if anywhere?

If I could see where it was going there'd be no point in doing it. You make things because there's a hamster in your head running on a wheel telling you to make them. You keep hoping The Next Thing will shut it up. I would love to never write anything again. I'd love to never draw anything ever again, but the hamster hates me.


If you could hang out with one person, living or dead, who would that be? What would you do?

Any honest answer I gave to that would be too pornographic to print.


Are there any rituals you have when you do art?

Fuck no. I don't have time for that shit and no real artist does. Pretty is far too harsh a mistress to dick around with cutting the crusts off your peanut butter sandwiches or praying to the four winds or lighting a candle to the ghost of Frida Kahlo--you get up, get the headphones on, make sure you have enough to drink and sit down and put in the hours. Rituals are for rich kids who are more in love with being an artist than making the art.

What are you working on now?

More paintings of more things. Some are abstract. I wouldn't like to pretend I could get across what I hope is good about them in words: anybody who wants to keep up with what I'm working in should just check my tumblr.


Is there anything else you'd like us to know?

Fuck. I would like you to know how evolution works--in detail--the way Stephen Jay Gould explains it, I would like you to know how gouda and oreos taste together,  I would like you to know that Andy Warhol is dead and that that is good, I'd like you to know threeways are--with a little work--as good or better than you think they are, I would like you to know what the best version of your life is and how you could get there quickly and with the least damage to people around you, I would like you to know what love feels like, I would like you to know what all the people you meet really think about all day and what it's like to be them, selfishly: I would like you to know that when I say these things I mean them, there's not really time to list all the things I'd like you to know. I wish there was but I'm a little hungover and every word I type is like this little ball-peen hammer on my left temple.

Interview by Lauren YS