Au Revoir, Andy Warhol
For a young art enthusiast like myself, meeting such an accomplished artist as Zak Smith was a bit unnerving (and I'll admit that the dragon tattoo on his skull did not help to put me at ease). But after just a few minutes inside his Brooklyn apartment I realized that he was just a nerd in punk's clothing. Luckily enough, fellow artist and roommate Sean McCarthy was also on the premises and was able to join the fun. what follows is my conversation with the two smartest artists on the block – that is, if your block happens to contain a store that until recently was named S&M Children's Clothing...
White Hot: So you guys met in grad school. What does grad school for art teach you?
Zak Smith: How to talk about your art.
Sean McCarthy: I would say that because we had to meet with lots of crazy people, who were suffering from various afflictions like mid-life crises or blindness, I learned that I should ignore these people and most people when it comes to what would be good for my art.
WM: So now that grad school has dumped you into the art scene at large, what do you think of it?
SM: I try to avoid it when possible.
WM: Is it possible though?
Â SM: Well my policy is that I only go to openings that I'm invited to and that keeps the number relatively small.
ZS: I feel the same way. It's weird because whenever I do show up and try to be a good kid about it, I fail spectacularly. I just don't have any talent for it. Once at an opening I got into a big fight and I was like, 'I suck at this!' You know? Like, this was an argument. No one in the art world has a fight about substantive ideas. It has literally never happened. Maybe when Barnett Newman sued Clyfford Still once, but other than that it's never happened.
SM: For my part what makes it hard is that I am basically philosophically opposed to almost all of the assumptions that the art world is built upon.
WM: Which are?
ZS: Andy Warhol is good. I mean, that's it. And plus whatever else you need to assume in order for that to be true.
WM: What about the new work that the art world is currently churning out, especially looking forward to Documenta 12?
SM: I wonder if the reason why everyone I know is so unhappy about the art that's being shown is just because there's so much of it and therefore the proportion of it that any one person would like must be relatively small if they're discerning at all. Or if it really is that everything is horrible. I think lots of it is horrible. Everyone I know thinks lots of it is horrible. In terms of Documenta I've heard that pictorial visual art is almost non-existant there. It's even worse than other major surveys of its kind in that it's almost all conceptual...
ZS: ... shit you've seen before.
WM: They say it's almost impossible to see everything there because so much of it is video art.
ZS: You know, there are things that are good that are video art, but I'm terrified of walking into a gallery and then going behind a curtain and it might just be a guy holding a tray for eight minutes on a loop. I mean, you think it's funny. I think it's funny. Sean thinks it's funny. We're all laughing. But you know it's a real piece of art. You wouldn't watch a T.V. show for half an hour without kind of knowing what it was – unless you were really bored.
WM: What about standing in front of a painting for half an hour? I mean, it's just a girl with an octopus on a loop.
ZS: But you can't really see a painting in any other way. It's a shitty way to distribute something, I'll admit it right off. To put something in one place for a month and ask everyone who wants to see it to go to that place, in that country, for that month and see it... that sucks. But unfortunately I happen to make something that could not possibly be distributed in any other way.
SM: But beyond that I feel like the picture at least has the possibility of fulfilling every possibility offered by its format and medium. Where, when I look at video art I often think, 'this is exploiting such a tiny miniscule amount of the possibilities offered by the medium of video.'
ZS: I feel like a lot of people don't think that way, they just think, 'this is new in art.' No one's ever had anyone walking down the street – in art! No one's ever killed this roach on my floor – in art! And I think that just makes everything really easy, it makes the bar really low. Every morning you may get up and buy a cup of coffee but then somebody's gonna go, 'I could buy a cup of coffee – in a gallery! And that would blow everyone's mind.' Like Felix Gonzales-Torres and his fucking candy in the corner. It's like, 'oh my God! There's candy!' You are aware that in this society candy is regularly produced of all kinds and you can even get it for free in almost any office. The only way you could like that is if you refuse to experience the world unless it's in a museum. The only way you could react like, 'the urinal's in the museum!' is if you refused to think about it when it wasn't. And I think a lot of art is dependent on the fact that that people refuse to think – at all – unless they're in the gallery space.
WM: But is it art just because it's in the gallery?
ZS: I mean, it's art. Just like most food is bad, most art is bad. Most music is bad. You don't sit there and listen to Britney Spears and go, 'this isn't music!' It's just bad music.
SM: The art world for so long has focused on the subject of the work and the idea that the important innovations that are possible in art are innovations in subject matter, like, 'you're the first person to take photographs of this particular...'
ZS: Twizzlers – in art!
SM: There's this complete undermining of the idea that you might treat a subject in a way that would be better or worse.
ZS: Yeah, like you might do something with the subject.
Although we didn't talk much about Zak's alter-porn-ego, we did get into the more sensual aspects of their art.
ZS to SM: Your work is erotic.
WM: I would say so.
SM: Yeah, I guess that's true.
WM: It's more implied eroticism because you can't really tell if that tentacle is doing what you think it's doing.
SM: Well obviously we know it's not erotic in the way porn is erotic. It's a difference of motive, or purpose, or function maybe. Not meant to arouse.
WM: So what are strange creatures fiddling with each other meant to bring to mind outside of sex?
ZS: Yeah, what's up with that? Why do you do that?
SM: Why do I do that... I feel like for years I've been making art that doesn't have to do with people but that still has to do with living things. That's in part because I don't want to deal with the baggage that comes with people, but also because I think animals look interesting. I feel like it's a basic fundamental aesthetic issue: animals are complex visually and so give me a lot to work with on a technical and formal level. In the life of the making of an object it takes two seconds to have the idea and then you spend three or four months making decisions that have to do with the size of your pen.
ZS: You have to have an idea that's interesting enough to you that you can think about it for a couple of weeks.
WM: And for you, Zak? Girls are interesting enough for you?
ZS: Yeah, in a nutshell. I think people are really different. They're as different from one to the other in everything important as some crab monster is from a spiny urchin. People kind of look all the same but psychologically, and in terms of how they function and what they do and what they can do to you, they're insanely different and they have almost nothing in common with each other. Everything the world does is to try to pretend that we do have common interests or we do care about the same things – and we don't.
WM: And what about the octopi [in 100 Girls and 100 Octopuses]?
ZS: To be honest, they're totally meaningless. Or at least that was my goal. After a while I started thinking of all the parallels to them in other art like James Bond and tentacle porn. I've found that the octopus paintings have actually been on a lot of beastiality sites. So when I go to check the stats for my website I'm like, 'what does this link go to?... AGHH!!'
And as to the complementary side of the art world, that side that writes about art? (Gulp)
ZS: We have awesome punk reviews, and I don't just mean that they're good for us. I mean that those reviews are usually better and more insightful than the mainstream press stuff. The first two reviews of the Gravity's Rainbow piece were that it was not actually drawings from Gravity's Rainbow, despite the title being 'Drawings of What Happens on Every Single Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow.' Both of the reviews in the biggest art magazines were like, 'it's actually just a bunch of scenes from his life.' What I don't like about that kind of thing in general is that we know no one reads art reviews or cares what they say and they're just there so that you can have eight pages of text under your eight pages of pictures for your eight-page feature, but do you have to rub our noses in the fact that you're writing something you don't think anyone will read? If you're going to pretend to think about it why not actually think about it? But the other part of my brain says, 'no one cares and it doesn't matter and no one reads this shit.' But maybe no one reads this shit or takes art seriously – outside of the tiny little art world – because every time a person asks, 'what does this painting mean?' someone goes, 'well you see, the hybridized identity of this Post-Confucian Chinese philosophy...' NO DUDE! If you're going to write something down don't just write pointless babble.
WM: I feel like people take it too seriously. They feel they have to use the most complicated phraseology just to review something.
ZS: But that's not taking it seriously. They don't talk about it like it's important and they want people to understand. They talk about it like they want you to be aware that they're talking. I think that's actually the opposite of taking it seriously.
WM: Historically I think the idea was to keep art above the masses.
ZS: But it's also keeping it above each other because they're not actually writing things that make sense. I want to be really clear about this: I'm not being anti-intellectual and I'm not opposed to words that are long. What I am saying is that I actually know what those words mean and those people are writing things that do not make sense to each other. Like, why do they say 'intentionality'? Don't you just want to stab someone every time you see that? They just wrote it so they wouldn't have to write 'intentions'. We haven't progressed to the point where art magazines say to an artist, 'O.K. We're writing a twelve-page feature on you. Give us twelve pages worth of images and we'll just say what your name is.' That would be an utopia. No. They get some jackass to write twelve pages of text just to fill space. And that is the format that now says: this is serious art. If anyone understood how completely simple and pointless that twelve page article was they'd realize that Andy Warhol sucks and so does that writer for liking him.
Intrigued? Want to see more? Sean McCarthy is having a show at Fredericks & Freiser in spring 2008, and Zak Smith can next be seen at Fred Gallery in London.
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Born and raised in Washington, DC, Julia Knight now aimlessly wanders
the streets of New York City looking for the perfect white fish salad
(which may or may not reside at Madison Avenue's E.A.T.).
A recent graduate of Bates College in Lewiston, ME, Julia uses
her Art History degree to compile interviews in her spare time.