Dazed's ultimate guide to US creativity
As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day. Porn star Stoya kicks off our State of Sex week, which takes an all-encompassing look at sexuality, gender and all the flavours of the American rainbow.
Stoya kicks against all preconceived cliches, from being photographed by Sean & Seng in Prada to writing New York Times columns and campaigning for sex workers' rights. Today she bigs up her favourite artist-turned-alt-porn star Zak Smith, takes on Verso author Melissa Gira Grant in a head-to-head and draws the parallels between the sex industry and French prima ballerinas.
Syracuse-born artist and alt-porn performer Zak Smith (AKA Zak Sabbath) likes to defy expectation in much the same way as Stoya. The self-described anarchist landed his monumental page-for-page artistic interpretation of Gravity's Rainbow in the Whitney Biennal at 28, then landed his first adult film role in Barbed Wire Kiss. He continues to perform and paint, and will appear in an upcoming New York show alongside other erotic luminaries like Japanese bondage photographer Nobuyoshi Araki and Pop Art precusor Wlliam Copley.
Smith donates profits from his art to charitable causes like Food Not Bombs, and is just as likely to illustrate Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy as he is to render his porn co-stars in hyper-vivid technicolour. Just as likely to be featured at MoMA as Pornhub, there's no room to pigeonhole his artistic output.
"Zak Smith and his body of work are full of details," Stoya told us, sending over pictures of him at work in his studio. "I find his paintings wonderful to look at, and I find being looked at by him occasionally terrifying. Any attempt to describe the experience of actively looking at Zak through a camera might make my brain explode. I’d like it if you looked at his art."
What inspires you?
Zak Smith: Disgust with how ugly and boring almost everything I see is and a desire to replace it with something better.
You paint, you write, you make porn – do all these different disciplines interconnected in any way or do you keep them pretty separate?
Zak Smith: I make art about what I think about. I think about sex a lot, I think about what's going on in my life a lot. I think everyone does.
You once said that you do porn because "the social life of the art world is like living death". Do you still feel that way about the art world?
Zak Smith: Yes. People talk a lot about schmoozing and branding as if Picasso hadn't gotten famous by doing a portrait of a railroad magnate's daughter. Schmmozing and branding suck but they're endemic to all business. In music there's schmoozing and branding but it isn't nearly as boring. The boredom gratuitously piles boredom on top of the insult of having to schmooze and brand. I don't know if it's gotten more boring during my lifetime or whether the economics of the art world have always forced interesting young people out of the art industry with such vicious and continuous force and sucked hollow, dead-eyed diners toward the center with such a will to suck that it has always been and always will be boring.
Which came first: wanting to work in porn or wanting to be an artist?
Zak Smith: I never wanted to work in porn, I just wanted to fuck lots of attractive women all the time. I didn't really care what job I had to do to do that.
You've illustrated Blood Meridian and Gravity's Rainbow. What's the attraction in visually interpreting these big works of literature?
Zak Smith: Like I said, I like to make art about what I'm thinking about. A lot of times what I'm thinking about is a book. And trying to make a picture as great as a great book is probably a less dangerous path than trying to make a great picture as great as an existing great picture. If you love a picture and want to compete with it, you might just end up copying it – with the book, you are translating it to a completely different medium and then competing with it.
Speaking as an anarchist, how fucked up do you think the US government is right now?
Zak Smith: They want all your emails and all your phone records. And this was the better of the two guys. It's insane. It's so insane people are going to jail just to tell us how insane it is.
What's your artistic process like? How does a painting start?
Zak Smith: I start with the hardest part. If I fuck that up, there's no point in trying to do the rest.
What's the work you're proudest of?
Zak Smith: I still like "100 Girls and 100 Octopuses" an awful lot. The 21st one makes me very happy... I figured doing the same painting 100 times might produce one or two that were really good. That one is very good, I think. Very quiet and strange with a strange calm blue. And it doesn't really look like anything else I've seen before.
How would you like to be remembered?
Zak Smith: I'll be dead – what do I care? I have too much I want to do now to waste time on luxury worries.
What's the one thing you'd want people to know about yourself?
Zak Smith: Girls, stop starting fan letters with apologies for writing them. People like getting mail.
Follow Zing Tsjeng on Twitter here @misszing
Read more from the State of Sex