Pictures of Girls
DAP, 2006, ISBN 1933045221, 142 Pages, Hardcover $30.00. [Browse/Purchase]
by Dr Larry Daw
New York artist Zak Smith has recently released a colourful
and vibrant art book, Pictures of Girls.
The front cover shows a startling close-up of a girl's
picture with massive, foreshortened, blue-stockinged
legs. Her shock of identically coloured blue hair
has tendrils linking her organically to a background
depicting a seemingly endless number of paint squiggles
and coloured acrylic inserts which show other art works
and a dizzying array of clutter in a room.
back cover is also extremely interesting. We see Zak
in front of works-in-progress in his studio and immediately
notice the frenetic energy of his paint colours and
the overwhelming multiplicity of his works, an avalanche
of numbers given concrete form in series such as his
images for Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow,
and his 100 Girls and 100 Octopuses. Zak's
own body, not surprisingly, is a canvas too, showing
colours from his own work and explaining a comment he
made to Shamin M. Momin in an interview included in
the book: "Modified people are people who are
paying attention to what things look like."
Smith is a formally trained artist, having attended
The Cooper Union, NY, for his BFA; Skowhegan School
of Painting and Sculpture, Skowhegan, ME; and Yale University,
New Haven, CT, for his MFA. Of his arts high school
experience, Zak says: "I went there because I wanted
to do comic books." This is undeniably true
today as well, since Zak's curlicues and reliance on
dark outlines filled with acrylic colours are decidedly
influenced by comic book styles and graphic novels,
and there are numerous depictions of comic books strewn
about his studio in many of his works. Zak likes
continuity as well, and says of his current work: "it's
just a somewhat more sophisticated version of exactly
the same pictures [as I was painting in high school]."
Zak's style shows an achingly perceptible amount of
effort and commitment to many hours of work: "I'm
basically working on the same thing for hundreds of
hours, literally." He also avows a love for
the simplest of materials, whatever we perceive as the
end result of his work: "mostly it's just acrylic paint,
no matter what it looks like." Even his vast
illustration series for Gravity's Rainbow
shows its virulent intensity by means of only intricate
ink strokes, and sometimes colour, on little scraps
of paper, book-sized folios which might have been ripped
from the actual novel itself.
even in the midst of what some might see as chaotic,
if inspired, translations of a unique artistic vision,
in his Pictures of Girls, Zak has a white-hot
focus when it comes to observing the details of his
female subjects: "then I think, 'Wow, if I can
figure out how to use this in the picture of some hot
girl it will be THE most beautiful painting possible.'"
Inside both front and back covers of the book, there
is a black and white image of the artist's sources.
Zak is staring over his shoulder somewhat anxiously
at a wall plastered with hundreds of his subjects in
an array of poses and positions. To make the image-mass
move to a critical state of overload, one only has to
see the numerous pairs of scissors and rolls of tape
attached all over it, obsessively hung to thumb tacks
as if they'd some day be needed for a cut 'n' paste
marathon of Herculean proportions.
cover page of the book shows an enlargement of one of
the girls from Zak's Pictures of Girls series
(Girls In the naked Business: Aprella).
There's an ocean of truly tidal green hair, set off
by complimentary scarlet red lips avec piercing,
and exquisite monochromatic shading of the skin tones
and beautifully dark liquid eyes which would not be
out of place in an Ingres drawing. That's what
Zak Smith is all about: "the influences" roll
freely through his works. We see Klimt fabrics
and scrolling paint strokes, but these are also based
on the totemic tribal patterns of Phil Frost freely
acknowledged by Zak: "I love Phil Frost."
Zak also says "Klimt obviously mixed careful
drawing with flat patterns," but his work
goes light-years beyond that into the extraordinary
tessellations of his 100 Girls With 100 Octopuses.
In that series, all of the patterns build up into a
psychedelic kaleidoscope which evokes flaking paint,
60's Op-Art canvases, abandoned swimming pools, the
most infernal and hideous kitchen linoleums you'd ever
care to dream of, and inlaid parquet floors made of
gold and unknown precious stones.
variety of techniques allows for this glorious sense
of freedom with colour, line, subject, and composition.
In the book Pictures of Girls, there are full-sized
colour plates showing the portraits of many different
girls, but the book also shows a number of other examples
of Zak's work, each rendered using one of the techniques
he favours for different projects. We see multiple
image-sets done in ink and acrylics, such as I Want
A Holiday in the Sun, contact-printed paintings
such as 8 Variations, Drawn, Painted On, Then Printed,
contact-printed drawings like I'm Real Busy and Stuff,
and the acrylic and metallic ink and paper of 100
Girls and 100 Octopuses. Zak says: "one of
the things I'm playing with in my paintings is the idea
of different realisms. Some parts look observationally
real, other parts may look real like a high-contrast
photo, and another part looks real in the sense that
it looks like an accurate drawing but also not real
because real-life doesn't have outlines."
consummate skill and dramatic effect of Zak's Pictures
of Girls is evident in many portraits in the book.
The woman in Girls in the Naked Business: Voltaire
is depicted in a patterned dress displaying incredible
paint details, but it's the background of the portrait
which blows you away. Mostly monochromatic browns
and blacks which look like dead organic vegetation or
twisted metal, scrawled graffiti glyphs everywhere,
chain link and bars --it's dystopia or a vital urban
undergrowth, the dross and detritus of a decaying city
or a vibrant streetscape, all depending on how you look
at it. The white, corpse-like hands of the girl
sway your choice one way, perhaps, but it's still your
There are many
pictures of girls indoors too, and Zak shows an
extremely capable hand with the nude study in Girls
in the Naked Business: Amber. The figure's
curves and shadings are languorous and lustrous.
The eye-popping bedspread and fabrics make it float
in an essentially empty space anchored only by a detailed
corner desk. The flat patterns of the fabrics
show some curvature which mimics the pose of the nude
figure, but the hot scarlet bedspread is absolutely
planar in its weight, without wrinkles for the most
part, as pure a colour field as Barnett Newman could
ever have hoped for.
is the case with the cover's massive, peninsular blue-checked
stockings, Jill, Tasty, On the Floor confronts
us with gigantic foreshortened red patterned limbs almost
completely flat if you look at them in a strictly Euclidean
2-D sense, but curved ever-so-slightly to accurately
portray clothed legs. This image is one of my
favourites. It shows an incredibly labour-intensive
depiction of the background studio, every minute detail
depicted in paint with a comic book fidelity only dreamed
of by pen and ink artists, let alone those who use colour
akin to Zak's acrylics. From proof sheets to posters,
paint jars, rags, palettes, brushes, and forgotten CDs,
it's all there. I can say with all honesty, no-one
does a finer bit of stray cord than Zak Smith!
Jill's vacant expression shows some bemusement; she's
been plonked down amidst so many chaotic artefacts,
her eyes dare not linger on the floor.
Girls in the Naked Business: Raven shows a half
naked woman looking up from an overloaded floor-space
in which the very disarray becomes an angular pattern
of immense complexity. The nude upper torso looks
as if it has been cut out of paper by one of Zak's ubiquitous
scissors, but the amazing lower half of her body looks
like something squeezed out of an Aquafresh toothpaste
tube --truly incredible in that it might just
as well have been paint oozing out of one of the artist's
tubes of primary colour acrylics. Yellow blobs
blast out of the picture too, and one cannot say if
they are scrunched up tissue or the petals of flowers
right out of Ezra Pound's In
a Station of the Metro. Faces stare up
at us from the photos scattered on the floor, and there
are always signs of Zak's craft interpolated amongst
them, paint cans and palettes, rags, and a zebra-striped
culmination of all this exacting disarray may be seen
in the ultimate portrait of the book, Xi'an.
The vacant gaze, piles and piles of comic books rendered
with meticulous fidelity, cloths, wild orange fabric,
foreshortened feet and hands, painting supplies, and
a wall plastered with Zak's own photographic art works,
they're all there. Perhaps the only thing to mention
after seeing the Xi'an masterpiece is that
Pictures of Girls contains a number of pictures
from Zak's One
Picture for Each Page of Thomas Pynchon's 'Gravity's
Rainbow.' And they're excellent
girlie pics too!
his mysterious deck of 5 1/2 x 4 1/2 cards, Zak has
culled images which work well with the rest of his portraiture
shown in the book. Additionally, he is to be credited
with selecting purely black and white images which capture
the most deliciously sinister undertones of the Gravity's
Rainbow narrative. In his heavily crosshatched
selected images, Zak shows us much of the novel's mechanical
fetishes and perversions, not to mention its black magic
and Rilkean subterfuge.
way you look at it, Zak Smith is a prolific innovator
with a keen sense of how to manipulate realism. He might
best be summed up by his own telling phrase: "I
hate anything I have to do to keep my art career going
other than to paint a picture."
Zak Smith’s Illustrations For Each Page of Gravity’s Rainbow The Modern Word hosts a staggering 755 illustrations by New York based artist, Zak Smith, depicting the events and imagery of Pynchon’s magnum opus.