Pictures of Girls
Zak Smith
DAP, 2006, ISBN 1933045221, 142 Pages, Hardcover $30.00. [

Review by Dr Larry Daw

Well-known 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.
The 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 755 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."
Zak 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 755 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.
Yet, 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.
The 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.
Zak's 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."
The 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 call.
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.
As 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.
Likewise, 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 shirt.
The 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!
From 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.
Any 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."

Dr Larry Daw
London,  29 December 2005.

Additional Information

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.

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.