New York

Zak Smith

Fredericks & Freiser Gallery

The early word on Zak Smith was that he’s some kid whose paintings had been “discovered” by the art world. Smith’s recent debut, “20 Eyes in My Head,” bore out the preliminary description of the scrappy young painter with an eye (or twenty?) trained on his immediate surroundings—friends, apartment, possessions—rather than the tradition of painting, or even the lineage of punk rock, the other form of expression with which he’s aligned himself.

Girls figure largely in Smith’s universe. Jena with Sunkist and Sunkist-Colored Shirt, 2000, shows a sparky club kid gazing eagerly at the viewer. The protagonist of Clarissa Looking Like a Pink Floyd Groupie, 2001, wears a kind of scarf and a flowered top—not particularly Pink Floyd-esque, but maybe Clarissa was looking rather Establishment to Smith that day. An anonymous girl watches TV in a friend’s messy studio in 4am, 2001, one of two large black-and-white photographs here. Paintings like Kristin with Kristin’s Eyes in Her Head, 2001, a sketchy, drippy acrylic portrait of a young woman sitting at a desk staring blankly out at the viewer, and Jill, Tasty, On the Floor, 2001, a girl in red-and-black plaid pants and punky Doc Martens sitting on a floor strewn with CDs, video-game controls. and a boom box call to mind days devoted to youthful boredom and disaffection—hanging out listening to music, playing games, and doodling.

Smith’s persona, so central to these works, relies on the raw, uninformed, antiprofessional stance of rebellious youth, but he is also the bored twenty-something dude, surrounded by technological devices (usually tossed irreverently on the floor) and pretty muses. Self Portrait for the Cover of a Magazine, 2001, shows the artist with half his head shaved, crouching on the floor clutching a cassette tape next to an overturned skateboard. And the composite contact-printed painting (essentially a photomontage of drawings) carries the supremely dumb title I’m Real Busy and Stuff, 2001.

Or maybe “dumbed-down” would be a more appropriate term. Smith, we learn from the gallery’s press materials, is no young n d who blundered into the art world: He holds a BFA from Cooper Union and an MFA from Yale. With this in mind, it’s hard not to look at his paintings in another light. Smith begins to seem like a calculating portraitist, perhaps drawing on the slightly distorted and dripped work of Egon Schiele or the mosaicky, metallic paintings of Gustav Klimt—or for that matter any other male painter whose main subject is youthful female beauty. Maybe his true project is to create a new fin-de-siècle expressionism for disaffected American youth.

The quintessential artist as persona, of course is Warhol, who transformed himself from a respected illustrator with season tickets to the opera into a teenybopper more interested in the Rolling Stones. The painter of pop became pop. For Smith, persona seems to fuel his artistic vision, rather than the other way around. Perhaps this is the ultimate contemporary expression of lifestyle as art, as forward-looking a notion as painting pop objects was in 1962. It will be interesting to see how Smith and his harem of punk chicks age into their late twenties and beyond.

Martha Schwendener