It’s My Job To Be a Girl – An Exhibit by Zak Smith and William T. Vollmann

SAN FRANCISCO – Steven Wolf Fine Arts will be exhibiting paintings and photos by Zak Smith and William T. Vollmann between January 24 and March 7, 2015. Zak Smith is an artist whose work has been featured at the Whitney Biennial and Museum of Modern Art. He has also published three books, one being a memoir about working in the adult film industry. In a previous interview he has described his work as “dense, labor intensive, and intricate. They’re busy and they seem itchy—it’s like they’re trying to get off the page.” Sometimes his portraits are of naked women. Other times the person/people are explicitly engaged in sexual acts. These human figures are often surrounded by objects, some of which are transformed into something slightly abstract or the color is distorted. But the quality of his craft is outstanding. His use of color, texture, and focalization makes for something truly unique to view.

William T. Vollmann is a prolific writer who throws himself into his books. In order to write The Rifles, about 19th century Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, he traveled to the Arctic Circle for two weeks where he “suffered frostbite and burned off his eyebrows when he accidentally set his sleeping bag on fire” (McGrath).  He wrote a seven volume meditation on the justification of violence called Rising Up and Rising Down.  He has also written about prostitutes in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Copernicus, poverty, and a 1,300-page book on Southern California called Imperial.  His range of subject matter is astounding. His voice one of a kind.  His prose magnificent. But throughout his career, Vollmann has been taking photographs and drawing pictures, some of which are in his books. In the past he has also made limited edition books of art. But most recently, he has published The Book of Dolores which includes photography of himself dressed as “Dolores.” This cross-dressing experiment stemmed from his investigation of beauty and femininity in Japanese Noh Theater, which he wrote about in the book Kissing the Mask.

Zak “Sabbath” Smith has worked in the adult film industry. Vollmann has had a long and complex relationship with prostitution. But what I have found most interesting about them is their willingness to see women who work in the sex industry as they are, not as preconceived people who are sinfully lost and irretrievable. America consumes a tremendous amount of porn, an industry valued somewhere between $15 and $20 billion per year. This is to say nothing of the black market for sex—which contains human trafficking and exploitation of minors. While there is a power dynamic between males and females as sexual objects, I find these two men seriously considering what it means to be an object of a male’s sexual gaze.

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            For example, Zak has been in a long-term relationship with adult film star Mandy Morbid, who has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a disease that impacts the strength and elasticity of skin, muscles, and organs. Mandy and her condition can be seen in the work included here. “I certainly have been thinking a lot about death, since we don’t know how long Mandy has to live,” Smith said in an email interview. Certainly everyone notices different things, but the oxygen tubes are quite salient and have the potential to create a sense of empathy. Another feature of the painting that stands out is Smith’s treatment of hair. In my previous interview with him, Smith said, “There are different realisms. Basically when you take a three-dimensional object and make it into a two-dimensional object you have to sacrifice something, otherwise you’re not emphasizing anything. You’ve got to pick your poison deliberately in order to transfer the image in a certain way—texture, light, color, but you can’t do everything. You’re always sacrificing something.” This principle can be clearly observed when studying how he handles hair.  “It’s all acrylic paint. The glowing look is when it’s thin paint over white—the paper isn’t absorbent so the paint just lays on the surface like an oil slick or pool of antifreeze. That’s why it has those sharp edges. The more opaque point is over black—I did Stokely’s blonde with yellow highlit with filaments of metallic gold paint.”

I asked Smith about Vollmann and his writing. “Vollmann is a very open writer—he seems to show up on the scene without preconceptions, hoping to be a conduit between the worlds where someone has time to read and the worlds where someone doesn’t. The first thing I read was a piece he did on Serbia—talking about checkpoints and the danger of being killed at each one and how in order to do the story at all he had to basically (and genuinely) befriend racists.” That perspective is Vollmannesque. He puts himself in a position that forces him to take a radically different perspective. This is far beyond the safety of academic pluralism, which rarely leaves the safety of the classroom and barely scratches the reality of life for a majority of the human beings on this planet. Vollmann empathetically introduces his readers to the difficulties of life, which ultimately transforms the open reader.  As for potential reads Smith recommends starting with Vollmann’s non-fiction (e.g. Poor People, Riding Toward Everywhere, Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader) before moving to fiction, in particular Smith likes The Atlas.

Many of the photographs used by Vollmann were printed using gum bichromate, a chemical process that produces washy pastel colors. The subject is Dolores, sometimes playfully smiling, other times stoically staring through the frame. It is obvious that Vollmann is taking this seriously, trying to seduce us, the audience. This transgendered journey is not what most people think about when discussing gender and art. But these works seems to be done out of respect and empathy, pulling both the artist and audience into a novel experience.

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For more about this show and Vollmann, please read Vice’s piece by Heather Corcoran.

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