That's A Damn Fine Painting: An Interview With Artist Adam Parker Smith

text by Adam Lehrer


Painting. Multi-media. Installation. Sculpture. All of these tags have been applied to the practice of New York-based artist Adam Parker Smith. All of these tags are or have been correct in their labeling of Smith’s work. But as wild and conceptual as Smith’s work gets at times, he roots his art in the fundamentals of painting. Whether he’s making mylar balloon sculptures or putting together an exhibition of works stolen from other artists (as he did with his Lu Magnus Gallery exhibition Thanks), he’s doing so with acknowledgement of the fundamentals of painting: “I think my work can be jarring but a lot of times it is smooth and cumulative,” he says while laboring over the installation of his current solo show at The Hole in NYC, entitled Oblivious the Greek.  “The work moves well, it’s balanced, and its colors compliment it. One of the elements that make a work successful is being attractive.”

Polite, mild-mannered, and welding a distinguished moustache, Smith is humble while also knowing that he’s onto something. In past interviews, Smith has claimed that he is often short on ideas. That isn’t the case any more, and Smith says in some ways his practice has evolved past idea-oriented work. It seems that he has comforted into the idea that he is good at this art-making thing, and his voracious work ethic indicates that he wants to share his work with the world as much as possible. “I’m not saying that I have a unique gift but I’m hoping that I do,” says Smith. “There’s a possibility. I probably have a less narcissistic way of saying that…”

To clarify, Smith holds the belief that there is a difference between art that “looks like good art,” and art that is “actually good.” A smart and lucky person and can make art that looks like good art. But to make “actually good” art, one has to be gifted. He has grown more comfortable with the fact that making art might be his gift. His current show at The Hole is certainly testament towards this sentiment. Using synthetic materials (purchased with free shipping on Amazon, he adds), Smith created a range of sculptures like mylar balloons cast with resin along with fake foods, fake bronze, fake flowers, and lots of things fake. The faux qualities of the work are important to the aesthetics of and ideas contained within the objects: the materials used are always secondary to the outcome. The outcome is beautiful. These are “actually good” works of art.

Smith and I spoke at length a day before his show at The Hole opened, harping on the differences between art that “looks like good art” and “actually good” art, the virtues in cheap and synthetic materials, applying the fundamentals of painting to different mediums, the benefits of cruel professors, and what being “gifted” at something really means.

ADAM LEHRER: I was reading an old interview of yours where you said you liked the interdependency of materials and ideas. Is that a notion you still subscribe to?

ADAM PARKER SMITH: Yeah, that for me is constant. And I don’t normally like to adhere to rules, or at least arbitrary rules I make for myself within my practice because there are a lot of them. I find myself realizing the rules that I made, and then wondering if they’re necessary to abide by. 

LEHRER: Do personal rules help you push back against institutional rules or general rules within the art world?

SMITH: Well no, I mean my life is pretty conventional outside of my practice. Normally there are severe consequences for doing things in an unconventional manner. But I think when you’re making art that’s the preferred method. So what are the implications of that resistance outside of my practice? I’m not quite sure [laughs].

LEHRER: So you mean that’s the one arena in your life where you sort of get to go against the grain? I’m thinking of someone like Dash Snow, who seems to have gone against the grain in his art and his life and of course paid a price for the latter.

SMITH: I don't know, it’s hard to say. My practice takes up a large part of my life though so it’s nice. A lot of times I get to do what I love doing. I make a lot of work and spend a lot of time making work. It’s nice to be in charge of...something.

LEHRER: Going back to that original idea of interdependency of ideas and materials, how does that manifest? For this show for instance, how do you go from the original ideas to conceptualizing the materials to bring those ideas into fruition?

SMITH: Ideally, they conflate simultaneously. I got my Master’s degree in painting so a lot of times I think like a painter would. One of the big conversations people were always having involved how what you’re painting relates to how you’re painting. I felt like there always had to be that relationship for the painting to be successful so I had to use all these materials to try to find that connection. And further along in my practice I found myself getting closer to more two-dimensional painting, which has a more subtle or intellectual link between what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. So when I’m beginning to generate new ideas or developing an idea I try to think in that mode in-between the two questions, of what is it that I’m painting and how does the process relate to it. After enough practice it becomes second nature to a degree.

LEHRER: I read that you initially started making sculptures to give yourself figures to paint. But now you create sculptures to make and show sculptures, correct?

SMITH: Well there are a lot of painterly aspects (color, composition, form, line, positive and negative space) that I use in sculptures because they’re all beneficial. Although important, construction and utility are my secondary thoughts and I approach my sculptures with really simple painterly ideas.

LEHRER:  Do you often know the idea you’re trying to communicate before you put together a collection of work? Do you know what it’s going to look like but aren’t really sure how to express it?

SMITH: Ultimately I’m not interested in creating an idea-based work because I hate the idea of someone coming in and feeling finished with the work once the idea is communicated to them. In Ernest Hemingway’s Movable Feast (not that I’m really inspired by modern painting or writing because all those guys are bullies), there’s a part when [the characters] go to each other’s studios and say something like, “That’s a damn fine painting!” That’s their only critique. I want to make work that can make people say something like that. I don’t want to make a work that’s just good or pleasing. When they say ‘that’s a damn fine painting’, they’re not saying that it’s a good or pleasing painting but rather that it fulfills a place or purpose to exist in the world. However, the second you start talking about that too much the intentionality starts overshadowing any kind of magic.

 LEHRER: It’s hard to explain but I think I understand.

 SMITH: This is going to sound a lot like bullshit...but I think if an individual is a gifted writer or musician or painter, it’s difficult but not impossible to make a work that looks like what it should be. Making a painting that looks like a good painting is different from making an actually good painting. I think you’d have to be highly intelligent to make a painting that looks like a good painting. It’s possible and it happens a lot since there are lots of really smart people out there. But I think to make an actually good painting, you have to be gifted. That’s more rare. I’m listening to any sort of gift that I may have or working to find it.

LEHRER: Do you feel like you’ve found the exact thing you are gifted at?

SMITH: I don’t know, I’m making art and hoping that’s it [laughs].

LEHRER: It’s refreshing to hear that, actually.

SMITH: Or some people are just good at things. And if they just listen to their natural instincts, I think it’s possible for them to do something that they didn’t expect. You know when you see work that looks like it’s emulating good work and work that just looks like good work. I guess my point is that I try to make art in a way that comes from the gut and hope that if there is a gift, it comes through. That’s pretty corny [laughs].

LEHRER: That show you did where you stole all your friends’ art works: was that an exercise of you trying to juxtapose “art that looks good” versus “actually good art?”

SMITH: That was more of a social or conceptual project in terms of showing each theft as sort of the material I was working with. I’m not a curator and wasn’t really curating that show, even though I acted as curator in the way that I was making a painting. But with that said, all of the acquaintances of mine in the show are valued as artists and the works of theirs that I apprehended I thought were strong. As far as any further judgment on how gifted any of those artists were, there’s always a spectrum.

LEHRER: I hate to refer to the press release that The Hole put out, but I’m going to. It said something about how a lot of the imagery in these sculptures has this faux quality but in that fakeness there’s something real. Is that at all accurate in your thinking, and then if so, what is that truth?

SMITH: Painters go to the store to get paint that is a chemical-based product like zinc or aluminum. Those are the brushstrokes. Those are the elements of the composition and the composition is beautiful. Whether you’re going to propose to your partner on the beach or the parking lot of McDonalds, it’s a beautiful thing. Or if your child is born in the bathtub with monks chanting or in the backseat of a taxi, it’s still the beautiful birth of a child.

LEHRER: The outcome is still beautiful, the circumstances or materials used are less important than the final outcome.

PARKER: Yeah, so that’s just the material that I’m using right now. I like it--its accessible, it’s cheap, I can afford it, and I can order it online on Amazon prime for free two-day shipping [laughs]. But actually these synthetic materials are super technology: if you showed mylar balloons to someone 500 years ago they’d be mind-blown. And these were people sculpting beautiful figures with marble. I doubt that they’d be sculpting with marble after seeing these thin, mylar-inflated balloons that can float and weigh nothing. I think that any artist in any century ultimately would be drawn to these materials, because they’re undeniably beautiful. I think marble and bronze are incredible too. But it’s more expensive...and there’s no free shipping [laughs].

LEHRER: Your PS1 studio visit said you “Create elements to cultivate environments that are haunting, familiar, and alien." I know that the installation part of your artworks is important too, so are you trying to create a similar headspace? Should the installation have a similar quality to how you felt in the environment that you made the work in?

SMITH: No, not for me. I try to think of where the work is going to show as I’m making it. I envision it in that space and make it so that it’s appropriate for that. For instance, a lot of the work in here is way too large for my studio, so I had to put myself in this place while I was making it. So I think of the studio as a purely utilitarian place for myself. I

LEHRER: It’s always funny because I feel like journalists especially try to attach these pseudo spiritual qualities to the ways in which the artist works. But you don’t get the sense that maybe how you work or what you create changes with different tweaks and adjustments to your studio space or anything like that?

SMITH: I mean if I were to get a studio with higher ceiling I would make taller works. [laughs] Yeah, artists are like goldfish in the way they sort of expand and contract based on their environment. So it definitely affects me but living an interesting life is as important to my practice. It’s like a pressure cooker to be enriched in life and the studio space is like a small part of that.

 LEHRER: I read somewhere that you like incorporating illusion. I guess this show with the perceived weightlessness of these objects could even qualify as illusion. Do you have an intended effect for using illusion? Is it supposed to throw the viewer off or make the viewer connect with it?

SMITH: Everybody loves magic because it’s fun. We all know it doesn’t really exist but it’s fun anyway. I probably would do things the right way if I could afford it. Making undulating marble and gigantic casts of mylar balloons like Jeff Koons—that’s not a possibility for me. Much of the illusion comes from adversity: “how do I accomplish the things I want to accomplish with the means I have available?” But people like magic so it’s cool.

LEHRER: I read something about this volatile professor that you had in your grad school that lit a fire under your ass. Do you feel like you make best work under a lot of stress or duress?

SMITH: It’s hard to say because it’s been a long time since I’ve been at school and that stressed out, so I’m not sure what to compare that against. But I like to have some sort of agitation, whether it’s self-induced or an external factor. But after the initial shock of having that professor really go after me, I kinda’ dug it. It takes a lot of energy and consideration for someone to come in and lay into my work in a really aggressive manner. So I appreciated that from him.

LEHRER: Was he harsh to other classmates too?

SMITH: Not any that I knew, but I did hear he did that sort of thing to other people. He really singled me out, which made me feel even better in the end. I observed him years later with other students that were talentless in my opinion and probably his as well, and he just didn’t really give a shit about them. He would just say, “Looks good,” or whatever. Not to be egotistical again, but when he came into my studio I felt as though he saw potential. He felt obligated as a teacher to get on my ass about it.

LEHRER: It’s like that movie Whiplash.

SMITH: That’s funny because you watch that movie and walk away thinking if that guy was a bastard or was doing the kid a favor. 

LEHRER: I read that you sometimes struggle with ideas but I thought it was interesting because you’re making art all the time. So how does that work?

SMITH: Generating ideas has become less of a problem for me. I definitely do a lot of experimenting. I think you have to learn to read this new visual language that you’re speaking and it takes a while for you to be fluent in it. Sometimes I hit it right away but a lot of times I have to wait into it a little bit. To answer your question there are a lot of things that are produced in the studio that never leave. Or they take a walk into the dumpster.

 LEHRER: How do you know if something is worth showing? Is it intuitive or trained?

SMITH: I’ve never really been good at articulating those qualities. I know when it’s right for me and just rely on that.

Adam Parker Smith "Oblivious The Greek" is on view now until July 24 at the Hole Gallery, 312 Bowery, New York. Text, interview and photographs by Adam Lehrer. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE