interview by Nicolás Guagnini

Greg Parma Smith, Science, Classicism, Lycanthropy, 2007
Courtesy of the artist and Khastoo Gallery, Los Angeles

GREG PARMA SMITH    In your interview with John Miller, you said that you abhor colored pencils and representation as a starting point for art. Meanwhile, I apparently love spending months and months in my studio invested exclusively in the ardent and persistent representation of colored pencils…


NICOLÁS GUAGNINI    Well, in your case it appears that you are representing both the pencils and a specific code of representation, which i identify as a generic and all-encompassing mash-up of the western tradition. It’s realism—kitschy hyper-realism—with a modern gestaltic compositional twist, and the appearance of print advertising. Do you pose the generic and the neutral as explicitly opposing pop art’s dependence on the iconic? Or is there an attempt to evoke the subcultural as a critique of mainstream culture via some ironic wink constructed out of virtuosity?
GPS    The distinction between mainstream culture and subculture is so fluid now that aesthetic cues aren’t enough to announce a critical distance. Irony is only a starting point. I think that’s why the perennial reverence for the humble aesthetic of indie-rock seems sort of tainted and sad: it demonstrates how the unfastened “feeling” of subculture has become a creepy vehicle for a rarified expression of virtuous taste, rather than rebellion. That “feeling” is increasingly personal, but increasingly ecumenical and meaningless. I’m thinking of certain approaches to painting, too. Sergej Jensen and Richard Aldrich spring to mind, but there are many other examples. I’m not immune to the affective appeal of style, but it underscores the need for some kind of engagement with the designated content, even if that requires half-believing in a reality in which the Western tradition of painting really is generic, and even transparent. Part of the reason I’m interested in the generic is that it seems more and more elusive, and in a perverse way, more tasteful. On some libidinal level, it promises the possibility of universality, more so than the icon anyway, which I associate with flat-out submission… European Pop artists of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, like Eduardo Paolozzi or Konrad Klapheck or Thomas Bayrle, excised iconic print images and made them generic material in a strange, surreal matrix, rather than feeding them back into a mechanical icon-machine. I don’t know if it’s accurate or fair, but I want to say that their work articulates a more nuanced skepticism of the man/machine convergence than most of the American Pop artists.


Greg Parma Smith, Advanced Colored Pencil Techniques 1, 2011
Courtesy of the artist and Khastoo Gallery, Los Angeles

NG    So we’re looking at the generic and the iconic as the flip sides of a pop coin, in the sense that both signify social consensus around an image. If you align the iconic with machine and— crucially—the generic with the hand, i would then claim a distinctly american genealogy for your work: James Rosenquist and Ed Ruscha. There is also an intense politicization of pop tropes through a subversion of the iconic in non-american artists like Antonio Caro or Öyvind Fahlström. I concede that your work evades cultural assimilation by stepping over, or on, subculture. You pose perversion as a potent value in relationship to taste. What, then, are the politics of the hand, of virtuosity, of labor in your work?

GPS    When I made those still life paintings, I often used a photo as a reference, but only as a template for an actual physical arrangement of objects. I had to find and buy the items, arrange them properly, light them, and often buy them again when they began to rot. I painted from observation. Sometimes I painted several of the same object in order to cut them out of the canvas and paste them onto another support. It’s a cumbersome, inefficient way to make a painting. Working like this, it’s impossible to conjure up a solo-show onsite in 24 hours, or—if you’re Merlin Carpenter—in 20 minutes. The virtuosity that is highly valued now is globally mobile productive efficiency combined with the ability to elevate a “low” aesthetic—again, the elegant assimilation of the subcultural. Anyway, I find it pleasurable to wedge material labor back into the production of images. I think “the hand” traditionally points to the physical conditions of creative labor. One interesting thing about both Rosenquist and Ruscha is their works’ reference to professional sign painting, “the hand in service.” There’s something compelling about seeing the specific restrictions that alienated commercial labor places on the otherwise “free” creative hand. That way of highlighting labor can be quaint or annoying when it’s in the service of reconstructing a reverence for some authentic material integrity (“Brooklyn”). Then, on the other side of the “handmade” is dematerialization, which itself is obviously not an unqualified PC virtue or a final solution to the problem of exchange value… More importantly, I really enjoy “crafting” paintings, and there’s also a politics to enjoyment and doing what you want. Maybe there’s even a masturbatory aspect—that’s another form of the “hand in service.”

Greg Parma Smith, Early Work 5, 2009
Courtesy of the artist and Khastoo Gallery, Los Angeles

NG    Sure, from conceptual art’s deskilling to Mladen Stilinovic’s “The Praise of Laziness,” from punk aesthetics to Josef Strau’s “Nonproductive Attitude,” the official contestatory discourse is anti-labor. But this does not politicize the hand per se. It’s an argument by opposition—and as such, non-substantive. With regard to sign painting, not only is your pictorial practice well beyond the skill level of Ruscha or Rosenquist, but today sign painting has been largely turned over to the apparatus of mechanical reproduction.

Wade guyton is working that vein. The conditions of labor you refer to for commercial painting might have rung true back when Andy dropped the last “a” from his last name. Enjoyment, masturbation—those terms dovetail with the notion of perverting taste as a value. I see there a dimension of uncharted excess that interests me more as a subject position. How does this relate to your use of basrelief and trompe l’oeil? These visual devices, which you deploy in canvases that often have the same themes and size as traditional still lifes, hark back to the cubist collage, the exemplary moment for a structuralist reading of high modernism.

GPS    I’m motivated by subjects and styles that somehow pose a problem to my own taste, or represent conflicted desires. I came to Pop-like imagery a few years ago through Happy Mondays’ Pills ‘n’ Thrills‘n’ Bellyaches album, whose cover uses Pop as a completely digested graphic style. Central Station, the designers of that album, repurposed the generic gloss on Pop—endorsing enjoyment with the built-in critique that it is fleeting and might make you ill—to make a statement about lifestyle. It’s textbook postmodernism, but it functioned so perfectly at that moment as design, not art. YSL made dresses with the look of Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian, etc. They’re ambiguous. Do they demonstrate good taste or bad? Probably extragood via bad via good, but it’s still a little vague. These weird, really beautiful perversions of art history in the service of taste and style are so visually articulate. “Liking” cubist collage, or Braque/Picasso, or The Picasso Papers, is sort of similar. It’s in bad taste to actually use these modernist moves because they’re so thoroughly resolved; there’s no edge at all, nothing at stake. Yet for that very reason, playing with them gives me a certain thrill. Wouldn’t it be cynical to ignore their nagging, satirical appeal?

Greg Parma Smith, Early Work 1, 2009
Courtesy of the artist and Khastoo Gallery, Los Angeles

NG    The instances you are mentioning belong to the final consolidation of the fashion industry with the visual arts—a development linked to the shared machinic territory of prêt-à-porter and pop’s mass-produced imagery. Your laborious hand displaces a perversion of those tropes into the realm of the unique autonomous object: oil painting on canvas, the ultimate fetish. Yet your deadpan signature style seems to desire to negate taste and style itself. If there is an expressive subject, it expresses concealment: the perverse games with taste that you are describing have always been somewhat about class, place, and time—that is, about historicity, which is Bourdieu’s lesson. But whatever can be constructed in relationship to a critique of taste here is also generic. At this point, we can locate

The alleged criticality of any given set of two-dimensional objects just by glimpsing shows through gallery windows. Your paintings are too intelligent to ask us to believe, but not so cynical as to require our complicity. From Luc Tuymans to Merlin Carpenter, from Michael Krebber to R.H. Quaytman, painting perpetually asks us to join one club or the other; it strives to make us feel cool because we understand, reenacting the taste construct in an intangible sphere vaguely supported by critical theory. I can’t make up the requirements for membership in yours. Your paintings are refractory, visually and theoretically.

GPS    Yes, hopefully painting isn’t just about enunciating social, moral, or class affinities through taste, although it lends itself readily to that purpose. What interests me is the territory where we negotiate legibility and opacity, which I suspect connects back with the generic. Things are a little harder to instrumentalize in that space.