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Stepping Out of Character and Into His Art

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 11, 2004; Page C01

One in an occasional series


Jonathan Grossmalerman has got to be one of the most unpleasant artists you could ever meet. He wears his hair slicked back like a cheap hood's. His suits look as if he should be hanging out in a sleazy Vegas lounge. He sweats and swears and sprays when he talks -- when he isn't too drunk and coked up to talk at all.

Guy Richards Smit in his Brooklyn studio: As a live and video performer, the painter becomes the art. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

Jonathan Grossmalerman: Watch artist Guy Richards Smit in the guise of his alter ego.

For all his growing recognition, Grossmalerman's notion of wit extends to such comments as: "The feminists got to my wife. She ended up shaving her head, and refusing to shave anything else." Or, speaking of his massive "Domestic Violence" paintings: "Can we for a moment not pretend there's nothing sexy about domestic violence?"

Luckily, this article is about another artist altogether, a 34-year-old Brooklynite named Guy Richards Smit. When he comes to the door of his tidy little studio, which is tucked almost among the footings of the Williamsburg Bridge, he's wearing jeans, a staid blue shirt and boat shoes without socks.

He's slim, with thinning blond hair in a conservative cut and pale eyes that look out onto the world with nervous intensity. He looks less like a Williamsburg bohemian than a junior professor.

That's Smit's manner, too: He's modest and thoughtful, with a hesitant, almost academic style.

He is also, as it happens, Jonathan Grossmalerman. Or rather, Jonathan Grossmalerman is Smit's artistic alter ego. Or not even that: Jonathan Grossmalerman is simply Smit's creation, the way Caravaggio could paint a torturer without being one himself. Smit says that he's a "storytelling artist," interested in the "basic things artists have been interested in for a long time."

His strange storytelling videos of Grossmalerman in action have been attracting attention since he launched the series back in 1996. A more recent series of videos and performances, in which Smit adopts the persona of a new-wave rock star named Maxi Geil! -- that mandatory exclamation point gives some idea of Geil's tastes -- has pushed Smit's career even further along.

This evening, his latest, most ambitious Maxi Geil! video will be the featured attraction at New York's Museum of Modern Art, along with a live concert by Geil and his backup band, PlayColt. The show is part of "Premieres," a prestigious series of film and new-media events programmed to celebrate the museum's recent reopening.

Part of Smit's success must come from the simple brilliance of his ventriloquism. Watching Smit assume the persona of Grossmalerman or Geil is like studying one of Rembrandt's strange fantasy portraits, in which the Dutchman puts on an exotic costume and then paints a "self-portrait" that isn't about himself at all. (I'm not saying that Smit -- who just happens to be half-Dutch and to have studied art in Holland -- is the next Rembrandt. No one is, or likely ever will be.)

In the fantasy world of Smit's videos, Grossmalerman is billed as a big-time, best-selling New York painter -- the name is pig-German for "big painter guy" -- but the videos mostly show him alone onstage doing a stand-up act in front of an imaginary audience.

He's conquered painting (or so the story goes), made a movie, written a book and cut an album, so Grossmalerman's last frontier is to confront his audience in person. And Smit, for all the reserve of his own bearing, has managed in his stage persona to channel all the boorish mannerisms of your standard low-end, high-energy comedian.

Watch the videos with the sound turned off, and you'd sometimes swear you were watching real footage of someone with some kind of a career in comedy -- no comic genius, maybe, but someone who's got the timing and manner down, and can press the standard buttons that deliver laughs.

For all the verisimilitude of Smit's performances -- there are hints of Andy Kaufman in his amazing metamorphosis -- he hates most stand-up comedy. It's "low-rent love," he says, in which a needy entertainer tries to get an audience to laugh along with him -- or at him, if that's what it takes. Sort of like some of the unhealthier relationships between an artist and his public.

Smit has captured just the kind of cliche-ridden act you could imagine a no-talent, big-ego, booze-addled painter putting on, if he crossed over into comedy. He's a kind of art-world blend of Don Rickles at his most vicious and Woody Allen at his most neurotic, though his insult humor is never even vaguely funny and his neuroses have not a jot of charm.

Grossmalerman buys into all the old cliches of the romantic artist who blows off his angst through his art making -- whether that's a bout of painting or a comedy routine. Onstage, he's full of the kind of anger, self-obsession and self-immolating tendencies that certain collectors still think of as the crucial ingredients that go into making art -- and that Smit is keen on sending up. Smit hides his own barbs within Grossmalerman's lame act.

Grossmalerman does a bit about how all successful artists have a "shtick" that governs all the art they make: There's the "stuffed-bear guy," "the Catholic-hang-ups guy," the "bundles-of-sticks lady" -- "Well, I'm the big-painting guy," he explains. The riff gets at one of Smit's pet peeves: famous artists who launch their careers with innovation, and then spend their lives churning out the same stuff that first began to earn them cash. (On that note, Smit says he's all done doing Grossmalerman, despite that character's success, and he insists that he's about to kill off Maxi Geil! as well, even though the rock star's popularity has hardly crested yet.)

Grossmalerman also has a semi-comic, paranoid obsession that any hiccups in his career are due to art-world machinations and conspiracies -- the feminists are ganging up on him, or his dealers are all cheats and con men. Smit remembers this kind of talk among some of the bitter artists who taught him in grad school (he got an MFA from Rutgers in 1996) and still hears it from colleagues whose brilliant art hasn't gotten the adulation they think it deserves.

And then there's Grossmalerman's larger assumption that he and his art are somehow one: That if he's a famous painter, his jokes and anecdotes -- even his juvenile opinions and foul-mouthed rants, his drunken, drug-dazed blatherings -- should matter, too, and interest an audience.

"This country seems to have this worship for ambitious men," says Smit. He's seen enough big-name, ambitious artists misbehaving to have a "vitriolic" dislike for their antics, and to know how to reproduce them. "I'm reasonably observational," says Smit, who has an enduring love for great "observational" painters such as Velazquez, Goya and Daumier, and who himself makes paintings that complement some of the themes he gets at in his videos.

Like painting, Smit says, stand-up comedy is an established form into which an artist can insert the content that interests him. "The rules of pop music, or painting, or stand-up are fascinating things to be undermined, or played with, or enjoyed and used."

Smit's relationship to pop is less troubled than his relationship to comedy, or maybe even to art. As a teenager growing up in New York City, Smit was always in one alt-rock band or another. Pop helped him rebel against a private-school education and academic parents: His father, a well-known historian, moved from Holland in 1965 to assume the Wilhelmina chair at Columbia; his mother, who died recently, was a professor of library history. There's an amp and a guitar in one corner of Smit's studio, and you sense that they're not played with irony. Maxi Geil! may be more like Smit's true alter ego than a Hyde to the artist's Jekyll.

The imaginary musician's first CD, titled "Maxi Geil! and PlayColt," doesn't quite place the band out on the cutting edge of rock. But the material Smit writes for Geil includes surprisingly well-crafted examples of the heartfelt three-minute pop song. "It's a band that I would listen to, and that's probably the most that I could say," is Smit's take on things -- even though it's songs he wrote that are in question.

The album sounds like the product of a new-wave act, circa 1981, that still has an unabashed love of Roxy Music, Brian Ferry and David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust mode. But for all that retro styling, it has a certain kind of current credibility as well. The band draws good crowds to its performances in New York's clubs.

It's only the videos that Smit turns out in the pop star's name that are the pits.

Art, says Smit, is about creating problems. "It's really important that I'm constantly screwing myself up," he says, so he asked himself what would be the stupidest thing that he -- as Maxi Geil! -- could do.

How about a full-blown rock musical called "Nausea II"? After several years of intermittent work on the idea, Smit used MoMA's promise of a premiere to get a museum in Indianapolis and his New York gallery, called Roebling Hall, to fund the hour-long video -- to the tune of $25,000.

For the musical, Smit imagines that Geil has got the brilliant idea that he should play a pornographer who quits the business in order to commit himself to love and to a purer vision of his art. Porn, says Smit, has become something "so huge in the popular imagination" -- he cites the "erotic" videos produced by Snoop Dogg -- that Geil sees it as a natural venue for his creative talents.

Scenes veer from simulated sex and gross exploitation to musical numbers full of tender new-wave crooning. "I tried to make it, on some level, grueling and very awkward," says Smit. "Nausea II," he explains, is about an attempt at dealing with a large, important topic via a rock musical. "It fails miserably," says Smit.

The video is acted and shot with all the craft of the cheapest porno tape -- but are we supposed to imagine that this is Geil's deliberate conceit as the video's director, or Smit's decision as a deus in his machina? The confusion between the roles of Smit and Geil -- and between Geil, Smit's imaginary rock star and director, and Geil, the rock star's own fictional porn king -- make the artwork appealingly complex. It's as though Smit takes the premise of a mockumentary such as "This Is Spinal Tap," then gives it the density and even subtle incoherence of good contemporary art.

It's possible to read some of "Nausea II" as a straightforward art-world allegory that works in a satirical, Grossmalerman-ish mode. There's one junior pornographer who shoots the same popular perversions over and over, claiming that he has an "obsession" that he needs to work through -- an obvious analogy to the self-indulgent artist who paints the same marketable picture again and again, because, he claims, he needs to scratch some private psychic itch.

When Geil and PlayColt's Giselle Thurst set out to "find themselves" (Thurst is played by Rebecca Chamberlain, an artist and singer who married Smit last year), they end up on a shopping spree. Shades of the self-exploration of any number of bankable Chelsea artists who have "forgotten the notion of exploration, of contradicting oneself, of trying to broaden one's horizons," Smit says.

And when Geil quits the world of porn, he delivers a scathing speech to his colleagues: "You let your imaginations run wild, and this is what you came up with? . . . You people are libertines with the souls of bureaucrats." Smit describes this as a "thinly disguised" attack on his contemporaries in the art world.

But I think the video as a whole is more subtle than those readings suggest, or maybe even than Smit has quite articulated yet. Geil has some talent as a musician, and that wins him our sympathy and trust. (Grossmalerman never wins either.) But the ambition that made Geil a star -- possibly along with the self-regard that stardom brings -- also leads him into making work that pushes him beyond where his true talent lies. So should Geil stick with what he's good at, however modest it turns out to be, or try his hand at stuff that may turn out to be absurd musical pornography? Which is better, satisfying competence or interesting incoherence, even failure?

Every time he paints an attractive, salable picture, Smit must ask himself something like this. And he goes on to make his next peculiar video, anyway.

A sample of Smit's Grossmalerman videos can be seen at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/mmedia/style/120904-13v.htm. Music and videos by Maxi Geil! and PlayColt can be found at www.maxigeil.com.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company