Zak Smith is an artist who has illustrated a scene from every page of Gravity’s Rainbow. No one asked Zak to do this but he did it anyway, which says a great deal about the kind of artist he is. The art inhabits territory between the Raymond Pettibon and comps for magazine ads in the 1970s. These illustrations were exhibited at the Witney Biennial in 2004 and are in the permanent collection at the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis. His book, will be available next month from Tin House Books.
TEV: What drew you to Gravity's Rainbow?
ZS: My grandmother called me when the pictures started getting a lot of attention, she said "Well I picked it up, and I read the very first page and I thought to myself--'I can see why Zachary likes it, it's so full of details.'" So, yeah: If you're like me and your head's always eight places at once you kind of need a lot of things going on at once to stay entertained. The plots are intricate, the logic is intricate, and the sentences are intricate. I would also say that there's a lot of hidden subtlety in Pynchon but then everybody thinks there's hidden subtlety in the writers they like.
TEV: Do you find it a difficult book to read?
ZS: There are parts that are, intentionally, difficult to understand, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're difficult to (italics)read(end italics). It's like a puzzle--part of the fun is being dropped into a mysterious situation and thinking your way out. When I went to this Pynchon conference in Malta to talk about the illustrations I was talking to all these lit academics and I said part of the reason I wanted to draw what happened in the book is because you sometimes read stuff in Pynchon and then go--"Wait a second, did that just say what I think it did?" And all these grey heads who've been reading him for years kind of nodded.
TEV: What were your favorite scenes to illustrate?
ZS: I had a lot of fun with the more freakish and hallucinatory stuff, but the more realistic scenes were more of a challenge to make interesting. I remember the first scene I saw clearly was the one near the end where, after running from cops for 50 pages in a pig suit, Slothrop collapses in the seat of a truck and pulls the head of the suit up and smokes a cigarette "wishing he could just sleep." I saw that one very clearly. It's nice--Slothrop's tired of all the running around and absurdity but he is still irretrievably absurd. It reminds of that Social Distortion line--"You can run all your life and not go anywhere."
TEV: Did your series of paintings depicting women in sexual siuations with an octopus come from the scene in Gravity's Rainbow where Slothrop rescues Katje from the devilfish Grigori? ZS: When I started that project I was actually looking for an antidote to Gravity's Rainbow--I'd just spent a year trying to make pictures which followed someone else's words very closely. I wanted to create a project that was just the same image over and over so I could concentrate on just making the pictures look good. Try a blue one, try a red one, y'know...
Believe it or not I'd done about 10 of them before I realized: "Duh!--this is in Gravity's Rainbow. And also Octopussy, and Leautreamont and Klimt and all those Japanese tentacle-porn movies you like and you have an octopus tattooed on your fucking arm, you moron." I'm not sure what it's about, I've never personally had a relationship with an octopus or any kind of cephalopod.
TEV: Which word is better descriptor of Gravity's Rainbow: kinky or slapstick.
ZS: What's a better descriptor of you: "some guy in LA" or "some guy who's not on fire"?
TEV: Presently not on fire, but that could change at any moment. Do you think the hundreds of hours you’ve spent illustrating the scenes and meditating on the book yield any special insight into Pynchon's processes?
ZS: On his processes, no. I mean, if you're a person in the creative business you're always hearing from people with their weird assumptions about how you work and they're always totally wrong. So I would feel like a total chump if I was gonna say I had any special insight. I think the annotaters have done a pretty good job tracking down Pynchon's sources, but I just tried to come at the thing like "Hey, I'm a reader, I picked up a book and it made me imagine this and this and this. Let's compare notes."
TEV: What’s your favorite image?
ZS: It changes. Today maybe it's 634--the text describes someone falling into a dream, at first it's just colors and then it forms into an island--the picture's pretty abstract. 186--Katje and the Octopus, is also a favorite.
After illustrating Gravity’s Rainbow, Smith was approached by Benny Profane, an L.A. pornographer, who wanted to use some of Smith’s art work in his films. This led to Smith’s appearance in the film and emergence of Zak Sabbath. Here’s Smith/Sabbath discussing the meeting with Profane.