Guy Richards Smit
Contemplating Comedy and Painting Onstage
How do we put this? A Guy’s gotta paint! And the Guy who’s gotta paint has clearly gotta be obsessed about it! And maybe a few other things besides painting… like SEX! I mean a Guy’s gotta be inspired to paint! And then he’s gotta get through the stuff that fuels, fires, or contrarily, blocks that inspiration, those obsessions. Like—could he get a drink or something? No—something more medicinal… yeah vodka will do just fine—just give him the bottle goddamnit! And all those details! Why does it have to be so hard—to keep the studio together? To have a semi-competent assistant who has the paint and brushes ready and your canvases gessoed for that moment of inspiration? To find the gallery of your dreams to get your paintings into the hands of collectors who won’t just auction them off a week later?
Okay maybe not this Guy specifically—Guy Richards Smit—though he might be accused of painting obsessively (he filled a gallery with a mountain of skulls—at least half of which most of us would have recognized). This is Guy’s invisible second cousin, the nightmare evil twin that keeps whispering, the opposite, you fool—the other way! Twenty years ago, Smit created the alter ego, Jonathan Grossmalerman —the flaming wreckage that probably represents about every sixth person in the art world. Fortunately there’s another “twin”—Maxi Geil of Smit’s alt-rock ensemble PlayColt—channeling an alter ego that might be the lab-bred spawn of Brian Ferry and Brian Eno. I wondered what it was about the alter-ego that Smit found essential to his process. So I gave him a call at his Brooklyn apartment…
ARTILLERY: What is it about the alter-ego that you find necessary or compelling—and why do you feel you need more than one?
GUY RICHARDS SMIT: I’m not entirely sure! I think it might take a bit of pressure off, Grossmalerman really started out as a critique of the older white male artists I kept coming into contact with. I really didn’t want to turn out like them and was equally really sure I would not. But to be honest, as I’ve grown older and less judgmental a certain pathetic likeability has crept in. I know now that many of these traits are universals among artists and it’s become more interesting to me.
I know you produce work directly corresponding to the alter-ego dramas. Are the alter-egos essential to the work not directly connected to their names? Are Jonathan Grossmalerman and Maxi Geil essential to the work you do as Guy Richards Smit?
They are certainly very rich veins from which to draw. Nothing that Grossmalerman and Maxi Geil does or thinks hasn’t already crossed my mind. Songs and jokes often came out of paintings and vice versa and in the skull series I know certain skulls are informed by Grossmalerman, others by Maxi Geil. Really, that series is like the perfect holistic Guy Richards Smit experience.
I realize this is a deliberate parody, but have there been any artists you’ve known (dead or alive) who were quite this messed up?
He’s sort of a menagerie of terrible traits. I’ve known many screwed up artists but most of them shared only one or two with Grossmalerman. I’m not sure how they would have survived a week if they were as bad as Grossmalerman. But, man! I’ve known some fucked up and miserable people!
Besides sex, vodka and Linda Nochlin, what inspires Grossmalerman?
Youth, painting, success, being loved unconditionally and success, again.
I know you came to painting and fine arts from illustration, but did you ever think you might want to try a career in stand-up comedy?
In the ’90s I started going to clubs and really didn’t like the other comics. They seemed more aggressive and fucked up than the artists I knew and that visceral need for the audience’s love is simply not something I share or like to be around. That said, I just started doing stand-up comedy again because I think it’s really changed and there may be more adventurous stuff going on there than in the art world, and I love the simplicity and the craft of it.
Are there any comic actors or stand-up comedians/writers you’ve particularly admired over the years?
I have a particular admiration for the Dutch comedian Hans Teeuwen and the comedy writing of Graham Linehan (IT Crowd) and whoever is writing VEEP. That said, I probably don’t watch enough comedy. For that I am truly sorry.
What made you decide to make an actual sitcom series out of Grossmalerman! with similar format, conventions and production values?
I thought it would be interesting to take the banal, spare, economical vehicle of the sitcom with a complex story arc within each episode that also spanned all five episodes. I liked the ambition and effort it represented and I really love cultural forms. They’re efficient and fascinating to learn. The clockwork of doing a new live episode each week. I liked the idea of paintings being the central plot device as well as the central props. The whole series is really a contemplation on painting—with as many pratfalls as I can stuff in. I’d be totally happy doing this for the rest of my life.
It’s apparent that Grossmalerman! is not intended to be a conventional sitcom; but you have Joshua White involved and you’re filming in front of a live audience and have cast some known professional players. Do you ever feel pressured to make it something more closely approaching an actual sitcom (say, like Seinfeld, or Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman)?
Not really, but the fact that Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was ever made still blows my mind. I’m into the format enough now that I’d love to make a conventional sitcom (if they still exist). I never really storyboarded the show but we did do blocking, although nothing like what they do on an actual sitcom. Joshua is a master planner and built a wonderful miniature of the set before we got started. God I learned a lot from that guy.