Lucien Smith On The Excesses Of The NY Art World [Exclusive]
Lucien Smith is one of the art world’s youngest, brightest stars. He’s oft been referred to as a wunderkind, showing at hip places like Half Gallery and OHWOW, as well as Upper East Side stalwarts like Salon 94 and Skarstedt Gallery, and palling around with other young, successful dudes like Dean Levin and the guys from Still House. Smith is only 26, yet for the past five years his works have sold for staggering amounts of money—even pieces from his college days are going for upwards of $300,000. A genuine art world celebrity, he courts both celebration and controversy in equal measure.
In recent years, the controversy started to win out. Smith has been deemed polarizing by critics, who’ve used derogatory phrases like “Zombie Formalism” and “M.F.A. Abstraction” to describe his work—not that that’s affected its value. His personal life became a part of the art online news cycle (yes, that is a thing), and most egregiously, a party/performance he threw last Halloween, called “Macabre Suite,” was roundly criticized. Hosted in the South Bronx, the celebrity-filled party featured cars covered in bullet holes and garbage can fires, and local residents were insulted (to be fair to Smith, most seemed to take issue with the staging of the event, not his work).
But things seem to be calming down. Smith remains hard at work, taking on more film and fashion projects, as well as a more mellow relocation to Los Angeles. We spoke about his upcoming projects, including a forthcoming book of nightlife photos, the downsides of great success at an early age, and how he likes both raging and peace and quiet, á la “Jekyll and Hyde.”
Could you tell me about that night in Paris with Brad Elterman [pictured here]? It looked like so much fun. Why were you guys there, and what did you get up to?
Yeah it was great fun, I ran into Brad at my opening, “Allergic to Morning,” at Moran Bondaroff in Los Angeles. I was telling him how excited I was to head to Paris for Supreme’s store launch, and discovered we’d both be there for one overlapping night.
So we met one night at the Louvre—him, Richie [Davis], and their friend Sasha. I was so clueless where to eat during my trip there. I went to the same restaurant every day called Nanashi. So Brad recommended Brasserie Lipp. I ordered their special dish, Choucroute garnie au véritable jambon de Paris, and it was basically a pig shoulder with the skin and hair still on it. Delicious! I felt so bad for Sasha through because she’s a vegetarian.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been exploring a lot of different industries lately. I just took over as creative director for Vivien Ramsay, and we’ll be launching our first collaborative [collection] this spring. I’m very excited to watch this brand grow. I think that I can offer a new perspective and make some exciting changes to the idea of a “fashion brand.”
I also just moved my studio over to Vernon, Los Angeles so I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to get that ready.
What is it like working in LA? Do you have an opinion on the LA vs. NY debate?
Currently that studio is still under renovation. But I will say it’s so refreshing to have my rent be a fraction of what I was paying in New York. I was once a victim of this trend to chase this romantic idea of the ‘80s, paying absurd rent to have a Soho or TriBeCa studio. People were there in the past because it was cheap. Los Angeles is still relatively cheap, so that’s where I am.
You’ve previously stated that your website was a way to separate yourself from the gallery system. Have you noticed any change in how your work is bought, sold, perceived, etc., since the site went up?
The last two years for me have been much easier. I feel like putting all my work to date in one place and organizing it has alleviated a lot of stress and allowed me to think and create in a much more liberating way.
You’ve gone upstate to prepare for shows, and you recently bought a home in Montauk. How does your process differ when you leave the city?
I think I’ve always made my best work in isolation. I’ve been battling for years now with the many distractions of the “city.” It’s a sort of Jekyll and Hyde thing I have going on, so leaving the city has always been a simple solution. Spending time out east has really helped me to appreciate sobriety and my health, though no matter how good that feels, the city is always calling me back. I think a healthy balance [definitely exists], but finding that is like walking a tightrope for me.
“I love that lifestyle—making friends in bathrooms, night crawling, walks of shame.”
It seems like going out is almost essential to an artist’s career these days. What do you think of the relationship between socializing and making art?
Ah man, it’s tough to say. I love that lifestyle—making friends in bathrooms, night crawling, walks of shame. It’s definitely been a right of passage for most New York artists. I remember when I first moved back to New York there were always, like, collectors and dealers wanting to party and do drugs with us. That vibe is definitely gone I think, probably [because] most of those people are sober, have kids, or fell off the deep end.
I’ll be releasing a photo book later this year titled Luck of Lucifer, which is pretty much what you’re referring to. For me, it was a therapeutic experience putting this book together, because I actually now have something physical that has manifested itself from all that besides just a hangover.
I loved The Snowy Day. Are you looking to do more film work?
Yes! Ha I’m glad you caught that. We did a really low-key release for that film. I’ve been in correspondence with a production house that I really respect, and have been generating one script that I’m really excited to bring to the screen. It’s a much slower process than I’m used to, which is good because I’ve had the time to really tailor the project to exactly what I want.
Any chance you’d want to elaborate on what your script is about?
Unfortunately I got to keep that pretty tight, but I will say it’s an amazing true story about the hypocrisy of religion and the destruction of a masterpiece.
Your work really took off while you were extremely young. Are there downsides to early success?
It’s a gift and a curse. I was dealing with a lot of serious career decisions with no experience, so I had to learn a lot of things the hard way. That being said, I’m honored to have had that opportunity. I wanted everything and I wanted it young, and that’s what I got. Though that was hard, I’m a much stronger person because of it.
What was your experience like at the Cooper Union?
Cooper was great, I miss it. It’s art school—it’s like where kids go who don’t fit in anywhere else. Or maybe they do? Art is cool now, so it might be different. At the same time, looking back at that experience gives me the heebie-jeebies, just like eating pizza stuck in my little cubby 15 hours a day. Crazy.
“I just had a really bad taste in my mouth from showing work so young.”
You were quoted saying that you “don’t want to do shows anymore—the opening, the dinner, all of that.” What’s the ideal format in which you would like to present your work?
I just had a really bad taste in my mouth from showing work so young. I was really angry when I said that, but I still live by the same mentality. I prefer to do more underground type shows, pop-ups, backroom shit. I’m not interested in exhibitions being the justification of showing work, if that makes sense? My new property in Los Angeles has a large viewing space where I will arrange smaller appointment-only viewings for myself and other artists.
Speaking of alternatives to gallery shows, there was controversy around your “Macabre Suite” in the Bronx. What did you think of the complaints?
Yeah, there was definitely some controversy. I threw a party and I got chewed out. It’s kinda of like throwing a party and getting a slap on the wrist from your parents, but imagine your parents are the entire internet-savvy population of the Bronx and culture bloggers looking for notoriety by any means necessary. Most of the attention was put towards the politics of the party, and not to the dance performance that I arranged, which was the whole point of the event. Art sucks in that way, and that’s why I’m really not into this idea of the vernissage [a private viewing of exhibition before it opens] anymore. It really needs to be about the art, and not about the people around it.
Luckily, I believe that performance will travel to Paris where I hope it will be welcomed with more appreciation.
View more of Lucien Smith’s work at his website.
All photos shot exclusively for Milk by Brad Elterman. Images of Smith’s artwork via Lucien Smith Studio and BFA.
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