Adam “CODAK” Smith will be painting live at Taco Madness on April 5th in Downtown Los Angeles. As part of our series with all of the artists from the event, please enjoy this interview with Adam conducted by Andrew Bangs…
The home studio of Artist and designer Adam Smith aka C/O/D/A/K sits on a humble stretch of Fair Oaks Avenue in Altadena, with the beautiful and imposing San Gabriel mountains looming in the background. Behind his living space is a 4000 sq. ft. lot — a junkyard landscape of building materials, car parts, appliances and detritus where Smith can paint and practice freely.
“I’m a fucking hermit, dude,” Smith says. ”This is where I’m at, all the time. I stay within my little neighborhood.”
It’s a space that suits his life and his painting, and that for the past few years has allowed him to create, gestate, and contemplate the directions his work will take him.
What brought you to Los Angeles?
About 10 years ago I was living in Memphis, Tennessee. I went to school there and my mother was teaching there, and I was turning 30. I grew up in Portland, Oregon and knew the west coast, but I never saw myself as an “LA person” — I always thought I’d vibe more with San Francisco or go back to Portland. But my dad lived here, so I just threw all my shit in a van and drove out. I thought I’d give it a couple months, see what happens. Then the next thing I know, things just started moving for me and I didn’t have a reason to leave. It’s been nine years…
I think it was good that I didn’t come here with an expectation, that I’m gonna do this or that. I wasn’t setting myself up for some kind of mental downfall.
LA is sometimes described as the most beautiful city in the world, and also as a sort of slowly unfolding apocalypse… Where do you stand on that spectrum?
I’m in the middle! I get the whole apocalyptic “HelLA” thing, but there are beautiful parts, too. I think that you have to understand that every place you live is gonna have that — two sides to every coin. Most swords are double-edged…
[A man is coughing outside his studio window] Like I’ve got this old guy coughing outside my window, and that ain’t pretty… but I can do things here that are beautiful for me. I live right next to the mountains, the hiking trails are five minutes from my house. There’s all kinds of beauty in LA, you’ve just got to look at it through open eyes, and not become jaded.
Favorite taco spot?
That’s a tough one… I am a big fan of al pastor. Anywhere with good pastor. That’s something I didn’t even know existed before I came to California. When I was introduced to al pastor tacos, I was sold.
I do really like CaCao in Eagle Rock. It’s not really a taco place per se, but they’ve got good food and good tacos.
When did you begin painting?
My family background is in art — my mother has taught interior design for forty plus years, and my stepfather was an architect and a furniture designer. So I was brought up with an 80s contemporary art, architecture, design background.
It wasn’t until I got into my 30s that I became cognizant of the effect of that upbringing… I always knew that I was raised in a creative environment, but I didn’t consciously think these specific things were catalysts for what I’ve become artistically. But if I look back now, I’ve been involved with graffiti for 26 years — which is a combination of both of the two things my parents used to do.
So, I didn’t grow up thinking I was an artist per se, it’s just something that I gravitated to and I just naturally did. It wasn’t until my 20s, after college, when I thought I would make the effort to turn this into a career and think of myself as an artist.
And I still have that battle… it’s why I went to school to get a degree in design, to balance it out. I have periods where I’m so occupied with design work that it takes time away from what I could be doing creatively.
Describe your process when you begin a piece or a project.
It always starts from the most simple idea possible: a line. Everything that I do is directed by line and composition.
Outside of that, it’s free flow. I don’t really concept things ahead of time… I’m into the idea of just letting whatever it is that I’m working on lead me wherever it’s going to take me. I might have specific colors or materials that I want to work with, but all my work is very organic and abstract.
If I plan too much, it won’t grab me emotionally. I’m not as lost. If I can get lost in something, that’s where I’m going to find enjoyment in what I’m doing.
And I like to keep it open-ended, with everything that I do. I’m always searching for something… I’m not one of those artists that gets known for one thing, and sits and works with that one thing. I’m always pushing the boundary of what I’ll be doing next. It might still be within the same vein, and a certain aesthetic, but I just don’t want my work to be like a stamp — it’s got to constantly be evolving and changing.
Your work has been described as organic, plant-like, or as having muscle tissue, fabric. Do those terms fit with what’s in your mind?
Yeah, or “malevolent ivy.” I think those terms fit, in different aspects. The “malevolent ivy” thing does remind me of a specific body of work where, yeah, a lot of things I was painting looked like ivy or muscle tissue. They were organic, but with depth. So for that period, that makes complete sense.
“Organic” is something that I’ve always heard, I have no problem with that. On some level I have to accept labels, because people will put them on my work regardless of what I say or do. But “organic” is broad enough that it’s open-ended.
I’m interested in people’s interpretations… the best is when people think I do a lot of drugs, when actually I don’t do any. A lot of people say that the work I do is musical. Being a visually creative person, I’m hugely into music, it’s incredibly important to me. I see what they’re saying: music is an organic thing… the way songs pulse and hit and throb, like my paintings. I get it.
Your work is mostly abstract, but do you have influences or techniques taken from classic or representational art?
Not directly, but inadvertently. At times I’ll look at a piece and see that the way an area of a painting was rendered is interesting, and ask how can I incorporate that into the way I render certain things. But in a specific language, not really.
It’s my background — my parents were more apt to take me to a contemporary gallery. Abstraction, line… It’s what speaks to me, getting lost in the unknown. Or when you don’t totally understand what the artist was thinking, but you can appreciate that there was a thought process behind it, and how it was executed. I’m more fascinated with that sort of psychology, then reinterpreting what I’m seeing in real life.
That said, there are people who do more traditional forms amazingly, beautifully, even today. I’m fascinated by people who can take something from real life, but interpret it in a manner that’s fresh and new, but doesn’t lose the real life aesthetic. El Mac is the perfect example of that: he does traditional portraiture but he’s flipped it into his own niche, that’s completely his own, with complex thinking behind it.
People ask me all the time about my painting: “What the fuck is it?” I don’t think we’ll make it as artists if we only deal with subject matter and material that the average person is going to connect with. I don’t think that’s our job as artists… but when artists are able to do that, and flip it to another level, that’s great.
I’m still trying to figure out where I fit, and I may never find it. I’m not someone that wants to go and do what someone else is already doing. If I see that someone’s working in a certain way, I’m more apt to head in another direction.
For your wall murals, to what extent does the site influence your painting process?
It has a big influence — the amount of space, the shape of a wall, or how that place makes me feel on that day. If I’ve got this weirdly shaped thing, that’s on a slant, or bigger here, tighter here… maybe I should work from that corner down or flow with the shape of the wall.
If it’s high traffic and I know it’s gonna get a lot of view, I know I’ve gotta go hard in the paint!
It’s always chaotic for me, at first. It seems to simplify itself the farther I get into a piece — then I’m becoming more and more in tune with what I’m doing.
You have to be OK with that chaotic moment…
Yeah, just like I have to be OK with chaos in my life. I hate to say “art imitates life” — but I feel that I’m a living embodiment of that, that’s just how I am.
What your next challenge or goal as an artist? Or is it more of a flow…
It is more of a flow. That said, I’d probably like to be more relevant in the gallery scene than I currently am. That’s ebbed and flowed a little bit. It was going really well a few years ago, but I intentionally backed off. It seemed like the gallery scene was more about the show, and less about the work. I’m real sensitive to stuff like that… I don’t even necessarily like going to art openings, it’s super awkward. Art is a personal thing, you’re baring your soul and what I do is personal to me.
As far as goals, I want to make a living off of what I’m doing and have a family, etc. etc. What I feel good about every day is that, while, yeah, I may not be able to pay my fucking bills, I’ve earned my respect within the art world. That’s one thing that, hands down, I know that I have. Not everyone may like me, but I’ve earned respect within the art community. People know who I am and what I do, and can recognize one of my pieces when they see it.
And that’s a good feeling. And that I have younger kids hitting me up, saying “Dude you really inspire me, I love your work.” You can’t ask for too much more than that. Money comes and goes but respect stays with you. It’s important to me to keep pushing myself and keep moving forward. And we as artists are moving further and faster than we’ll ever realize in that moment.
You’re donating the proceeds from your piece you’ll be creating at Taco Madness go to the organization A Place Called Home. How did you pick this cause?
They’re in South Central, they mentor kids from tough neighborhoods, provide them with counselling and mentoring. Which I think is really important. I wanted to find a way to give to an organization that offered counselling, for abused or neglected children. And they have creative outlets that let kids deal with things in their lives.
Are there specific types of pieces or installations or mural projects you want to get into?
This is the year I get into the large scale mural game. I’ve been painting walls for two decades now, I started when I was 14. And last year I was an assistant on a five-story mural, for Doze Green. It was an honor to work with him, and I think I’m ready to try something like that.
The way my painting works, it could be really difficult to work on something big, because my work is so free flowing. It could also force me to think more cohesively and conceptually, because you have to. I think it could look really good, at that scale.
That said, bigger is not always better. A six inch by four inch painting or illustration can have just as much emotional, gravitational pull to it as a four-story, 400-foot wall.
Besides that, I have some shows coming up, and I want to get more involved in commissioned mural projects. 2014, I’m going to get out, do more live painting and see what else is out there. At the end of the day, I’m just going to keep painting.
Visit CODAK online: here
This article brought to you in part by Blick Art Materials, an official sponsor of Taco Madness 2014.
Taco Madness 2014 is Curated by the DoArt Foundation.