Donny Smutz Interview

In the News

Donny Smutz is an up-and-coming surrealist artist who recently joined an exclusive representation agreement with Tinney Contemporary. Smutz, who lives in Nashville, has already had solo shows in Los Angeles, Nashville, and Pittsburgh. Smutz's artwork is known for courting controversy. At 2008 exhibition in Nashville, a painting of his was slashed with a box-cutter by someone who thought his work was blasphemous (the painting depicted Catholic nuns in a compromising position). *See footage

Smutz's latest controversial painting titled .gov is a large acrylic-on-canvas depiction of President Barack Obama hanging on a cross while being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and being offered a cheeseburger by Ronald McDonald. This painting will make its debut on the opening night of Smutz's five-week Tinney Contemporary engagement, which is during the Downtown Art Crawl June 6. This painting, due to its sensitive nature and seamless combination of the sacred, profane and popular, will be protected by a private security guard at the exhibition.

Interview conducted by C. Conant of the Conant + Burns Group:
Donny Smutz (pronounced “Sm-ooo-tz”) grew up in the American heartland of Kansas, but his paintings have nothing to do with big skies and grain elevators. Smutz’s artwork, which he creates late at night while most of the world sleeps, is a dream-like explosion of imagination on canvas. Since moving to Nashville, Tenn., about two years ago, Smutz has established himself as an artist to watch, with solo gallery shows in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Penn., and Nashville, Tenn. Smutz, who is self-taught, began his career as a graphic artist and muralist, and even spent a year painting elaborate designs on custom motorcycles. Today, Smutz spends his days, and especially nights, in a Nashville studio painting large acrylic-on-canvas works that are thought provoking and always interesting. His most recent work features Barack Obama hanging on a cross while Oprah Winfrey stands below, reaching up to interview him with a microphone. Ronald McDonald accompanies them by offering a hamburger on a stick, while a flock of blindfolded sheep graze aimlessly around Oprah. I sat down with Smutz, 31, to talk about this provocative piece of art and his philosophy on the creative process. 

Before we get to my other questions, tell me about the painting you’re working on now. It sounds like it could ruffle everyone’s feathers, liberals and conservatives.

“The idea stemmed from Obama’s presidential election and his campaign slogan of ‘hope.’ I saw it everywhere, and it reminded me of Christ, how he was a lot of people’s hope. He walked from town to town and had followers, disciples, and people who believed in his message. Seeing the word ‘hope’ everywhere during the election, on the backs of cars, billboards, t-shirts, you name it, made me think that people were, and are, holding Obama up as the Christ of our generation. Everybody is looking for that hero, and once they find out that that hero isn’t bulletproof, they are likely to crucify him.  It gave me a very uneasy feeling knowing that people were putting so much stock into this one man. He may do some great things, but it makes me uncomfortable.

To the left of Obama, Oprah is holding up a microphone and interviewing him. To me, Oprah represents the media culture we live in and the high regard we hold celebrities opinions. When Oprah says something like, ‘Hey, there’s a new book out, it’s great,’ all of a sudden, thousands of people go out and buy it. She is a very influential woman and she does great things—it’s just that so many people do what she says without thinking for themselves. The sheep in my painting represent those who tend to just follow the leader, so to speak, like Oprah and and other media icons.

And then there’s Ronald McDonald. The idea of fast food represents our immediate need to have things quick, easy and cheap. I think that rubs off on a lot of different facets in our lives including relationships and politics. We are more about the quick fix rather than thinking about any long-term goals or consequences."

Are there things that have happened in your life that flew in the face of rationality? Things that influenced the fantastical imagery in your artwork?

“I grew up in a small town where you went to an 8 to 5 job in a restaurant or factory and you got married right out of high school. We were geared towards that thinking and there are only a handful of people from small towns who get out and see what’s really out there. I was restless back home after going through a divorce and my mom passing away.  I thought, ‘Wow, life’s too short.’ When all of that happened, I sold everything I had and from that point on, it’s been just me and my art-- The only thing that can’t be taken away from me.”

Tell me about your personal style of painting, how you developed it. 

“Nothing’s new under the sun when it comes to art or music or anything else in the world. You take elements of things around you that you’re inspired by and then create your own ideas, and put it on canvas, in a song, whatever your outlet may be… Sometimes I start out with an idea, but I usually begin with acrylic paint, water it down, and then put it on canvas. I try to see what it’s telling me, and I know that’s cliché, but that’s when the element of surprise comes to life in my work…sometimes people ask me how I come up with my ideas and I have to respond that I just see it. Acrylic paint has a way of moving around on canvas, and it starts creating patterns and shadows, and if I step back I can really start finding things: ‘Oh, that’s a man, that’s a bird,’ and a story starts to take shape. And then at that point you start to create the story. This most recent painting started out with the concept, and that happens, too. I’ll be at a movie or I’ll be out running and all of a sudden something will hit me and I’ll say that would be a good painting and I’ll go in the studio and start sketching it out.”

Give me five things you can’t live without.

1.) “The freedoms we have. I think being in a Country where I can create art, sell it and make a living, is a blessing. A place where I have a right to paint anything I’d like, and people have a right to judge it and speak their mind about it.”

2) “Family and friends. No one wants to be alone. I think knowing there are people out there, family, who believe in me and love me is very important. You gain friends here and there, but you always have family, no matter what.”

3) “Music. Music is a huge part of my life. I played music for the first year and a half I lived here and I traveled to a lot of places. When I’m in the studio the only thing around me is the music I’m playing. Right now I’m listening to Ryan Adams, Radiohead, Travis, Bjork, and Elbow.”

4) “Travel. I love being outside and getting out of the city life. Where there’s no sound of cars and the bustle of people running by. Like going to the mountains of Colorado and being overwhelmed by how big this world really is.”

5) “God. I believe there is a reason for everything that has happened in my life. Even if some of it has felt like chaos, it’s gotten me to the point where I’m at today. I feel like my life has a purpose and I believe I am the middleman for that purpose.”

 

*photo by Maggie Thompson