Art As the Vehicle for Conversation: The World of Jonathan Grossmalerman

04/16/2014 03:11 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017
Grossmalerman!
promotional shot, 2014. All images courtesy of the artist.
In an age where artists are exploring varying mediums in order to differentiate themselves from the flock, Guy Richards Smit is exploring different versions of himself. Jonathan Grossmalerman (which is literally pig-German for “big painter guy”) is a successful, hedonistic, alcoholic, New York City painter who is known for his erotic paintings and dabbles in the world of stand-up comedy – and is also an alter-ego of Smit. Through Grossmalerman, Smit explores the dark side of the art world through a satirical lens, exposing the sometimes grotesque inner workings in the familiar format of the television sitcom. Since 1996, Smit has revealed the sardonic world of Grossmalerman through a series of videos which have grown to embody the structure of a popular TV series, complete with a catchy opening jingle, campy characters, and rolling credits. Smit has chosen MutualArt to debut his latest episode, Grossmalerman and the Very Important Dinner, which we are excited to share here with our readers.
The world of Jonathan Grossmalerman feels at once a mockery and a snippet of real life. As a character, Grossmalerman is a working artist with a big Soho studio, celebrating the success of having a big Chelsea gallery with worldwide exhibitions, and the satirical stereotyped habits to match: a raging cocaine and alcohol problem, an obsession with painting an oeuvre focused solely on sex, a penchant for prostitutes, and a pill-popping muse as a model. Grossmalerman also physically embodies this stereotype of narcissism, gluttony and lust, speaking at a feverish and nervous pace, and almost always covered in a likely alcohol-induced layer of sweat.
Stills from
Grossmalerman!: True Love
, 2011.
Yet as Grossmalerman, Smit paints us an insider, unseen picture of the art world – even if exaggerated and farcical. Behind the gorgeously hung exhibitions, the champagne-fueled openings and the big checks from art work sales, Grossmalerman gives his insight into the absurd, pushing the reality of the art dealer-artist-collector relationship to the edge of sarcasm, while allowing the viewer to be a fly on the wall. Smit has used the formula of a television show to make the viewer comfortable with entering into the other side of the art world, using a studio setting with a cast of compelling (if not ridiculous) characters that pull at the viewer’s thirst for escapism from their own lives.
Still from
Grossmalerman’s Awkward Run-In With the Ghost of Basquiat
, 2013.
The initial videos, recorded from 1996 to 2000, introduced Jonathan Grossmalerman, which Smit continued in live performance, making appearances as the character. (Smit also performs with wife Rebecca Chamberlain as New Wave pop star Maxi Geil! In the band Maxi Geil! & Play Colt). As Jonathan Grossmalerman, Smit is not only a performance and video artist, but also a painter. Smit considers the works he makes as the character to be his own, bringing his integrity as an artist to each episode with the paintings that are shown in Grossmalerman’s studio. Shirking the idea of how art is represented as simply props on television, Smit insists the pieces seen in the series are “good” paintings, holding up on their own independent of the videos themselves. The series unfolds following the career of Jonathan Grossmalerman, both in the studio and at the gallery, with cameos by art world figures. In Jonathan Gets Clean from 2000, Chelsea art dealer John Post Lee plays Grossmalerman’s evil dealer, who pays the artist in cocaine before calling the police on him for possession. Smit’s thinly veiled criticism of art dealers is met with a sarcastic laugh by the viewer, softening the stereotype of the conniving art dealer.
Guy Richards Smit,
Grossmalerman Self-Portrait
, 2011.
In 2008, the video series took on a new facet, as Smit morphed the series into comic book form. As a comic book, Grossmalerman took on a new narrative quality, letting Smit’s love of exaggeration reach heights that he could not in video, like the kidnapping and stabbing of the character in group therapy. Having received a degree in illustration at Parsons, Smit gave new life to Grossmalerman in two-dimensional form, being able to draw angles, perspectives and gore easier in pen than in special effects for the camera.
Still from
Grossmalerman!: Pilot Episode
, 2011.
The most recent rendition of Grossmalerman has taken on a more campy, sitcom quality. The latest episodes are preceded by a catchy theme song, which coos “Grossmalerman” as it fades into the first scene. This format can be perceived as more of a hook that regular television viewers can relate to, treating the scene of an art studio the same as an office comedy. Grossmalerman’s episodes are of course instead set in art-world centric venues, which only members of this world may be savvy to. For example, in The Studio Visit I (2010), a visiting art critic, played by Kenny Mellman of Kiki and Herb fame, pays  visit to the artist’s studio in his Hamptons getaway, an upscale Long Island haven once the home of the likes of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and now favored by New York’s elite. More recently, the series has developed the characters of Grossmalerman’s assistant and daughter, creating a campy yet relatable storyline about an untraditional family unit that is akin to the typical television sitcom (along with sappy promotional photos that look identical to major shows on any major television network).
Still from
Grossmalerman: The Studio Visit
, 2010.
Smit is not the first to attempt to put fine art into the realm of television. The short-lived reality shows Artstar and Work of Art put fine art onto cable television, with successful artists, well known curators and gallerists as the cast. But this competition-based format failed to entice the general public into the world of fine art. Smit’s take, with a sitcom approach, is more palatable, relatable and therefore just might work. When asked about the failures of these reality shows, the artist himself says it best,
“I don't think those shows worked because there is no ability for the public to gauge what is good art and what is bad art the way they can with singing and dancing. It's also a silly lens through which to view contemporary art. I'm pretty sure if you create a compelling character however ludicrous and buffoonish the audience will follow them. The art will be part of the vehicle the characters have for conversation.” 
And with the vehicle of art disguised as a sitcom, the ingenious and multi-faceted Guy Richards Smit, aka Jonathan Grossmalerman, will feed the appetite for television, simultaneously creating a hunger for fine art.
More episodes from the Grossmalermann series