Serving the People:

An Interview with Lucien Smith

By Christa Tarnoviski & Frankie Caracciolo
Illustration by Liza Hale Doyle

For those attuned to the happenings in the art world and art-adjacent industries of the aughts, Lucien Smith’s name likely elicits memories of Hobbes, The Rain Man, and My Friend Barney / Under the Sycamore Tree—the artwork that made him well-known. Or, depending on how concentric your circles are to the creative milieus of, broadly put, downtown New York City, his name conjures up recollections of the stratospheric rise and success of a creative wunderkind just barely out of college. 

Record-setting sales and mainstream acclaim aside, when considering the work and vision of Lucien Smith today, his perspectives—both professional and personal—have become increasingly populist.

“It kind of was like that image of the Native Americans leading the buffalo over the cliff, it just seemed like it was a dead end for me. I had a choice and a chance at a really young age to change that direction and find something that was more servicing and attached to those really early feelings of art-making as far as creating something that people could relate to or feel attached to.”

We caught up with Lucien via video conference to chat with him about his art-making origins, his on-going battle with commercialism, and why his community-oriented organization, Serving the People (STP) and the first-ever BFA 2020 exhibition, is more necessary now than it has ever been before.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Christa Tarnoviski: I’d like to start off with where your interest in art began: Was that an interest that started at a young age for you? Where and when did it develop?

Lucien Smith: I think, obviously, like most kids, I had some creative outlets between some things I’d do at home and art classes that I would take at school. I definitely excelled in those fields, but it was never anything more than just drawing or painting like any other normal kid does. Until high school, I was more concerned with sports or things like that. And I’ve gone to like 14 different schools throughout my life because I had been moving around so much with my parents when I was young.

Moving around so much created this great ability for me to be able to reinvent myself all of the time and I was able to really meet all new kinds of people. I had an influential art teacher at a public high school in Santa Monica who opened my eyes up to studio arts and showed me Ed Ruscha and Henry Darger and I really started to relate to that because before that I was really lost. Art really sort of appeared to me like this thing that I could pursue and that I have natural inclinations toward.

C: In addition to there being the teachers and the professors that you encountered along the way, were there any artists or aspiring artists that encouraged you in nurturing your artistic practice and craft?

L: I was in a tough situation my senior year: My mom had to move for a job and I ended up staying in Santa Monica with a friend of mine whose parents took me in. My friend’s mom, Robbie Smith—coincidentally, their last name was Smith—really had a big impact on me because she was very educated in the creative arts. [She] made this room for me into a studio and that was such an amazing opportunity for me because I didn’t really have much. But I had this place where I could just do what I wanted. That was, for me, the purest form of art-making because it was purely coming out of my emotion and whatever inner narrative I had.

Someone at the Santa Monica High School Newspaper—it was called The Chronic at the time—asked me to do the illustrations for the newspaper because they had seen these drawings that I would leave around school. It was my first real way of interacting with an audience and also using my art to relate to people or even have them relate to me. So that was a really big thing for me, that little studio.

Throughout all of my education, teachers that expressed interest in me helped me grow. I think Mrs. Bouse was her name, at Santa Monica High School, the books and artists she showed me were just kind of my way of creating an identity or finding an identity so I lived vicariously through those artists at a certain point continuing on to college. Cooper Union was such a great school because most of my studio teachers were all also studio artists and so I was really able to relate to them and take them seriously because, in the past, I had trouble with education and trying to figure out how I could relate to the people who were feeding me information.

Frankie Caracciolo: Access to creating art, art education, and art history—there’s a high cost to entry usually reserved for those who already have access to other things or a certain amount of privilege.

L: It’s evident to me, through this interview, and through many sessions of therapy, that it was really hard for me to find identity. Art definitely helped me. It provided that identity for me and [it] helped me relate to the community around me.

F: Could you see yourself becoming an artist today? Do you think the internet and social media has changed how people or kids can access the arts as well as become artists or that the circumstances that led to your development could still happen today?

L: I remember in 2005 playing around with MySpace and Facebook groups and starting to think about how I could scan my work, post it, and show it to people. Those structures are so much more user-friendly and I think kids today have this resource where they can just make something on their computer or in their backyard. The audience is almost infinite, in a way. I think that is a tremendous resource to have as a young creative or as anyone with a voice or something to say. If anything, kids today have even a better chance at gaining notoriety than we would have even 10 years ago.

That being said, it also comes with things being diluted. Now you have so much information. But there’s a way, and I think we’re doing that, of harnessing that information and not being overwhelmed or stifled by those numbers, but [instead] using those numbers to be effective.

Melissa Nyquist, Power and Conch Fornicate and Piggy Died for Our Sins
2020, Pigmented Ink Print, 11 x 17 in.
Rhode Island School of Design, part of STP’s BFA 2020 show

C: I think this is a great segway into STP. Can you give us a little bit of background on STP and its origins and its development over the past couple of years?

L: If we fast-forward from art school to making a profession out of art and then reaching a point, financially, where my art was producing funds for me at an accelerated rate, I kind of hit a speed bump where I looked back at what I was doing and how these early experiences and early interactions and early experimentations in the work that I was making had become this career. I started really thinking about what it is that I wanted from art and what it is that I was actually doing. It became a job, and that those really early feelings had faded away.

I looked forward at my life and saw what it was going to become. I looked at artists like Jeff Koons or Richard Prince and saw these individuals who really thought their work was the epitome of the world and were doing such an amazing thing, but really weren’t. I started identifying all of the problems in my career and in the specific art community that I was working in and began to figure a way out where I could start using my talent and my skill sets to attack those things.

In the last five years, I’ve noticed that those same issues exist in most creative industries because what we’re talking about is consumerism and capitalism and the arts have been tremendously affected by those things. Art for me, thinking back on art history, has always been like such a tremendous aid to humanity and society as far enlightening us and sort of holding society’s hands into these major social changes that we’re going through. Art today doesn’t do that; it's like this infinite mirror effect where it reflects on the wealth and the state that we’re in, which is the material and superficial state. I think that art can definitely be used or creativity can be used to pull the world out of that funk, however.

I think, right now, we’re starting to see this decline in materialistic, luxury, commercial, influencer sort of stuff that we’ve sort of apexed. The birth of the influencer is almost like the death of art, because they behave like corporations. I know you guys must do a lot of work on this and I would love to hear your feedback, but you have these brands that are attaching themselves to these artists that can break down their audiences and allow the brands to become relatable so they can sell product and at the end of the day what do those finances do, who does that go to, who does it help, and how does it service humanity?

I think one of the things with STP is [that we’re] trying to not create an alternative but a solution to putting some of those marketing devices and some of that energy into something that is helping us as a society rather than just creating this infinite loop of consumer digestibility.

We’re all sort of sick of the shallow [and] superficial way of looking at the world and I think Instagram and social media have been tremendous tools to society as far as allowing people to feel like they themselves deserve an audience.

Lucien Smith, Temple of Athena (Ruins)
Silkscreen and inkjet on canvas
Originally appeared in Lucien’s Fear Eats The Soil exhibition, Los Angeles, Feb. 2020

F: With influencers, in particular, we’re seeing that what made them exceptional, now with everyone stuck inside, they’ve become increasingly and plainly more normal. Influencer culture may have hit its apex, and is moving somewhere differently, and that also affects the work we do but we’re also seeing conversations like this—how people are taking the time to be creative differently and not necessarily having it all be so Instagram forward. We’re seeing creativity manifest differently than it might not have, and quickly, if it weren’t for quarantine.

L: At STP, these types of conversations always arise about marketing and brand partnerships and it's not that we don’t like that. You guys have been, and organizations like you have been building that model out and it's been really effective and it's like where do you point that energy, though? Now that those sort of partnerships have been carved out, how can we use that in a way where it does more of a service to society and not just so that at the end it can sell more product, but to actually think about how we can make lasting effect or change on the world?

C: I think that’s why an organization like STP is really important and why we felt the need to shed light on it outside of what we do in our day-to-day. I think it holds a lot of merit and especially what you all are doing with the BFA 2020 show. I went to Parsons, I wasn’t a BFA student, but so many of my friends who were in fine arts and who were studying fine arts and over the course of those four years, their senior show is what they are working toward, so not being able to showcase their work or to have that experience, it’s, I don’t want to even say deflating because I feel like it exceeds that emotion …

L: It’s definitely detrimental to those students. Those shows are pivotal. Like who cares about a graduation? Those shows are a way for people to really come to closure with this tremendous feat that they’ve overcome, which is going to college. To not have that is to make a statement without the exclamation mark at the end. It’s just such a rare time and I hope that by next year these things will be open again. It exposes a huge loss for, at least, a select group of people in the world. And, I’m not saying that BFA shows are that important, but it definitely is important to these students.

C: So how did you make the decision to bring the BFA 2020 show to life and did you have any sort of hesitancy around it? Should I be doing this? Could I be using my time somewhere else? What exactly fueled that decision?

L: STP was created for problem-solving, so never, at once, did I think that this is not a good idea. What STP is is essentially a platform for things like this to happen or to take place. One of the artists that we coincidently work with was actually a student at Cooper and he put these issues in front of me. At first, the idea was really specifically just to host a Cooper Union End of the Year Show and senior shows. Just because my senior show at Cooper was such a huge moment for me and so I definitely wanted, in some way, to be able to address that at STP.

We didn’t get much of a response from the school so we kind of went back to the drawing board and asked ourselves, do we need the support of the universities to do this show and if we get involved with all that administration and logistics we’d never be able to pull the show off in time. Which is, again, one of the great things about STP, is that it can be so like a call-and-response. We can just do things that other organizations can’t because of the paperwork, or whatever, so we started building a student body representatives list and that grew into more than just Cooper, it grew to all the schools in New York and in the last three weeks, it’s grown to 64 universities. Which is such proof to me that the platform exists and there’s always going to be issues like this, we can attack those things at a pretty effective rate.

F: Do you think that the BFA 2020 show sets a precedent or is a look at what art will look like from here on out considering quarantine’s impact?

L: Yeah, one of the students that we work with made a playlist on our platform called “Spirituality Is the Future of Art” and I was actually talking to an art dealer yesterday about what he imagines the landscape becoming out of something like this, and I think that very much is it. I’ve noticed from looking at the submissions that a lot of the artists are shying away from the super commercial bluechip model, and are looking for something else. I hope that we are able to pioneer something like that—or at least be a part of that group.

Ben Werther, Your Teeth, Nasa, and The Simpsons
2020, State Quarters, 0.955 x 0.955 in.
Cooper Union, part of STP’s BFA 2020 show

C: As a more general question, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on community within the art world: I feel like it can be somewhat of a solo, individualistic world and in some cases it may be difficult to orchestrate a larger community or to bond with fellow artists, gallery owners, etc. Could you shed light on how your experience has been?

L: The art world is a super commercial and super competitive industry. The reason some artists are able to reach such high financial value in their work is because of the speculation and content. It is very much a calculated industry—it creates a veil over this allure, allowing manipulation of the market. I think that in some sense, that works for certain people, and great for them. But that doesn’t mean creativity can’t take form in something else. I’ve always battled with whether we’re trying to replace the art world or not? I would say “No.” If anything, we’re trying to create something entirely new, not an alternative. We’re just reinventing a reality that doesn’t exist.

“I’ve always battled with whether we’re trying to replace the art world or not? I would say ‘No.’ If anything, we’re trying to create something entirely new, not an alternative. We’re just reinventing a reality that doesn’t exist.

C: You also alluded to mentorship earlier in the conversation.

L: I think Reddit is an amazing social media platform that instigates and creates conversation rather than this cancel-and-comment culture where you just throw a statement in the ether and that’s it. I see everything from TV shows to galleries to films to clothing brands creating subreddits to harness that feedback and that’s something we’re already building right now and already using which is going to be really important for us to create that community not just during COVID, but in general. A place where people can be educated and mentored and can share their work and discuss issues that are going on and not just have it be these blank statements. If you think about the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Panther meetings, you have this protest and you have this energy of people coming together and that gets lost today. Building platforms for those voices to be heard and for actual changes to be made are going to help create this community that we’re talking about.

C: Are there any specific artists who you would consider mentors to you currently? I came across an image on your Instagram of you having dinner with George Condo. Did he play any sort of mentorship role?

L: No, not really. George is a great artist and an amazing artist, but he’s not—in a type of way he’s very much the kind of artist that we’re talking about. He used to make a joke that we were the two living members of a really small club because, at the time, George and I were the only living members on the roster next to artists like Warhol and folks like that. In a way, I think he tried to take a sort of mentorship for me. But we didn’t really click. At that time, it really made sense to me that I didn’t belong around these people or these artists.

F: Do you have a sense of what you want to do—with your own work and with STP—after quarantine is lifted?

L: Our mission and our direction hasn’t really changed. If anything, it’s become more effective because these flaws in society are more relevant and evident now. The BFA show is gonna develop into an undergraduate and graduate show which is going to feature not just fine arts students but undergraduate and graduate student work: anything from films to essays to critical thinking. That’s our education direction at least. We’re going to continue to keep doing these sort of curated playlists and film reviews and music reviews. We’re working very much on our Reddit which I think is going to be a big part of this year. The digital world is just a proxy for real, physical things. When this stuff [i.e.: quarantine] ends, we would love to mimic the thing we’re doing with e-critique into a real life meeting and our digital shows and physical shows if need be and if possible. The direction is the same, it just becomes more dynamic.

Lucien Smith, Tornado Aftermath
Silkscreen and inkjet on canvas
Originally appeared in Lucien’s Fear Eats The Soil exhibition, Los Angeles, Feb. 2020

C: One last question if you don’t mind: We’ve talked about leadership indirectly, but what does the title or role or word mean to you? How does it register with you in the context of STP and you leading that movement?

L: I battle a lot with that idea because as much as I may be the founder of STP it’s not really about me. That’s why I’m so excited to have Adam and Elias—who are on this call—and our team is growing everyday. For me, a great point will come when I can just look at STP and see it in its full form and doing its thing without me necessarily running it and that’ll be exciting. I made a joke the other day that STP reminds me of Noah’s Ark. I’m not saying that I’m Noah, but I look at it as this thing that will help all of these individuals and all of these lives rise above whatever issues are occuring. So, someone had to build the ark.︎