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Interview Wed Oct 19 2011

Ryan Shultz: People Person (and a Hell of a Painter)


Shultz in his studio

Perhaps if you've got cable you've seen Ryan Shultz on TV -- he was on the first season of Bravo's "Work of Art," a reality television show which, to the dismay of many an artist, attempts to sort out the good from the bad, and decide "who will be the nation's next great artist". And he did pretty well, even though, as he told me, it "destroyed his soul." He's also been featured in several glossy "Barnes and Noble magazines," as he calls them. He scored a full-color, eight-page spread in Artworks Magazine and a feature in Germany's Intro Magazine, where they called him "so drauf!" (Apparently this means "on top of it" or "hip" or something like that.)

Self Portrait.jpg

"Self Portrait with Christmas Lights", 2008, Oil on canvas

Shultz takes a very traditional approach to oil painting, starting with a monochrome under-painting and gradually layering color on top, eventually ending up with photorealistic portraits. His subject matter is a bit more progressive -- he gravitates toward grit. He paints his friends and friends of friends -- marginalized, punk-rock youth -- doing what most marginalized punk rock youth do. They sit in Denny's and smoke cigarettes, they shoot up heroin in shower stalls, they over drink, they sweat a lot, they never change their sheets. This is not new material by any means (see Nan Goldin) but it is personal. You get the sense that the people Shultz paints are important to him. His paintings feel like homages, as if his easel is the shrine at which he pays his respects.

I visited his studio around 2am on Monday night (because he is a night owl, of course), and stubbornly picked at the meat and potatoes beneath his bubbly, beer-soaked and highly animated persona. I didn't edit much because this guy has the sort of personality that you want to show. So, here it is, folks:

Is this the sort of work you've always done?

Since college. I used to do all types of painting. In high school I did a little cubist thing, I did a Matisse thing, I did a Modigliani thing. I tried every kind of style. And then I got really into geeking out to oil painting -- doing really complex paintings that are layered, take forever, and you can get this effect, which, for me, is really profound. I look at a very well-crafted oil painting -- it doesn't even have to be realist, just a really crafted, interesting oil painting -- there are levels, layers, surface textures, and the light hits it, it scintillates off the surface in a certain way -- it gets me exited. It makes me have a little orgasm. Or sometimes a big one. I had an episode of Stendhal Syndrome once.

What's that?

Stendhal Syndrome happens when you see something that's so beautiful, or it blows your mind so much -- a piece of art, specifically -- you have an experience with it and you literally have some sort of panic attack. I was in the Met and the room turned upside down. Suddenly I had pulsating in my peripheries.

And you were not on any drugs.

I was not on any drugs. I was not withdrawing from any drugs. I had this reaction while staring at this painting by Rembrandt. It was scary. It was an intensely scary event. I ran out of the museum, I had to run down the steps. People were looking at me. I think I knocked over an old woman. I ran outside and I started puking off the steps into the bushes. I read about it later, I was like why did this happen? Did I eat weird food? But it happened while I was looking at the art. Stendhal Syndrome. I looked it up and I read about this doctor in Florence who identified and diagnosed hundreds of patients who had this condition.

This is where "crying in front of a Rothko" came from?

Sure. Usually it's more Renaissance-era stuff. But people will look at a Rothko and freak out.


"Anjali", 2009, Oil on canvas

Would you say that you'd like to make work that elicits that reaction in your viewers?

I would like for people to have a visceral reaction to my work. Art should be like anything we like. It should be like sex, it should be like food. Granted, sometimes if I'm busy I'll go get some fast food. But when you're talking about art, are you gonna get some fast art? Are you gonna go pull up to the fast art store and get some art and be like, "Got it!" Dave Hickey talks about fast art and slow art a lot in his writings. When you go to eat a meal at Alinea -- one of the best restaurants in the world, it's like 28 courses and you sit there for five or six hours -- it's an experience that you want to take your time with. You're not in a rush, you're not trying to go anywhere. When I look at a painting, I take my time. I would like, when I make my work, for people to want to be present with it for a good amount of time. I don't want people to walk through a show and go 'got it, got it, got it' and walk out. They sit there are they have an experience with it. And I also want them to want to return to it. If I go to Alinea, and I'm not loaded so I don't go to Alinea... actually I have a collector taking me to Alinea or Next next week. I have a connection so I can get into Next. But Next is so booked up that you can't go there unless you know somebody or you book it six months in advance. A collector of mine is flying in from NY just to eat dinner with me. I have awesome collectors that are really kind and generous.

Why do you think you're being invited to these things?

Because collectors like to have personal relationships with the artists. It's the same reason that you can read a book by William Faulkner but it's so much more interesting if you know about his personal life -- you know, if he liked to piss on his girlfriend.

But why you? Why are collectors into you? Do they contact you out of the blue? How does that work and why?

Well it's usually pretty random. Word of mouth. Or they see a show and they meet me in person. I don't know if I would be selling paintings if they didn't know me as a person. If I was some fat guy with a ponytail who had no social skills they may not like my art as much. A lot of collectors, before I made my final sale, I would have these two hour long conversations with them on the phone about art and life. They like the art to begin with, but liking the artist and finding the artist interesting makes the whole thing more meaningful.


"Jakub Smoking", 2008, Oil on canvas

I was talking to a musician earlier tonight who is internationally famous, super talented, highly respected, but he's still got to work this construction job to make ends meet. He was saying he thinks beautiful people can be successful and ugly people are screwed, basically.

It doesn't hurt to be hot.

Doesn't that bother you? What if you were ugly?

Bukowski! He drank more than I do every day, which is a feat. He had gut rot, nasty alcoholic nose, and he had younger women beating down his door. Conversely, if you're a woman, you may not be so lucky. Men can be gross, their teeth can be falling out, and women will sleep with them if they're intelligent and interesting.

Why haven't you left Chicago?

Because I'm a pussy. I should move but I just don't know what to do. Chicago's a stepping stone city. That's how I look at it. It's probably the third most important city in the country for art, but if you start here in the middle, you either jump left or right. I'm here because I don't feel secure enough to move. Even if I have a bunch of money in the bank account I don't feel secure enough to jump over to LA, and suddenly have everything be great. I've been on TV, I've been published in glossy Barnes and Noble magazines, blah blah blah... I should have people calling me all day long for painting lessons and commissions. I'm not getting that. Why? I don't know. If I was in New York, would it be better? Probably not. Here I'm in this niche as a realist painter, and there aren't that many other people out there who are good at it. Here I'm a big fish. In New York I'd be a tiny fish in an immense ocean. I don't know if I would stick out in New York. I'd have to get a studio that could either accommodate a bed or an easel, and I'd have to pick between one or the other. I just need a big break. If I was guaranteed housing in LA I'd move there tomorrow. I don't have that right now. I don't want to go there and the economy takes a double dip and then I have no choice but to work at Starbucks and I'd be totally demoralized and want to kill myself. I don't want to take that risk.


"Ben", 2010, Oil on Linen

How do you choose your subjects and why?

They are usually my friends. They have to be somebody I either know, or somebody they know. Like this painting I'm working on now -- I didn't know this guy, but I knew his friend, a photographer, and I saw photos she'd taken of him and I told her I'd like to paint him. So I had them over, we had some food and drank a little bit. And I figured if he got hammered we'd get some good photos out of it. And she said "yeah he's this crazy wild gay dude who loves getting drunk and loves having his picture taken." Perfect. He just got into that state of mind. I'm much better at painting men than women. If I'm taking photos of a woman she's gonna try to be looking hot the whole time. Pulling dumb faces, pulling model moves, trying to look like a model. I don't do commercial photography for women's magazines. I want it to feel natural. I don't want it to feel like it's got the beauty light on it. I will show moles and zits and scabs and dirty mattresses and stains on the wall. Grafitti on the wall. That will always be there. That's the Ryan Shultz trademark. There always has to be the element of grit. I'll take a beautiful person, spritz water on their face so they look sweaty, and make them do something nasty in a dirty, dingy corner.

I've been painting more directly lately, and I may start doing that from now on. Last time I did a painting this large it took me five months. I feel like an idiot. There are all these artists having a solo show every six months. Fuck! I'm way too slow. I appreciate artists who work slowly. Antonio Lopez Garcia. Huge fan. I'm planning a trip to go to Spain in December just to see his work. That guy works slower than anyone. He's amazing.

But if you paint slowly, you have to price accordingly, and who is buying work worth that much money right now?

Yeah, somebody will look at one of my paintings and say "So what is that, like a $2000 painting?" and I'm like "No, if you give me $20,000 I might think about it, but I kind of like it so I might just hold onto it and put it in my closet."

So aren't you tempted to just spit them out? Aren't you tempted to just make $500 paintings all the time?

No, never. I'd rather sell drugs. If I wanted to make a quick buck doing something I don't care about... actually... I kinda care about drugs...

But who is buying paintings for that much money?

There is a doctor who has been very supportive of me, giving me tickets to plays... he gave me tickets to the TED conference last weekend... he appreciates my work. If I was an older person and I saw some younger person doing something awesome and I knew if I gave them money they would do something awesome with it, I would do it. It's an investment. He knows me now. We have sat and talked about all these things. Some of my collectors will call me on a Saturday night and we'll talk for a half hour.

And you answer the phone.

Sure, unless they're annoying. I don't sell to annoying people. If an annoying person wants to buy a painting or commission me to do something annoying I don't want to talk to them. I'll tell them it's not for sale.

If you're a collector, I think having a personal relationship with the artists who made the work you collect gives you immense joy. I enjoy teaching. If I made teaching videos and I just distributed them to the world it wouldn't be as satisfactory as bringing people into the studio and getting to know them, and showing them things. If a student cancels at the last minute, it makes me depressed. Because I enjoy it. It's about the interaction. I know all about their family, I know if they hate their husband.

This is about people for you then. This is about human connections. You sell to people you like as people. You teach people you like as people. And you hope that they respect you as a person. You paint people you like.


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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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