Ryan Shultz, a Painter’s Painter
yan Shultz is a difficult man. He paints with a craftsmanship reminiscent of the Renaissance masters but holds no interest in making art that is timeless. Instead, he chooses as his subjects members of society ~ most of them personal friends of his ~ who haven’t traditionally made it up onto the walls of elite collectors.
But don’t put him onto the same category as artists like Kehinde Wiley. Unlike Wiley and other pop culture darlings, Shultz considers himself first and foremost a “painter’s painter.”
“I’m Old School,” he tells me. But I’ll let him tell you the rest…
INTERVIEW WITH RYAN SHULTZ, CONTEMPORARY FIGURATIVE OIL PAINTER
“I’ve been making oil paintings since I was fifteen, but I’ve been drawing since I could hold a pencil in my hand.
My teacher in high school was a great guy, but he was not an oil painter. I did go to college, but most of what I know about oil painting was self-taught.
I’ve done a lot of trial and error. It’s really an exploratory process. Just like if you’re a sculptor, you want to try every type of clay; as an oil painter, you want to experiment with every type of oil that’s possible. I would also go to a museum and see a painting and try to dissect it. I would say, ‘Well, how does he do this technique?’ Or, ‘So if I cut my lead white with stand oil, it will get a softer effect…’
Regarding Contemporary Figurative Painting
“At the end of the day, I want to make art that’s relevant to society, but, at the same time, I’m totally a technique dork. That’s not to say that I want it to be just about technique ~ there are some super-talented painters out there who make really boring paintings that are just not relevant to the contemporary world. That’s not me.”
On Conceptual Art
“One of my favorite authors is [Vladamir] Nabokov, and one of my favorite quotes from him is when he said, ‘Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash.‘ I feel that same way about paintings. I’m not saying that all conceptual art is sterile, but I have encountered many who have these great ideas which they write long essays about, citing all sorts of obscure French sources, obfuscating the fact that they actually don’t have anything to say. And their execution is really poor.”
“I walk through alleys every day, and I see piles of trash that are more interesting than much of what I see in museums. You can have the greatest ideas, but if you don’t have the technique, then I can’t be bothered.
There has to be both an investment in concept and in technical skill and ability.”
More Than Photojournalism
“The best journalist is the one whose writing, rather than just trying to relate facts in an unbiased fashion, most approaches literature, or even poetry ~ the one who takes that extra step and tries to get to the core of the person. And I think portrait painting should do the same thing. It should be more than just photojournalism. It should delve deeper and get to the core of something, to go beyond the literal to the poetic.”
On Selling Out
“I have very different goals from someone like Kehinde Wiley. I don’t want to be a hater, but Wiley just wants to make money. He cranks out paintings and doesn’t care about being an author of his work, about being an ‘artist’s artist.'”
“He has a factory of sixty-plus people who make the paintings for him. He himself actually doesn’t make paintings anymore. He used to, but once he got fame, he rolled along with hip hop culture, and he got some famous African Americans to model for him, and he hired people to then make the work for him. While meanwhile he just hangs out and gets wine-drunk all day.”
With the art world today, there has been a paradigm shift that happened after [Andy] Warhol. Before then, there were art guilds, where groups of artists made all the arts for the glory of God. It wasn’t about the individual. But then the Renaissance happened, and Humanism, and with that, the birth of the artist signature.
Yes, [Peter Paul] Rubens had a studio of over one hundred people, and even Rembrandt would, on occasion, sign a student’s painting, so it would sell for a higher price and they would split the profit. But after Warhol, this whole paradigm truly happened. Artists like [Takashi] Murakami, Richard Prince, Damien Herst, Jeff Koons, Kehinde Wiley…These people don’t actually make art. They have a whole bunch of other people do it.”
“I saw a retrospective of Jeff Koons. He doesn’t know how to paint, and he doesn’t know how to sculpt, but he calls himself both. And that’s just very strange to me.”
“I don’t care if the next painting I make sells for a million dollars, I will never have somebody else paint for me. I’m what they call a ‘painter’s painter.’ I’m Old School.”
Merging the Past with the Issues of Now
“I want to make art that’s relevant today, that’s in tune with the zeitgeist. A lot of figurative artists, you can’t tell by looking at their work whether it was painted now or a hundred years ago. With my paintings, I’m trying to merge the techniques of the past with themes of the present. What’s important to what’s happening today.”
Regarding the Stigma Attached to Figurative Painting
“The problem that I do encounter is I do sell paintings and there are a lot of people who like my work, but I’m in this middle ground. Conceptual artists are infuriated that I’m making figurative work. They talk about it like, ‘How dare you?’ There’s almost a moral argument to it, like we’re discussing whether we should give medicine to the children of Africa or let them starve. I mean, I get major insults.”
“I paint what I know. I paint what I see around me. I paint people whom I’m friends with ~ not necessarily all who are as wild as I may portray in my paintings, but I understand that world. And I want to show that world. Much like a writer will talk about the world they understand. Writers like Hemingway.
His really famous novels are roman à clef, like The Sun Also Rises, where he basically tells a story about a bunch of stuff that happens to him, he just changed the names. A lot of writers draw inspiration from what they see around them, because that is what they understand, and they want to explain it to others.
“The praise and glory that a king would get back in the 1600’s ~ I want to give to someone who’s not a king and may actually be having a terrible existential crisis. I don’t want to be moralizing, I just want to show real people.
In Defense of His Subject Matter
“Since I’ve received a good amount of fame from being on TV and in the magazines, I’ve gotten a lot of email from people who are really mad at me, saying, ‘Why would you be painting that? Paint beauty.’ My response is, I bet you like films like Pulp Fiction, and you probably found it to be a very amazing film, right? There’s a lot of imagery, a lot of dark stuff, some really scary stuff, stuff that nobody ever wants to deal with but that need to be said. That’s a film that made people think. So if you can make a movie about that, why not make a painting about it?
People will say, yes, they love Pulp Fiction, but they wouldn’t want to freeze frame any of those scenes and hang them on their wall. Well, I don’t care. I understand the rationale, but I just don’t care. I think it needs to be seen.”
“I think Kehinde Wiley is such an alcoholic now, because he realizes he has no artistic integrity. And he can never get it back.
Some people identify themselves as a father, a husband…I identify myself as an artist. That’s all I really care about. Painting is incredibly stressful, but I wouldn’t do anything else.
I don’t even like selling my paintings. I’m a terrible businessman. I jokingly call painting my ‘expensive hobby.’ I make paintings, I hang them on my walls, and I think, ‘God, I did that!’
Historically, you’re only important if you’re painted in a palace and hung on the wall. And that’s what people wished they were. They wished they were King Louis the XIV. But by depicting people who are in a very different world than this, I humanize them and make them real. Real people with real problems.
If you read a book, you move through the pages. Yeah, somebody gets raped, but you finish the book and you don’t necessarily have to deal with it every day. But a painting is up there all the time. So it’s much more powerful, but also threatening. People are scared of it.”
“Exploitation is when someone from without tries to explain a place that they could never understand. It’s not exploitation if you’re a part of the world, if you understand the world. If you’re within the culture, then you have a much better grasp of that world. I see these people all the time. I experience their world.
I’m not picking prostitutes off the street and making them pose for shots. I deal with real life people whom I know and understand. I don’t want to make it seem that I’m out to change the world, because I don’t think you really can. My paintings are about humanizing people.”
Ryan Shultz received his bachelor’s degree from The American Academy of Art in 2005, and his M.F.A. from Northwestern University in 2009. Shultz’s work deals primarily with youth culture and the “cult of excess,” depicting scenes of intoxication and drug use, alienation and ecstasy. These works embrace the art historical canon, borrowing compositional devices, technical processes, poses and gestures from classical painting. Shultz is equally influenced by popular culture, film and the fashion world, referencing this imagery in the subject matter and scenarios that he creates. In short, they depict the generation of “now” – the youth of today in a post-American Dream America.