Covert Stories

Workman Gallery presents the transgressive art of Ian Shults

Ian Shults
Ian Shults (Photo by John Anderson)

The artist Ian Shults, a disarmingly young man working out of his self-built Eastside studio just down the road from the Blue Genie Art Industries headquarters that employed him for 10 years, is gleefully fucking with your sense of midcentury nostalgia.

We say "disarmingly" because of the skill evidenced in his paintings and the paintings' sense of history: You expect to encounter some graying art-geezer before you meet him and are taken aback to see what looks to be one of the heavier sk8r dudes you had to dodge on your way to the painter's solid digs. We say "fucking with" because the 1950s to 1960s scenes of social transgression that Shults renders in a vintage-paperback style are partially obscured by blotches of acrylics or by a stuttering of the images in consideration, an almost cubist treatment of the settings the human figures are captured among. And we say "gleefully" because you don't do a thing, constantly, unless you're glad to be doing it or you feel you have no other choice, and Shults, who could instead be chilling with a Sazerac at the East Side Show Room or tearing up some club with his punk band, the Ends, spends so many of his hours strategically applying pencil and pigment to panels. Certainly almost all of his hours since January, when he began preparing a new series for his first show at Wally Workman Gallery on the (Shall we say tonier? Oh, let's, and pass the canapes.) west side of town.

A year ago, although Shults was a decent painter doing pretty interesting work, this solo show might've seemed like Wally Workman was doing a bit of a favor for the artist by providing a new audience and a recognizable whiff of prestige. As of now, from what we've seen, the bigger favor the canny Workman is doing may be to her own gallery: This man Shults, toiling diligently to expand the parameters of his craft and his aesthetics, is creating work that few could happily ignore. This man Shults, although we're fortunate that he'll also remain in Austin with his wife and his community of friends and his live-music stomping grounds, is going places.

We, on the other hand, merely went to his studio to conduct this interview:

Austin Chronicle: It looks like you've deconstructed covers from 1950s paperbacks – all those lurid images, the drifters-in-motels sort of thing. Do you paint the complete image and then subtract portions of it, or do you leave out certain parts and ...?

Ian Shults: I kind of do both. I'm painting everything, all the colors, all over the place. Then I go back after I'm done with that; I start bringing the background colors into the people, and putting in some of what I left out before, and so on. After the basic image, it's just about being spontaneous. I do tend to make a complete form before I go at it with the blobs of paint, but I don't know what's going to be left there when it's done.

<i>Black Market Shame</i>
Black Market Shame

AC: Where do you take your images from?

IS: If I don't draw them myself, I search through photo blogs, nonstop, hours and hours a night. There are some weird photo blogs out there; you've got to thumb through a lot of porn and other things, and you can find these old-timey pictures. Like, this one is from one of those vintage Italian porn magazines that are done in comic-book form. Or sometimes I'll go out and shoot people at parties and stuff. So I'll get the basic images, and then I'll screw with them in Photoshop, add what I need to add and draw what I need to draw to make them better. Some of them have more splashes and nastiness, and I'm trying to do panoramic backgrounds behind the figures in some.

AC: What's your training, or is this a natural talent that you've added to?

IS: I'm self-taught, really. I drew and sculpted when I was a kid, did a bunch of graffiti. Then I got into the Skagen-Brakhage company. Rory [Skagen] has been kind of my mentor from the beginning. I've known him 14 years or so; he got me directly out of high school. I showed him some of my stupid drawings, and he kept me around and gave me jobs to do. I was a part of Blue Genie from the beginning, and I wound up doing a lot of the design work and pretty much all of the sculpting. I left there because, well, the business was changing, and I really wanted to do something on my own. Took me a couple of years just to build this place. And then I kind of fooled around, I had a few different series of paintings, but this one, this style came out for the East Austin Studio Tour last year. I wanted to do something completely different. It's really my first complete body of work.

AC: What did your stuff look like before this?

IS: It was more like a mixture of realism and cartoons. I was more into doing superrealistic stuff, but once you've got that down, it gets kind of boring just by itself.

AC: Well, this stuff you're showing me, your realistic stuff and the added cartoons, from just a year ago .... The figures you have in this current series look even better – magnitudes better. Is it just that you've been practicing so much?

<i>The Shame Agent</i>
The Shame Agent

IS: Well, yeah, you do it and you learn. And I've worked at it pretty steadily: I've been painting every day since November. I paint angularly, so I wanted to work on that, I wanted to work on my brushstrokes a lot more, and now my style is looser than it was before, but there's still a lot of information there.

AC: Yeah, with these new ones you can see every single brushstroke, they're like wide, flat planes of color. And the older ones are more detailed, with much smaller ... but they don't look as basically real. So, all this time painting, is this your day job now?

IS: No, I'm also a bartender.

AC: Dude. Where do you bartend?

IS: Billy's on Burnet. Of course, the dream is to be painting full-time, but the pay is good, and I have four days off of work each week, so it gives me time to paint.

AC: And then you get to go and bring people booze. Sounds like a good break.

IS: [laughs] No – I hate it, I hate it. I dread going to work every day. When I know I could be doing this instead, it's kind of hard to go in there and deal with customers. Even when I was working at Blue Genie, because it was full-time, I found it really hard to paint when I got home. I was just so drained.

<i>My Body Is a Cage</i>
My Body Is a Cage

AC: There's so often a distinction made between fine art and commercial art. And people would probably call this series "fine art" but say that your work for Blue Genie was "just" commercial art. What about you? What if somebody offered you thousands of dollars to do a painting for a movie poster, and you had a bunch of leeway but definitely had to include, say, Brad Pitt's face in it somewhere, would you do that?

IS: Well, seriously, I might do it. But doing anything that somebody else wants you to do is ... pretty tiresome. I want to do what I want to do.

AC: And what do you want to do?

IS: Right now I feel I need to have a cohesive body of work. But I'm also finding things that I want to get back to in the future. Like when I'm working on these paintings and I've painted the head of a figure but the rest of the body is still just drawn: I think that's pretty cool. I'm thinking about exploring that in the future, with more line work, with some colors filled in here and there, maybe more deconstruction.

AC: All of these paintings seem so narrative, like there's a whole story coming to and leaving each scene you've captured.

IS: Yeah, that's the idea. I take images that make me feel something, and I try to paint them in a way that will make other people feel something too. There are stories, but you can make them whatever you want. I couldn't say what, particularly, is going on in each one. But it's implied that something weird is going on.

AC: Mostly sex and money, it looks like. And how much do these paintings go for?

<i>The Initiate</i>
The Initiate

IS: I'm thinking that the big ones will be going for about three grand. And we haven't talked about the smaller ones yet.

AC: At that price, they should go like hotcakes.

IS: Yeah, although I don't think I could make a living doing this, showing just in Austin. But I think this could be a good branching-out spot.

AC: Especially with the Workman Gallery exposure. Have you shown there before?

IS: No, this is the first time. Wally called me up last December and offered me a show, a solo show in July.

AC: Damn, man. Did she see your stuff at EAST, or what?

IS: No, she – well, I brought in a couple of prints and showed her what I was doing. So she hadn't seen an actual painting until recently. But a good friend of mine caters for her openings a lot of the time, and she told Wally, "You should check out this Ian Shults guy." And Wally said she'd heard my name before – other people had mentioned me to her – and so she called me up that day, 10 minutes later. And I was like, "Oh my god, this is crazy."

AC: What do you think of the current art scene in general in this town?

IS: It's real weird coming to the gallery situation from just, like, the normal Eastside situation. I've been involved in big group shows around here, because me and Michael Schliefke put on a couple of them, and they've been huge successes, but not really selling a ton. It seems like, over where Wally is, that's where the people are interested in actually buying art. The Eastside has an incredible amount of awesome artists, so I think the scene is definitely here, but the buying scene is somewhere else.

"Ian Shults: Adult Altercations" runs through July 31 at Wally Workman Gallery, 1202 W. Sixth. For more information, call 472-7428 or visit

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Ian Shults, Austin art, Eastside art, Wally Workman Gallery, Blue Genie Art Industries, Rory Skagen, Michael Schliefke, East Austin Studio Tour

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