Mike Shultis is a visual artist based in New York. He holds a BFA Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA, USA. This year has seen Shultis present his first commercial solo show All American at Diane Rosenstein, Los Angeles, CA, USA. His work comprises of a myriad of traditions from painting and sculpture to collage and humour with subjects varying from masculinity and whiteness to American society and events such as the Sandy Hook elementary school and recent mass shootings.
My studio routine is based around my full time work schedule. Monday - Friday I build crates for an art crating company and run the night shift. This means I start work at 2:30pm and get off at 11pm. I usually get back to the studio around midnight and begin painting, I'll work until 5-6am and then go to sleep. I typically work like this during the week and over the weekend I try to see shows and have a social life. Although, lately I'm more keen on just keeping the studio flow going. While living in New York, I've had to find a means to have enough energy to keep a studio practice alive while working full time in manual labor. Essentially this has meant lots of coffee and red bull while also finding a way to remove tedious time consuming studio tasks. New York has forced me to find shortcuts in my work that keeps creative excitement constant while maintaining the quality I strive for. Initially, this was difficult because lots of my earlier work required lots of sewing and time consuming pattern work. The New York solution was to stop working on canvas and instead use shipping crates so I could collage with a staple gun right into the panel and instead of time consuming painting tasks I ended up relying much more photo print outs and other means to arrive at my images quicker. In hindsight, these shortcuts among many others have been the most important moments of growth I've received while living in New York.
I believe humor will be a defining movement of my generations art history. I think a lot about the Jester in Medieval times. The Jester was one of the only people in court that could sway the Kings decisions. It was with humor that one could reach something deeper and more meaningful. I believe the same can be said with contemporary art. The ruling class is currently the people who control the art market and consequently the ones who hang important works in their homes. In many ways we as artists can play that role of the Jester in contemporary society.
In regards to placing myself within my works, initially it was an attempt to connect my identity and experience with that of American society. For example, in my work "Wild Wild West" the image depicts a cop on a horse shooting multiple guns in the air. Within his outstretched arms are a multitude of eyes depicting all the people of color murdered by police from 2015-16. Within the large abstract moments are the faces of the children killed at the Sandy Hook elementary school along with the faces of the men responsible for the most horrific mass shootings of late. After working on such grim subject matter I felt a responsibility to include myself and my role in this matter. Which was that of an outsider, only reading about these atrocities on my cellphone while comfortably living my daily routine. Hence, I added a panel to the left of the main piece that included myself on a literal bed of pillows looking at my phone in a daze. Connecting humor into the piece was important as well and I decided the best lure would be an inflatable tube man depicted as a cactus. I often think of my work as bug traps. Through its garish nature and over the top humor the viewer, like a bug, is lured into my work only to then discover the true intent or zap.
This decision to include myself and the consequential realness in "Wild Wild West" became very influential for everything I've done since. I no longer attempt to conceive of sociopolitical themes as content to build my works from, instead I look within and everything builds outward from there. Being a white American male, this allows me to dive into a deeply complicated subject. I can relate to much the problems that exist in America because white males are mostly responsible. It's because of my capability to relate that I feel such a responsibility to reflect and display it. I've always believed great art reflects its time and culture and currently the world is a dark place and unfortunately the art should follow suit.
Titles are very important to my practice. Sometimes they are conceived of before the actual piece (Wild Wild West would be an example) or other times, the title comes at the very end. Regardless, I believe the title is my one clue that I give the viewer. I firmly believe that great work speaks for itself but the title is that one opportunity for the artist to give some context for the work or intentionally shift focus from the obvious.
plexiglass from Fancis Bacon triptych,
plastic cactus on panel,
disposed Frank Stella crate,
disposed Jeff Wall crate ,
Red Bull cans,
black and white inkjet print,
plexiglass on panel,
disposed Gerhard Richter crate ,
disposed Francis Bacon crate,
my old shoe,
disposed Anish Kapoor crate,
my old hat,
my old jeans
Ping Pong table,
Robert Longo crate
Oil, acrylic, vinyl, black and white inkjet print, staples, tennis balls, my old jeans and Ping Pong Table on panel
95" x 84" x 2"
Oil, acrylic, latex, fabric, canvas, staples, vinyl, bed sheet, plexiglass, foam, oil-based clay, screw, trash can, inflatable AirDancer, disposed Frank Stella crate and disposed Jeff Wall crate
79" x 61" x 84"
I would consider my works images. Whatever medium they would be labeled by others doesn't matter on my end. Although I use a multitude of 2D and 3D materials to depict my imagery, I find myself concluding a work is finished when I am satisfied with the work as an image.
That being said, getting back to the idea of shortcuts that New York instilled in me, I would add that whenever I want to depict an article of clothing or an everyday object in my work I will most of the time use the actual object instead of painting it. At first, this was to save time, but after doing it for so long I'm more drawn to reality than illusion. One way of including myself in the work has always been through materiality. In many ways before I started putting my image into the works I existed as the materiality of the pieces. I would intentionally save used objects like socks, bed sheets, shoes, etc. for moments when I could add them to works. This is important to my practice and hence why I list it in the materials.
One more thing on materiality. I don't necessarily think much about it as I work. Most of my process is intuitive while it's happening. I might consciously include my personal belongings in the works but most other materials are spur of the moment included in the piece or might be a quickly conceived of material needed (like the inflatable tube men) and I will go order it online immediately. I try my best to not think much while I'm working and let my subconscious formulate as much as possible. This allows for a battle between my attempt at conscious content through a subconscious aesthetic process. This dictates my end result and allows for something I can't always decipher and I find that very interesting.
How do you formulate the narrative in your work? Themes, Bodies of works, Individual narrative.
The use of humour.
The role of biography in your work. I've read a quote that says "most pieces include myself". You have also listed materials in your work such as 'My suit jacket' and 'Used bed sheet' is it important that the viewer is aware that these objects also bear a personal relationship with you? (I think this could also be a good link to talk about the new project and the role of the artist and making)
Most recent works and their engagement with art history (maleness and whiteness)
The role of titles in the work, are they part of the work, contextualisation, starting points?
Wild, Wild West, detail, 2016
Oil, acrylic, latex, vinyl, black and white inkjet print, glitter, ink, transparencies, spray paint and dog leashes on panel
54" x 45" x 1.5"
I like the way that you spoke about your engagement with the 'White American Male" with the creators project, maybe we could expand on this.
How have you found the reaction to this subject matter?
The relationship between this subject and the whiteness and maleness of the art world (2016 work)
I touched on this a little already in NARRATIVE but I'll add by remarking on the response I received from openly talking about such content in my Creators Project article and through Diane Rosenstein.
It was not received well.
This wasn't much of a surprise from a financial standpoint. I know that making work about troubling subject matter isn't a very marketable thing initially and that's never been my intent. However, I would have assumed critically it would have been better received. This wasn't the case, other than Andrew Nunes who wrote my article for the Creators Project. I felt I should have received an actual review with such timely subject matter but no one would touch it. I attribute some of this to the fact that Diane Rosenstein wasn't fully aware of the subject matter until the show was already hanging. I didn't lie about the subject matter to her, but I also didn't openly talk about certain works. I awaited questions about individual works before disclosing their content. This was intentional because I knew had I openly talked about the content of "Wild Wild West" or "All American" (which depicts Dylan Roof) she wouldn't have shown the pieces. So needless to say, once she found out about certain works she was deeply disturbed and I feel that attributed to a lot of how the work was talked about with possible critics and collectors who came to see the show.
Initially not having made any sales or receiving a review from my first commercial solo show was very difficult. I wanted to shift my focus to more "sellable" subject matter, but that didn't last long. Like I said before, making money has never been my intent and I'm lucky to have a full time job that supports my New York life. This allows for a creative freedom that doesn't require financial validation from the market and can support my continued interest in reflecting the dark nature of white maleness in American culture.
Oil, acrylic, towel, ink, transparency and staples on wood
12" x 11" 1.5"
You have collaborated with Aaron Fowler, how did that come about and how does that process work?
Do The Limbo
Oil, acrylic, Astroturf, staples, lenticular, clown nose, vinyl, ink, photo print, and cotton sheet on disposed Gerhard Richter crate
Height Variable x 128" x 4"
Aaron Fowler is my best friend. I've known him since 2006 when we started going to St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley together. We made our first collaboration in our Painting 2 class in 2007. It was an 8ft X 8ft portrait of a kid composed of a half portrait of a black kid with a half portrait of a white kid. We respectively worked on the halves ourselves and then put the work together. This ended up informing most of the later collaborations we would end up making. We have always pushed each other's practice and when we collaborate there's a freedom and playfulness that neither of us can reach in our own works. This allows for a truly profound learning experience that we find always seeps back into our individual worlds. I also think that the friendship and continual collaboration Aaron and I have is something very important. With his personal narrative as a black male navigating American culture intertwined with my narrative we are able to reach a new ground that to me is stronger and more relevant than anything we could possibly make individually.
Mixed Media on 8 Separate Panels
In Collaboration With Aaron Fowler
I'm not a big networker or very active getting myself out there in the art world. Because of my work schedule I can't attend openings or most events that would allow for such anyways. Most of my opportunities in the art world have come from either open call applications or friends. Both of my shows with Diane Rosenstein and Thierry Goldberg Gallery were cultivated through my peers. These two examples are my only commercial gallery experience so far and I have to admit it isn't positive. Ron at Thierry Goldberg wanted me to change my subject matter to something safer and less edgy, while Diane never actually stated she wanted me to change my subject matter, but after finding out about the themes present in my solo show she seemed very uncomfortable with having the works in her gallery. These two experiences have led me to think my path should exist somewhere in the non profit world. I'm not marketable at the moment and I think finding venues who are focused on presenting my subject matter because they believe in it as opposed to selling it (where the issue of exploitation becomes present) is much more viable for me at the moment.
Free The Nipple
Oil, acrylic, ink, color photo print, black and white photo print, colored vinyl, and shower curtain on disposed Robert Longo crate
80" x 80" x 1.5"
Current artists I look at are:
Trenton Doyle Hancock
My comparisons to Peter Saul, Jim Nutt and Robert Rauschenberg I think are accurate. Especially Saul and Rauschenberg. Those two have played huge roles in my artistic development. Peter Saul especially because of his garish aesthetic and difficult subject matter from his late 60's works.
I don't read many publications but I'll check Hyperallergic every now and then. I do follow whatever Jerry Saltz writes and also the criticism of Roberta Smith.
I tend to see most shows here in New York, but galleries I frequent the most would be Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner. I'm not a huge fan of most new art being made right now, so I tend to see museum shows more frequently with artists I'm already familiar with. New Museum and the Whitney always put on great shows that I enjoy every year.
What artists/ writers/ galleries/ publications etc do you look at or think are important at the minute
Your work has been compared to Jim Nutt, Peter Saul, Nolan Hendrickson and Rauschenberg, what do you think of these comparisons ?