David FN Schultz and the art of symbolism at The Art Exchange


The Art Exchange, 247 Wortley Road
July 18-August 6, 2011

Most of us know someone who has a tattoo. Over the past decade or more, the art of tattooing has shifted from edgy, outsider status to mainstream acceptance. While most people have a small tattoo here or there, there are those dedicated to using their entire body as a canvas, with often amazing results.

From his days as a high-school student, David Schultz has wanted to be a tattoo artist. He even asked for and received special permission to do his high-school work-placement in a tattoo parlour. Now in his mid-twenties, he has achieved his dream by working as a professional tattooist in London.

It takes a lot of self-confidence to etch indelible lines and colour into a person’s skin. But Schultz seems to have confidence in other areas as well. He soon started creating larger-scale works using the unforgiving mediums of ink and watercolour on paper. His artwork is now on display at The Art Exchange for the second time in two years, in a solo show called Incognito.

Schultz’s fine art leans heavily on his work as a tattooist. He uses the trademark black outlines, shallow picture plane, flat colour, and subtle shading. His style and subject matter also reveal its origins. His style is illustrative, graphic, and simplified, with often-exaggerated figures. All the men are heavily muscled, all the women beautiful and buxom. Faces are often expressionless and generic.

The paintings in Incognito are fantasy-based depictions of cataclysmic events and duplicitous individuals. According to Schultz, his paintings “represent the guises around us, both in people and our surroundings.” Therefore, people are never just people. Sometimes they are part human, part animal. Most of the time, they wear masks or don animal heads or both.

There are also references to classical worlds in the form of Greek columns and Egyptian iconography, and modern-day civilizations in the form of looming black skyscrapers and chain-link fences. Symbols abound and include skulls, wrathful eyes, licking flames, serpents, and strange sea animals. Most of the time, Schultz’s work is packed with highly imaginative imagery.

Take for example In the Beginning (see below). Schultz also plays in a band, and this painting is the cover for their most recent CD. In this work a running woman, painted green with purple hair and empty blood-shot eyes, morphs into an octopus whose tentacles swarm throughout the picture, unifying and connecting its many disparate elements.

The tentacles engulf a nearby diver garbed in an antiquated deep-sea-diving outfit, as well as strange-looking sea creatures and the shark from hell. Tortuous waves swamp a battered boat and Greek columns in the background. There is little doubt this birth or re-birth is agonizing and catastrophic – the old guard falling beneath the onslaught of the new, perhaps.

Bite Me (see right) is the signature painting for the show and it is a good illustration of the idea that people are not always what they seem. At first glance, the painting has an air of tranquility about it. Compared to In the Beginning, the figure is fully human and seems passively benign. Look more closely, however, and the narrative changes.

The young, beautiful woman has a mask on, which reinforces the idea that she is wearing a disguise. And what seems at first to be a hat is in fact the open mouth of a shark that is about to engulf anyone who comes near. Sharp tongues of flames surround her, a warning to those who dare to venture within biting distance that they will not escape unscathed.

Schultz uses such animification, where people take on the characteristics of an animal, in most of his paintings. Masked figures wear wolf or lion heads like a piece of clothing. A bird or ram’s head tops off a human body, as is found in Egyptian and other ancient societies. Frequently their eyes are red, partly unfinished, or devoid of pupils. As eyes are a window to the soul, it suggests that the animal has taken charge of the shop so to speak.

One example of this is Walter (see right). This painting portrays a strange-looking sea serpent with a human-like torso and hand. He is emerging from oily waters and reaches out for the viewer. His eyes are vacant, but his expression leaves no doubt that his intentions are less than honourable. To reinforce the message, there are white skulls pinning back blood-red drapery that once likely shielded the true nature of Walter from view.

Every painting in Incognito has layers of meaning and Schultz’s subtle and not-so-subtle use of symbols, ancient and modern, mean you cannot just glance at them and move on. To do his work justice, you have look at his paintings closely and take the time to decipher their messages. Like the title of the show, his paintings are also incognito. You have to peek below the surface to see what is truly there.

This sense of discovery is one of the joys of symbolic art. Schultz is an accomplished young artist and he has talent to burn. It will be fascinating to see where he goes from here.

Susan Scott is an arts writer and visual artist. Her work is on view at www.londonartists.ca.


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