“David is a mind adventurer, where the left half of the brain explores the right one. Unanswered, impulsive, instinctive and restless – David doesn’t paint or draw, he creates time. Evident in all his work is that David Shillinglaw is not afraid to humanise his art. He incorporates the perceptual concern of his journey as a man with his own sense of humour. The result is a powerful and fresh interpretation of everyday reality. His art has the appeal of Pop but a friendly, subtle, self effacing Pop that presents the ordinary and delights the viewer when he shows that you have your best conversation with yourself”.
Hi David! What are your plans for today? Up to anything exciting?
I am currently on a train heading to London from Paris. I recently moved out of my house/studio, so I am travelling a lot before I have to find a new place. In a few days I’m going to Italy to paint a huge machine for drilling wells. Once painted, the machine will travel to Ethiopia; the project was made possible by the charity, Viva Con Agua.
What is your background? How did you start your career as an artist?
Art was really the only thing that held my attention as a child. I never lost interest. I followed the usual routes of art education, after I graduated I continued to make art and exhibit my work. After a few years, the balance of part-time work and art work tipped, I found myself working full time as an artist. The job is the reward.
I was always making magazines and books at college and university, and giving them away, make something cheap enough to give away that people will not throw away… There was no big break, maybe just lots of little breaks. I still feel a constant challenge to make things happen on my own terms, to make money, to realise ideas, to balance multiple projects. The struggle keeps it exciting and interesting, in the words of Charles Bukowski, “Find the thing you love and let to kill you.”
There is much more to your art than meets the eye. You seem to incorporate words and philosophical elements into your work. Can you tell us about that?
I try and say things with my art. I am very interested in philosophy and storytelling, I enjoy how paintings can bend truths and deflect ideas, Picasso said, “Art is the lie that helps us realise the truth.” I don’t intend to spell anything out, I’m more interested in suggesting things, playing with words to allow a message to linger and raise an eyebrow. Art for me is like poetry and philosophy visualised. I enjoy typography and numerology, quotes, lyrics, rhymes, idioms, bad spelling and double meanings. The written word is in a way the first abstraction, it is just a series of lines and shapes that conjure an image in the mind of the viewer, spelling a word is like casting a spell. This also plays against, and alongside, the bombardment of advertising and information overload we deal with constantly in the human landscape.
There are multiple dialogues happening in my work. The first dialogue is with myself, making sense of things, figuring stuff out. The second dialogue is with art history, talking to the painters and poets I admire. The third dialogue is with an audience, who I will probably never meet. I am conscious of all these dialogues, and I feel relaxed knowing I will no doubt be misunderstood.
“I’m more interested in suggesting things, playing with words to allow a message to linger and raise an eyebrow.”
You appear to work with colours that strike the eye. What attracts you to work with bright and contrasting colours?
I suppose the colours I choose reflect the world I see, of bright graphic packaging, road signs, and pop paraphernalia. I enjoy primary colours, as they feel direct and easy to understand. Yellow screams of the sun, red is fire, green is grass. These are universal themes that most cultures share. I also enjoy setting these colours off with muted tones and greys. My colour pallets changes from piece to piece, sometimes I push myself to use colours I wouldn’t usually use, other times I refer to colours that I am familiar with. Colour theory and the relationships between colours fascinate me. It is an endless kaleidoscope of possibilities. It is a very personal thing, colour can speak about mood in a way words and images sometimes fail. “Colour is the place where our brain and the universe meet”- Paul Klee.
There tends to be a signature face that you include in your art. What is the story behind that?
The faces that I paint have evolved over many years. I have to try to stop myself from repeating the same character over and over, while maintaining a similar characteristic in each face. The heads rarely have a neck, they are floating masks, with staring eyes that grab the attention of the viewer. If you give something eyes it starts to wake up, and people enjoy looking at a face. Somehow it makes sense like there’s something, or someone in the piece to make contact with. It is also quite easy and fast to paint them. Sometimes painting a piece outside I have limited time, light, and paint. It’s something I can lean on as a visual device, or space filler that allows me to play with colours, forms, and patterns differently each time.
I think the head is the place where most of your experience of the world happens. It’s the main portal, the main receptor and projector; you fill it with sounds, foods, and images. You kiss it, you carry it around. The rest of the body is just the plumbing you hope keeps working. But the head is the boss, the head is the decider. The image of the head plays out in many ways, from the history of the human portrait, your passport photo, to your selfie online avatar. Your face is your main feature, your identity, and we all spend our lives concealing it or revealing it to others. For all these reasons I find it a compelling subject to paint, and an effective way to communicate.
We’re curious about your series of ‘mattress’ art. How did that come about?
There are a lot of dead mattresses in the cities of the world. It is the perfect blank canvas in the street. Nobody will ever care if you paint on an old mattress. I carry a can of spray paint with me most of the time, and finding an old dirty mattress is like a gift from the street. It will usually be gone in a day or two, so while its there I enjoy leaving a message for passers by. Something positive to make people smile.
Out of all the mediums you work with, which one is your favourite and why?
I like to mix it up. Usually after I have spent an amount of time working with one material I need to change. After painting a huge mural, I can’t wait to get back to the studio and draw and paint on canvas. But soon enough I get itchy feet, I want to go paint outside again. I enjoy collage a lot, I find the cut line is very satisfying, and mixing found materials with a painted and drawn line feels closer to the ‘real’ world. I often find things in the street, like somebody’s shopping list, and keep in in my sketchbook until weeks later when it ends up being an element in a painted collage. I feel like I’m finding treasure: the colours, textures, and shapes of these fragments feed the work, and relieve me of complete control; they’re making decisions for me, and helping me discover new direction in which to push and pull the work. Everywhere I have been has great and not so great parts. You can find magic in the least expected places. Usually my experience of a place is determined by the people I’m with, and the weather conditions. As for the contemporary art scene? I’m really not sure how to measure that, by the studios of artists? Or the galleries and museums? Or just the street culture? New York has to be quite high up the list, that city ticks all the boxes. London is also incredible, but its so familiar to me, I love going to new places. I have also had some of the most memorable experiences in very remote locations, where there is no contemporary art scene. I love a city, but I crave escaping the human hive and finding wide-open spaces.
“I am very interested in philosophy and storytelling, I enjoy how paintings can bend truths and deflect ideas”
You’ve exhibited around the world. Which country or city have you felt has the most vibrant contemporary art scene?
Everywhere I have been has great and not so great parts. You can find magic in the least expected places. Usually my experience of a place is determined by the people I’m with, and the weather conditions. As for the contemporary art scene? I’m really not sure how to measure that, by the studios of artists? Or the galleries and museums? Or just the street culture? New York has to be quite high up the list, that city ticks all the boxes. London is also incredible, but its so familiar to me, I love going to new places. I have also had some of the most memorable experiences in very remote locations, where there is no contemporary art scene. I love a city, but I crave escaping the human hive and finding wide-open spaces.
You’ve been described as a mind adventurer. How so?
This quote was from a text by the amazing painter and poet, Jaybo Monk. I asked him to write the forward to a book I published called, ‘The Dance Of 1000 Faces’. The book contained drawings I made every day for almost a year. It’s a collection of psychological self-portraits and psycho-geographic mind-maps, acting as a diary and record of where I had been and what I had done. I think the content, and content of that book, inspired the quote.
Can you tell you about your current/future projects?
I am working on a series of t-shirt designs raising money and awareness for the charity Mind, a mental health charity. For now I am travelling and working remotely, as I moved out of my studio after almost twelve years.