(interview originally appeared on schliefkevision in January of 2006)
David is not your stereotypical artist. I’ve known him for just about three years and it always surprises me to not see him wearing a suit. He works full time at a downtown Austin stock brokerage and is a card carrying member of the Republican Party. His life is fueled by his unflinching belief in Christianity.
His paintings are heavily glazed and layered, and the mix of gooey, milky paint with thick brushstrokes show off the depths of the struggle to capture the subject matter. A disciple of craft, David has recently switched over to oils from egg tempera and caesin, a milk based paint, at the urging of his mentor and idol, Philadelphia painter Alex Kanevsky.
He is currently represented by the Bill Davis Gallery, and has a solo show of his work coming up in the next few months.
David and I met at my studio and talked about different painters and looked over some of my latest canvases before we sat down and I asked him his five questions.
1. You are now represented by the Bill Davis Gallery, a gallery with a bunch of great artists under its roof that has a traditional look. How did you come by that?
I worked hard on that for two years trying to get that together, and one day, he said, let’s give it a shot. I went through what the normal procedure is for submitting work. I had some stuff framed there, I met some of the artists showing there, and kept reminding him that I’d be interested in working with him, he wanted to give me a shot, so one day he said yeah. I tried being respectful, I wasn’t pushy, but it was the best gallery and I wanted to be in it. I did a bunch of shows in coffee shops and that stuff that seems to have had some meaning for him.
The biggest mistake artists make is not knowing how to get out there. Artists have a weird sense of entitlement – people should come to you and ask for you for your painting and you get to decide whether they have it or not. That’s not how it works, you have to go present your work.
2. Tell me about your relationship with the Philadelphia painter Alex Kanevsky
I met him on the internet and we emailed back and worth and he saw my website and he asked if I wanted him to tell me about my stuff. I don’t think there’s a better painter alive – I’ve looked online at work all the time – by far I think he’s the best – he’s taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia – so he told me I needed to work from real life and not from photos so much, he wanted me to switch from egg tempera to oils. He talked about composition, where to place things, and how close to the edge you can get and how you can’t bust up against the edge unless you do something else… So I ‘ve started sending him a painting every year, and he critiques them. I’m waiting to hear from him now, he hasn’t answered my last painting yet.
3. What are you trying to capture in your work – theme wise?
Solomon said, “It’s the glory of god to hide a thing, and the glory of kings to reveal it. That is what is makes sense of Twombly’s stuff, he covers up a whole bunch of stuff doing a lot of work covering up light and leaving some; you’re seeing the tips of mountains through clouds. There’s some hiding of the beauty that you do, and when you do it correctly, then it says what it intends succinctly and if you hide it correctly, you’re being creative like God. Then some person can explain something to someone else how it worked– like if you have someone explain a Diebenkorn to you – they’re doing the king job, Diebenkorn did the god job. There’s relationships between colors, like Bonnard, composition things like Kline that are real important. Subject matter is almost completely unimportant to my work, it’s fun to paint a person, the human body is pretty fascinating, but I’m not really altering what I’m doing thought wise, painting what I’m doing, like a landscape, my dad or a dog or something. It’s about the relationship between the color, transparent paint vs. not transparent paint.
You say you hide beauty in your paintings. How much of the beauty in your painting is hidden or accidental, how much is intentional – this will sound super ridiculous, but Bob Ross always talks about ‘happy little accidents’…
I don’t trust anyone who has an image of a painting in their head before they do the painting and then they do the painting, I’m not interested in art like that. I argue with people a lot about that, but I’m not interested in that. When you are working on a painting, it has its own life and it does stuff, and you can react to it or force your will on it, and its more interesting to me to take whatever happens there and work with it. I wrote down a list ofDiebenkorn’s rules about starting a painting, and he says when you find little things that are pretty like that, don’t be afraid to destroy them. Sometimes there are things that are real pretty on a painting I won’t touch for a while, and then I can tell I’m scared of it and so I just put something ugly over it just to get it to go back, so the whole painting works together as a unit. So there’s lots of times real pretty stuff gets destroyed, but when you get all the correct hierarchy with the pretty and ugly, and when you put grey on a real pretty bright color, suddenly it has a reality to it, and its real true, unlike the just garish, bright colors altogether, like a lot of things you see on the internet. Happy accidents are important, and not being a slave to the happy accidents is important, you are in control to a certain amount but you are also reacting to the painting and what it does, and letting it change things. It’s like open theology. Calvinism says everything is decided, God knows the future, and you’re always God as you’re painting. I’m saying I don’t know the future of my painting, it always has my will on the painting, but if something cool happens in the painting, I’m going to let it do its thing, and the painting doesn’t exist in its end form yet.
4. Going against the grain of most of the stereotypes of the art world, you are an unabashed Republican, and devout Christian, how does that affect your relationship with the art world? Is that a point of contention for you or your audience. Do your colleagues have to come to terms with that?
(Austin painter) Chris Chappell tells people he knows somebody who’s an artist and is a Republican – it’s his joke and its funny. But some people just cut me off and don’t want to deal with me, especially hippies. They tear up my car, and I’m saying ‘you guys are the peace guys and you’re tearing up my car? It doesn’t make sense.’ I made friends with one in my apartment complex, because they made fun of my Bush stickers. When he comes to it later, he’s just a regular guy and he’s sorry about it. If I can talk to somebody and get to where we’re both human beings then my discussing political views don’t seem to hurt so bad, and we can laugh at each other. In the art world Frank Kozik leans that way, he was the one other guy for the war and all that stuff. There’s a few others, but there seems to be only one prevailing view, and that is that it has to be PC. Everyone in the art world has to think the same way.
5. Christianity has influenced western art to an amazing degree, as a devout Christian, what do you feel about Christianity in art today?
I love the Bible like crazy, more than any other thing that exists on earth, I read it a lot and am crazy opinionated about it. I think the answers to things are in there. I don’t trust the way the Church has gone, especially the Protestant Church. It goes for the parts of the Bible it likes – the fuzzy warm feeling, God is my Buddy, and it ignores the parts that are harsh. The Catholic Church funded the arts for centuries, props to them. And then you get Christian music – I can hear a note, a half a second of a song, and know its Christian music. It castrates all the things that – there’s no Led Zeppelin, no Black Sabbath left in it – its inbred tripe, there’s no pointy edges, its all pc in its own girlie way. My church has a gallery in it and a UT professor is in charge of it. He brings stuff that is not just the regular Thomas Kinkaid stuff and I respect him for that– but mostly its non-threatening art. It’s a system that doesn’t like any of the parts that are aggressive – like David kicking his enemies ass. Instead, Christians stress Narnia and all. None of the war stuff – the Bible is full of war stuff – God tells people to kill people, kill all their animals too, the Protestant church won’t have anything to do with that. They don’t acknowledge that there’s a time to be aggressive. I don’t trust Christians with music and I don’t trust Christians with art.
Born 1962 in Omaha, Nebraska, USA.
Elementary school Faith Academy, Kainta Rizal, Philippines
High School International School of Brussels, Belgium
College Southwest Missouri State University, Springfield, Missouri, USA
Private Instruction I have for 3 years received some informal direction from Alex Kanevsky, whom I believe to be the greatest living painter
Influences “Munch, Toulouse-Lautrec, Kline, Bonnard, Vuillard, Diebenkorn and Twombly. I follow Diebenkorn’s rules he wrote for himself on starting a painting. After learning watercolor, gouache, tempera, egg tempera, and casein (milk paint) techniques, I have found a way to use oil paints, eggs and stand oil to perform the functions that appealed to me about those other mediums. I do a lot of glazing and layering, so I usually work on hardboard which provides a stable support.” – David Ohlerking