Interview with art collector ROBERT SHIELL
Interviewed by Daena Title
Technically, art collector Robert Shiell lives by himself in his Los Angeles English country cottage style house, but you couldn’t say he lives alone. His walls are alive with figurative paintings, chock-a-block with both Subjects and the Spirit of the artists who made them.
Over 140 works crowd the walls of Shiell’s two homes, (Shiellhas also renovated a mid century modern 50’s house in Palm Springs). More work overflows onto the floor of his living room waiting its turn to be unpacked and enjoyed. Though Shiell has sporadically collected paintings over the years, and inherited others, it’s only been eight yearssince he began his deep dive into the world of emerging figurative artists. Already his collection has outgrown the walls of his homes. So much so, that on the advice of a friend, Shiell recently converted his LA garage into an “Art Room”: Shiell’s own white box gallery and entertainment space. “If I had one room between the two houses,” says Shiell. “It would be this one that means the most to me. I am happy with every piece in this room. I like every painting on every square inch here and I wish I had triple the space”.
In the past Shiell has collected American ceramics and mid-century furniture as well as vintage Disney collectibles, but his present passion, is paintings. His figurative art collection throws a wide net. Paintings range from the “technical brilliance” of realists like Brian Drury and Ain Cocke to expressionistic rule breakers like Andrew Salgado, to the even more abstract Sojourner Truth Parsons. Many works compress the picture plane, or slyly promise a traditional composition and then discombobulate instead. Still others hew to the more traditional approach. Shiell connects equally to his four paintings by male artist Jason Yarmosky as he does to the two pieces he owns by female artist Hope Gangloff. He collects Americans and Europeans. He collects the young such as Anja Salonen, still in undergraduate school at the time of Shiell’s purchase, and the old, 75 year old Katherine Bradford and Margot Bergman whom Shiell tells me is ”only getting her due at 83”. What connects them all is that each piece must “resonate” with Shiell. “I am not in this for the investment”.
On a recent tour of his collection, Shiell ‘s descriptions radiated warmth, passion and his connection to each purchase. His heart is open to all facets of the work: either reveling in the color, “I just love, love, love orange”, or the beauty and technique of the works themselves, or in the sometimes serpentine road to acquisition, or the stories behind the subjects depicted, “This one is head of the Kabalah. It hasn’t been confirmed if it’s a wig or not,” as well as in the artists themselves as individuals: artist Gangloff, for example “turns music on in her studio and she’ll dance in the studio and go back and forth from one thing to another in this rhythm and dance from painting to painting”. One artist from whom he’s purchased, died too young. Another painting’s Subject was in the middle of a break up. Every painting has its stories and Shiell loves them all.
What follows are edited excerpts of our recent conversation at his LA home.
DT: You seem to enjoy getting to know these artists personally.
RS: My relationship to the work is enriched by my friendship with the artists. And I’m delighted if my purchases can help support them in their careers
DT: Do you ever buy art on line?
RS: Yes, but only after knowing the artist’s work and having seen other works.
DT: You’ve mentioned during the tour that one of the artists has been “getting a lot of buzz” or that another ”has been making some waves. That Roberta Smith gave him a real positive review”. Do you ever buy anything on impulse that you haven’t heard about previously, but just see it and love it?
RS: I have to viscerally respond to the work, but I don’t buy on impulse. I deliberate before buying anything. I have to know something about the artist. Which is something I’m hearing about on blogs or this and that. I’ll follow an artist on line and do research. There’s so much art out there that might appeal to me visually, I do consciously try to filter that out by doing some homework and just not going with my instincts. Every piece in here I did research on. Read something about. And each painting resonates with me in a different way.
I’m not looking at it as an investment or thinking it’ll go up in value, but with some other young painters it is nice to get something where they’re considered very promising. I like the idea of being supportive of a younger artist’s career, mid-career artists, too. But it’s sort of nice, being right . And of course, it’s much more affordable.
DT: Do you use Instagram?
RS: I have a lot of art and artists I follow on Instagram, but to be honest with you, I check it less frequently than I would like. Because I feel that I’m overwhelmed with the emails, with my art emails and the blogs. I can’t be on both. Facebook, I dropped off. I just don’t have the time to find art on Instagram.
DT: The art market has gone through some big changes even within the relatively short time that you’ve been collecting.
RS: I get a little concerned about the new platforms for art. I like buying on line because I can’t physically get to every gallery and I can have a relationship with a gallery that I might not be able to visit. I’m a little concerned that physical galleries are dying. That really disturbs me. And I think it’s a trend that might continue to happen. Because a lot of younger people are relying on on-line art. That sends less foot traffic to the galleries, so it’s cyclical. Not all galleries know how to pull in a younger crowd and you need to not just have older people there.
DT: And Art Fairs?
RS: Galleries just have to do Art Fairs now. You just have to. It’s very difficult not to.
I like Art Fairs. This will be my fifth year at Art Basel in Miami. It’s a fun thing. But what’s disturbing about the Art Fairs-- I feel there’s a lot more pressure on certain quote marketable artists to produce commercially. There’s this constant pressure for them to produce for the Fairs.
I hear this first hand from the Galleries I know—Oh this artist, they’re going to give me a couple of pieces for this Fair, or the Armory or Basel, China, the Summer show, the Spring Show. I think as an artist, you just need time, to take your time to paint, over the course of a year or so. But this idea of having deadlines. If you’re having to be that prolific, you’re not spending as much time with the paintings. Your quality goes down if you’re constantly on a deadline.
DT: What will you do when all your walls are full?
RS: I have already run out of wall space. I just got rid of my beautiful mid-century lamps in two of my bedrooms in Palm Springs in order to increase my wall space.
I just acquired eight new artworks while in New York (last week) attending the Armory Art Fair, NADA Art Fair and Independent Art Fair, although I am out of wall space.
I will have to get storage space and rotate my art… and maybe down the line buy a different house with significantly more wall space.
DT: You have such a passionate connection to all of these paintings. Is there one that stands out for you?
RS: I don’t like to say I have a favorite. But the painting behind me is of my father who died two years ago in 2015 April. When he was 90 I asked the artist Jason Yarmosky, who is incredibly skilled at rendering elderly people, to paint my father. I paid for him to come down to San Diego and spend a day with my father. And they had a great day together.
My father wasn’t happy with the painting because he felt it made him look old. He wasn’t able to look at it and realize this is what he looked like today. Even though Jason captured him perfectly. His eyes. His neck… I love the feel.
My father kept the painting at his place. I wanted him to have it.
So when my father did die, I had it hung here in my house and it really helped me during that grieving process. This room is where I sit all the time at my desk. That’s where I sit more than any place and spend the most amount of time. And I really felt that it helped me having it. The grieving process takes different stages and it made it easier for me. I don’t know what the process of healing would have been without that painting behind me. I love having it.
Interviewed by Daena Title | March 2017
Photographs by Daena Title and Claire Matic
Video by Daena Title | Produced by Didi Menendez