The Colorful World of Skully Gustafson

Art, music, performance art, he does it all. Yet it all seems part of the same world.

By - Apr 19th, 2018 04:10 pm
Skully Gustafson

Skully Gustafson

Skully Gustafson’s racing mind never seems to slow down, whether he is writing music, building installations, or pushing pigment around on canvas. Although his art spans many different mediums there is a recognizable quality that runs through all of it; there’s no mistaking who made it.

Gustafson, 28, was born in Kansas City, Missouri and at age five his family moved to Wausau, where he grew up. It was while attending high school that he first became interested in ceramics and fell in love with throwing clay as well as making things out of found materials. He met his partner photographer Erik Moore while attending the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. They have collaborated on projects and Gustafson considers Moore a mentor.

Gustafson has created his own curious world, one that explores the confines of identity, both personal and collective, in his colorful, imaginative drawings and paintings. He has his shown work all over Milwaukee as well as Wisconsin and in New York. His current show “Outdoor Wigstore” is on display at Portrait Society Gallery, which will be open for Gallery Night and day Friday April 20th and 21st, and continue through May 26. Urban Milwaukee had a chance to ask Gustafson about his many artistic pursuits and passions.

I know music was your initial interest; how did that lead to visual art?

They went hand in hand. I always had an interest in visual art but it wasn’t until I started ceramics and sculpture and later painting that I felt it was a passion to pursue. Taking up art made my school days tolerable, I don’t know how I would have handled it otherwise.

How important was your time at MIAD to your development?

I learned a lot. I was able to experiment with lots of new mediums and facilities. Met a lot of awesome people, some of my best friends. Studied for a semester at the New York Studio Residency Program. That was a great experience. Overall I got a lot out of it. Self-discipline is key though.

A view from the easel.

A view from the easel.

What artist has most inspired or influenced you?

I am really inspired anytime I look at the work of German painter and multimedia artist Jonathan Meese.

How has your art changed as your career has progressed?

I’m becoming better at controlling the chaos. The paintings are more refined and rich.

How does your music influence your art and vice versa?

Sometime I’ll do a performance art piece that has a musical aspect to it and a lot of the times with the music when we perform live there will be strong visual elements. But they both live and breathe on their own. They do inspire each other. The same training of your brain in regards to creativity is being exercised. I feel like I keep getting looser with my music, the noise is more comfortable. I think that’s because of the way I make art.

Where does this show fit into your story as an artist?

The past few years I’ve been focused on making paintings that are exploring new territories and techniques but without the installation work weaving through it. The show is clean and the paintings are dense…and they were all made in less than a year with the intention of them being in a show together.

What’s it been like working with the Portrait Society Gallery?

Deb and Tony are really sweet and fun to work with. I first showed there in 2012. It’s been a pleasure being part of the history and evolution of the gallery.

You have a somewhat notorious creative process that involves transforming your work space as well as wearing clothes to “activate the space” while you paint or even working nude; could you talk about that?

Sometimes my studio itself is an art installation and I’ll do photo shoots where I integrate myself in it or make paintings that blend in with the space. I have been making paintings using these old photographs from the installations to paint from, occasionally. Currently I’ve just been focused on the painting, but I do like to play around in the studio and installations take a lot of work.

What drives you to keep creating?

It’s my duty here on planet earth. There’s a lot of joy that comes from it, too.

How do you know when a work is finished?

Erik walks by and says “stop.” Other times you just know, the painting tells you to stop.

You have said your work deals with people’s “adoption of different personas”; could discuss the role of identity in your work?

I feel we’re always changing and adapting to different environments and life is a performance where we create our own reality. Society tries to categorize everything. Artists should break down these categories and defy them.

Painting by Skully Gustafson.

Painting by Skully Gustafson.

Much of your art feels very automatic, is there an internal prompt you respond to when you work, source material of some kind, or is the final product an evolution of explorations that are intuitive?

It’s partially intuitive. I tend to just start painting without too much planning, yet there’s an overarching mission that’s sometimes hard to put into words. Usually I’ll start a painting with some sort of idea but if I feel like painting and haven’t thought of what to paint I’ll just start and things will come to me. I usually work on a body of work as a whole so the work develops together with similar colors and ideas, but the paintings lead me in all different directions. I try not to control it too much because I believe it knows better than I do. Usually towards the later stages of the painting the title emerges.

Do you listen to music when you work?

I’m a music junkie! I’m usually listening to stuff while I paint. Some of my random favorites are: Royal Trux, Cate Le Bon, Meridian Brothers,

Zamrock such as Ngozi Family and Rikki Ililonga, Lee Scratch Perry, U-Roy, Stooges, The Fall, The Cramps, Velvet Underground, The Slits, ESG, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, James Chance & the Contortions, Kool Keith, Country Teasers, The Groundhogs, SNEAKS, Gun Club, ChromeMatias Aguayo, Sun Ra, Psychic TV, Kim Fowley, Tonetta, New York Dolls… I could go on and on.

Is your work thematically driven or is each piece a separate entity?

There are themes that hover over all my work. Usually when I start a new batch of paintings I’ll think of some ideas I want to thread throughout all the paintings. I usually work on a bunch of paintings at the same time so it’s a series that’s working toward a similar goal and overall ideas I’m exploring. The paintings do take me in different directions but they are still part of a family. People have told me that each painting seems unique, and that may be true to some degree, but there are usually larger ideas that run throughout all the work.

How has your relationship with your partner, photographer Erik Moore, influenced your work?

He introduced me to photography and aspects of the medium I had never known about. He’s helped me think more critically about the work. He’s always talking about how to give things more depth, or bring certain parts out. The photo collaborations have influenced my work in a lot

of ways. They tie into the installation process and then back into the paintings. It also gives me a window into what I’m doing overall.

Could you talk about your band Cartoon Pussy?

It’s Erik’s and my band. The name came from this character we created called Cartoon Pussy, who is a big golden pussycat. When we play live at dive bars it’s usually a psych-punk-sonic-folk type sound, but we do other projects that are different arrangements of instruments and concepts. Chubby Pecker, for example, is a character Erik created, and we wrote a whole Cartoon Pussy album under that name and the songs are like 50’s rock’n’roll rip offs, but with Chubby Pecker as the main character, and I’m Fuzzy Pecker the guitar player. We’ve done some shows as Chubby Pecker, mostly at art gallery openings, but we haven’t played that set for a couple years now.

What do you love or hate about the current art scene?

Milwaukee is cheap and friendly, we have the Great Lakes, it’s a beautiful place. Unfortunately most of the world doesn’t see it as on the map for contemporary art so we get overlooked, but I think that’s what also makes it a gem. There is a great art community here.

What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about visual artists?

That it’s not real work because we love doing it. To me that makes no sense but I’ve heard people say it. It’s a lot of hard work and it’s important work, art has a real world around it just like any other profession. There should be more funding for the arts, the world would be a much better place.

Has the internet improved or degraded the art world?

I think it’s allowed us to network in new ways and show our work to people from around the world. My hope is the internet inspires people to go out and see the work in person. It’s good to experience the aura of a piece in a living space.

Anything else I should have asked?

What’s your sun sign? Answer: Libra.


The dual exhibition of Skully Gustafson’s “Outdoor Wigstore” and Dominic Chamber’s “In Light Our Bodies Shift” runs through May 26th at Portrait Society Gallery in the Third Ward at 207 E. Buffalo St. on the fifth floor of the Marshall Building.

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