Shagwatch: The Interview
“I try to put a little something into every painting and piece of art I do, something extra that will hopefully live beyond my own lifespan.” – JOSH AGLE (aka SHAG)
In 1997 the World Wide Web was still an exciting new search and discovery tool. Being an admirer of tiki culture and Polynesian pop I typed “tiki” in the search field to see what I might find. A few places down I noticed something labeled Shag Art (or something like that). What I discovered was a basic, yet hip website with just a handful of images of very unique paintings. The works were striking, and I had never seen anything like it. Bold colors of kitschy beatniks and sci-fi splendor immediately took me in. Paintings like Seafood Dinner, Wives with Knives and Day of the Tiki grabbed my attention in a way paintings had never done before. These vibrant midcentury inspired worlds are painted by Josh Agle, the Southern California artist that most people know as SHAG.
I started collecting Shag prints shortly after they began being produced, the first being Two Heavy Drinkers. I proudly displayed the framed piece in my home office, which gave me years of enjoyment. Like many collectors, my print collection grew pretty big, and I also was fortunate enough to get my hands on his early tiki mugs. One day, I found myself in the right place at the right time, and I was able to acquire Five Planets, my first Shag painting. I parted with nearly my entire collection to be able to afford the piece.
Over the years I turned my dedicated hobby into something I could share with others through Shagwatch, my blog that follows the resell market for his works. From there, as facebook began to take off, I discovered a fairly large international fan base, and so I created Shagwatch, the Josh Agle fan page, which today has more than 1200 followers.
Since the early days when I first discovered Shag the popularity and demand for his work has exploded. To date, Shag has produced around 270 prints and close to 1000 original paintings. Today, fifteen years later, Josh is preparing for his 58th show, which is also his 37th solo exhibition that will take place this Fall at Outré Gallery in Australia.
Jay Nailor of M Modern Gallery recently connected me with Josh so I could ask him some questions, ones beyond the meaning of the name “Shag” or the source of his inspiration (the same questions he’s answered year after year in the dozens of interviews he’s given.)
Shagwatch: At what point in your career did it become clear that you had crossed over from “starving artist” so to speak (for lack of a better description, sorry) to one that had discovered a tremendous career and lifestyle change?
SHAG: I felt like a huge success after I sold my first painting in 1996! Just getting money for a painting I did made me feel like I’d “made it big.” A few years later in 2000, I was thrilled that I could afford plane tickets to Columbus, Ohio for the closing night of the world’s largest tiki bar, the Kahiki. Round trip tickets and a night in a hotel for me and my wife cost about $325, and I felt like I was a jetsetter, able to fly to another city for one night just to go to a bar! To me, being able to throw $325 away on something frivolous was the kind of thing only a “successful artist” could do.
The flipside to that is the worry that any painting that sells could be the last. It’s what keeps me working hard, trying to outdo what I’ve done in the past or do it in a different way, or to create something that might surprise even my most devoted followers.
Shagwatch: I understand a lot of people really change following life-threatening incidents. Following your freak accident, is there anything that has changed for you entirely? Undertones in your work? Friends? Family? All of the above?
SHAG: In the two years that preceded the accident, my work got darker and more complex. I was mining my dreams, my past, and my subconscious for inspiration and source material. I was less interested in painting happy cocktail parties or fun times in a tropical bar. My personality had always been very even-keeled, but I found myself trending toward a bi-polar personality, with huge mood swings between manic socializing and despondent introspection. I was having large themed-parties at my house almost every weekend with massive quantities of food and alcohol, but I didn’t want to paint that sort of scene. The parties were to distract me from and minimize the mood swings. Still, I’d wake up every night around 4 am unable to sleep, worried and unhappy.
Strangely, my accident acted like shock-therapy for me. Many friends asked me if my work was going to get even darker, of if my near death experience was going to be fodder for a new series of paintings. But I wanted the opposite. I wanted to paint the happy distractions that had built my career as an artist. I’ve always thought one of the reasons people liked my art was because it was a window through which they could escape their own lives, a world of hedonism, beautiful people, beautiful things, fun situations, and world travel. Now I was using the art for the same purpose. I was no longer interested in the darker themes or the paintings based on deep self-analysis and introspection. My emotional state returned to its even, steady state. The huge parties at my house stopped. I realized that no matter what happened in my life, at least I was still alive.
Shagwatch: When it comes to putting together a theme for an exhibit, do you think through the subject matter before even starting to paint, or do you take a common thread of existing works and expand upon that for the 20 or so paintings you typically do you for your major solo exhibits?
SHAG: I always decide on the theme for a show before I start creating the paintings. Usually, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and it’s often inspired by an earlier painting that I thought was particularly successful. My most recent show, Animal Kingdom, was inspired by some of the art I’d created for the An Exquisite Hunger show in 2010. The people wearing animal costumes were based on some kids I’d put into a painting who were dressed like deer and antelope.
Shagwatch: As someone that has no patience (or skill for that matter) to paint something that doesn’t look like a kindergartner’s self-portrait, it’s hard to comprehend the amount of patience it takes to create something as clean, crisp and precise as a “Shag” painting. Small paintings of yours may take several days to a week or so, but larger ones must take A LOT longer. Which format do you enjoy more, and why?
SHAG: I like painting the really large paintings best. But if that’s all I did, I’d only finish 10 to 12 paintings in a year. Plus, not everyone has 40 grand to spend on a painting. One of the reasons I like the big paintings is precisely because they take so long. The process of completing a tiny bit of the painting every day must be what it feels like to build a house. You take pride at the end of each day in what you did, but won’t be able to appreciate the whole thing for weeks.
Shagwatch: What was the most unusual painting you’ve commissioned for someone?
SHAG: I’ve done some unusual celebrity commissions. I can’t name any names, but one well known tv and movie personality wanted me to paint her at a party with long dead actors and celebrities from the past that she admired. Despite all the career success of this person, hanging out with the people she’d been fans of when she was growing up wasn’t something money could buy.
SHAG: Yes, the show at Outre will be a sequel to my first Supersonic Swingers show in Australia 11 years ago.
The book Supersonic Swingers is being reissued in an expanded and revised version, and it includes something I had originally intended to create back in 2001 – a map of the world as seen by Shag. At the time, I just didn’t have the confidence or capability to create it, but 11 years later, I realized I had progressed enough as an artist to make such a thing. I’m still wracking my brain for a title to the show, though. (New original Bondinho Balançando, shown right)
Shagwatch: Collectors can be eccentric to say the least, and it seems there have been tons of people obsessed with collecting all things “Shag.” Something I’ve never seen in a gallery or on the resell market are the cool sketches you do when you are exploring the layout for your next painting. Do you always sketch this out first? What do you do with your concept sketches when you’re done with them? I could see there being a demand for that element of your work.
SHAG: Yes, I always sketch out the idea beforehand, But the sketches are horrible. I’ve had gallery dealers asking if they could see and sell them, but I think they’re too rough and unpolished to stand up as art on their own. I have a huge drawer full of them, and sometimes I show them to friends, who usually can’t believe that such a hasty scribble could be the basis for a tight, refined painting.
Shagwatch: There seems to be a clear evolution to your style. For example, many of your male characters in older works (2003 and earlier) seem simpler and more Gene Deitch or Jim Flora-ish in style, some with large pointed noses and slimmer, wispy arms, like the butler opening the door in Landlord Meets the Serpent). Has the gradual change been deliberate or has it been more of a natural progression?
SHAG: That progression has been fairly natural. At some point, I decided the women in my paintings weren’t quite as attractive as I wanted them to be, so I started paying more attention to their anatomy and proportions. The mens’ bodies followed that path as well, though I didn’t really think about it at the time. As the characters became a little more naturalistic, some of the more cartoony elements disappeared, like people with skeleton heads, wolf heads, alligator heads etc. Over time, architecture became much more important, too. In the early paintings, characters existed in flat fields of color, with few architectural elements to ground them – maybe a rock wall or a square rug to one side, but not much else. Eventually floors, walls, windows with views, stairs, different levels, sunken seating, waterfalls, and ceilings appeared. Now the architecture is one of the most fun parts of painting right now – I get to design rooms and spaces, almost like an architect.
Shagwatch: Ten or eleven years ago you had a 15-year retrospective show featuring well over 150 paintings. Any chance your fans can expect an even bigger mile marker retrospective – 25 years? Or have we already missed that?
SHAG: I probably won’t do another painting retrospective until I’m old… At some point, if you stick around long enough, you become an institution. I don’t want to do a big career retrospective until I’ve become that old artist who’s been around forever. Maybe a 40 year retrospective? That would be the year 2028.
Shagwatch: If I recall, you have suggested that one of your favorite own works was (or is) the one you are working on at the given moment. They can’t all be your favorite! Could you share with us some of your works that you are most proud of?
SHAG: I’ve never specified which works I really thought stood out, but I’ll try to name a few. The large panoramic party scenes, like “Holmby Hills, 10:00 pm” or “The Relentless Party” are amongst my favorites. I thought the piece “Black Balloons” from Autumn’s Come Undone was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
As far as a body of work, I think the 12 Zodiac-themed paintings I did for a show in 2003 are really strong. But when I look at most of my previous paintings, I’m punched in the jaw by some glaring defect, something I should have done better. It could be that a woman’s forearm is too short, or perhaps I should have chosen a deeper shade of green for a specific detail in a painting. There’s almost always something that bothers me when I look at one of my previous pieces of art.
Shagwatch: I wouldn’t know it by your work, but have you ever found yourself in a slump, where you just couldn’t come up with a concept for a painting, or bigger yet, a theme for an exhibit?
SHAG: I went through a period of “painter’s block” in late 2003. That had been my busiest year ever – I’d done the Zodiac-themed show, created the 26 alphabet paintings, and had my first show in New York. I was exhausted and out of ideas. Every morning I’d wake up and sketch, but the ideas came slowly. I’m a workaholic by nature, so I pressed on, but for almost a year, any new idea was accompanied by huge birthing pains; nothing came easily. Eventually it passed, and the creative juices began flowing more freely. Since then, I’ve generally had a backlog of ideas and things I want to pursue. Now I have a list of paintings I need to do at some point.
Shagwatch: I think I know the interview question you never want to be asked again, but is there a question you are surprised no one has ever asked you? Soooooo, what’s the question, and more importantly, what’s the answer?!
Nobody has ever asked me where I thought my art and career reputation would be after I was dead. They probably don’t like to bring up things like death when interviewing an artist. But I have children who will outlive me, and will be around after I’ve passed, and I sometimes wonder what it will be like in the future. My grandfather was a successful commercial artist in LA, and made a lot of money at the height of his career. But he gave up painting and started developing real estate (with his art money!), and his reputation as an artist and illustrator faded into obscurity.
Obviously an artist has no control over how his work is valued, what kind of respect or esteem it holds, or how long people will remember him or his art after he dies. But I try to put a little something into every painting and piece of art I do, something extra that will hopefully live beyond my own lifespan. Every painting I make will live longer than I do, and that’s something I think about all the time. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like to explain my art – I think a painting needs to stand on its own, to be something beautiful or meaningful long after the artist is gone. I hope my art retains people’s interest and attention for decades or centuries after I’m gone. I realize the art is not pushing boundaries or creating important waves in the tide of art history, but I do think the paintings are beautiful and meaningful objects, and I hope future generations continue to value them.