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Shag’s New Show Beats the 'Jungle Drums'

The retro-loving artist talks copycats, technology, a near-death experience, and his latest show.

Josh Agle is better known by a portmanteau of his name: Shag. His colorful, quirky, and streamlined illustrative style is recognizable to the point where imitators, overexposure, and disillusionment cast a dark shadow over the artist's iconic representations of American nostalgia for the mid-century modern zeitgeist. Since his first solo show in 1997, the artist has faced a series of challenges that questioned the future of his practice, but if his new collection of paintings, Jungle Drums, is any indication, he's back where he belongs.

Shag is one of the most successful figures to arise from L.A.'s "lowbrow" movement, which draws inspiration from custom cars, punk music, and other facets from the fringes of pop culture. Also known as "pop surrealism," the genre has been met with resistance from the fine arts canon, but Shag is one of the few to become both financially and critically successful despite the label placed on his singular means of depicting postwar-era conspicuous consumption, sprawling suburbs, and booze-fueled poolside parties.

"I was lucky that I started making my art in the right place at the right time," Shag says. That era was the 1990s, and the place was Los Angeles. Towards the end of the decade, rockabillies, swing dancers, martini swiggers, and retro-loving musicians represented an elegant cultural rejection of the likes of the Spice Girls, Boyz II Men, The Offspring, and Korn. Shag's images served as a kind of hallmark of the polka dot and fedora-bearing subculture.

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Shag, Pinup with Tiger and Spirit Mask, Acrylic on Panel, 12" x 20" (Courtesy the artist and Corey Helford Gallery)

"My earliest paintings were done just for myself. I wasn’t sure anyone else would be interested in the themes and imagery, but a lot of people, especially in the design and entertainment industry, were awakening to the appeal of the mid-century modern aesthetic around that time,” he says.

Shag's style became so popular, in fact, that scores of artists began to imitate it, whether consciously or unconsciously. "At first it used to really bum me out," he says. "I felt like I had spent all this time crafting an identifiable style and it was being co-opted all over the place. But I had to remind myself that my own style was itself based on anonymous illustrators and advertising designers, and I was just repurposing it and refining it. The copycats made me determined to improve my own work so that it would stand out and shine brighter than all the imitators."

Nevertheless, the visual style permeated the design world, and Shag became concerned it might become oversaturated with his style and that people would get weary of the imagery. He responded by limiting the amount of merchandise on which his work appears, deliberately allowing product licenses to lapse without renewal. He was approached by major art publishers who wanted his art to appear on mass-marketed posters and prints that were released in editions of 10,000 or more, but Shag stayed true to his original policy of never putting out an edition of prints over 300 copies, and to never re-release a print once its edition had sold out.

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Shag, The Final Blowfish, Acrylic on Panel, 16" x 21" (Courtesy the artist and Corey Helford Gallery)

Unauthorized re-appropriation of his art wasn't Shag's only problem. He also found himself growing disillusioned over the creative process he once used as an escape, now a kind of prison. As a consequence, he became immersed in a dark period, both personally and creatively, and it took a near-death experience to bring him back.

"Originally, my paintings were aspirational. I painted people I wanted to know and places I wanted to be in, and the process of making that art transported me to a world I couldn’t afford or didn’t have access to. As my art career grew, and my lifestyle began to look a lot more like that of my paintings, I lost that feeling. There was a period where I felt like I was going through the motions, painting worlds I knew other people wanted to exist in, but I myself had tired of. Beginning in about 2008, and for a period of three or four years, the work got darker, the colors got less bright, and the themes became heavier. Parallel to that style change, my alcohol consumption increased, which culminated in me falling through a large plate glass window in my house and almost dying. That snapped me out of it. I felt a bit like someone who goes through electroshock therapy must feel. After that, I was again drawn to the world I had originally created: the jovial cocktail parties and lounge scenes, the elegant women and the dapper men."

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Shag, Duetto Buffo Di Due Gatti, Acrylic on Panel, 15" x 23" (Courtesy the artist and Corey Helford Gallery)

Another challenging variable also manifested during the dawn of Shag's popularity: the rise of technology. The artist feels it's made things both easier and difficult, facilitating the process of converting a painting into a format that will be used to make prints or merchandise, for example, while taking "some of the mystery away from being an artist."

"Art is valued partly because of its scarcity. In the past, if you liked a certain artist, his work might only be available in one gallery in the world, and you would have to fly to that gallery or write an earnest letter if you wanted to purchase that artist’s work. With the internet and social media, art is available to everyone with a few keyboard strokes. I resisted social media for years because I wanted to keep a bit of a veil on what I was working on at any given time, forcing earnest collectors to dig deeper to seek it out. Eventually, due to the strong persuasion of the galleries that represent me, I opened an Instagram account. Now everyone that follows me knows about every project I’m working on, every personal appearance I make, and what my latest painting looks like. The mystery is gone, but people seem not to care."

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Shag, The Tiger Killers, Acrylic on Panel, 14" x 22" (Courtesy the artist and Corey Helford Gallery)

In terms of the contemporary creative process, Shag sees a striking parallel between the music industry and the art world. "It seems like there are more bands than ever releasing more songs than ever, because it’s so much easier and less expensive to record music than it used to be. It’s the same with art. Any artist can set up his or her own online gallery which costs virtually nothing. The question for the emerging artists and musicians is, how do you rise above and set yourself apart from the teeming masses of other artists, all of whom want to become rich and famous (even if they won’t admit it)? My only answers to that would be to work your ass off, never say 'no' to any opportunity, and most important (and hardest), make work that is better than all the rest. Simple, right?"

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Photo by Eric Minh Swenson

Jungle Drums: New Works by Shag is on view through February 13, 2016 at Corey Helford Gallery’s Downtown LA location: 571 South Anderson Street, Los Angeles, CA 90033.

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