There’s something oh-so-super-cool about pop artist Josh Agle. His art is fun: the sort of stuff that makes you want to be transported back in time to a sixties mod house in Malibu, sipping pina coladas with Austin Powers. Delve a little deeper, and you’ll soon realise every picture tells a story. Better known as Shag, this August he will be bringing his latest exhibition, Inscrutable Mystery Guide, to Australia. We chatted to him about lowbrow art, his plans to market alcohol to young children and his dreams of being a jet-setting swinger.
Your first solo show was in 1997 and since then, you’ve helped pioneer the resurgence of pop surrealist art. How has the scene evolved in that time?
There are a lot more galleries exhibiting, and many more artists now. In LA alone, there must be 20 galleries that specialise in Pop Surrealist or lowbrow art and artists. I was lucky to have been there earlier, when it was easier to be recognised.
Though they are very different schools of thought, many artists would love to have their work in fine art galleries, but find it difficult because their work is categorised as being too lowbrow. What do you think about the lowbrow vs. fine art debate?
Many artists in the lowbrow art world have coveted acceptance by the blue chip, high-end art world ever since the term “Lowbrow” was coined. But I just wanted to paint what I wanted, and never really expected museums or critics to accept it as fine art. Over time, lowbrow galleries, collectors and magazines developed in tandem with the fine art world, and Lowbrow got its own market niche. But, in the back of my head, I knew that if an artist stayed around long enough, eventually the fine art world would recognize him. It might not happen until the artist is an old man, though!
Recently, your work has had a slightly different feel. Rather than using the familiar bright palettes, the pieces are somewhat more sinister and muted. Was there a turning point where you felt you needed a change in your artistic expression?
Yes, I went through a point in my life where I began to reassess things. My career as an artist had brought me more material things than I could ever have imagined, and I had a seemingly ideal family life: wife, two kids (a boy and a girl, naturally) nice house, housekeeper, vacations, nice cars, etc. But I felt like a machine, cranking out paintings to keep my family living in the manner to which they had become accustomed. Around this time, my fairly even temperament began to go through swings, and I decided I needed to make art that was as meaningful to myself as the earliest Shag paintings had been. What came out was darker and more muted, both thematically and colour-wise.
Inscrutable Mystery Guide has been described as being darker, more surreal and more complex. Can you give us a few sneaky insights into the exhibition? Did you approach the pieces with a different frame of mind?
There will be some large images on canvas that are explanatories to what the show is all about, and there will also be 99 small paintings of tikis, each bearing a symbol. Every painting will be accompanied by an “Inscrutable Mystery Guide,” a book that will try to explain the mystery of the whole thing. But the book is not for view to the public. It has to remain secret.
You’re inspired by retro, mod, tiki, the 50s and 60s and are a collector of vintage memorabilia. What is it that draws you to that era?
Originally I started collecting it because I needed to furnish my apartment cheaply! It’s not like that anymore… I appreciate the optimism that the designers and artists had when they made those things; they were trying to do something new and forward looking. Also, I aspired to a certain lifestyle: a cool bachelor in a penthouse, or a bon vivant on his way to golf at the country club in his Jaguar e-type. Though I couldn’t actually become those things, I could make my surroundings seem like I was a jet setter or swinger.
Your work can be found in countless galleries around the world. Does the art scene (and to another extent, the audience) differ from country to country?
Yes, the art scene is different in each country. In some countries it can be very different. In Japan, the entire system of selling and promoting art is unlike anything I’ve seen. One has to be invited to look at the art, and they frown on selling paintings to non-Japanese people.
Painting must take up all your time, but are there any projects other than painting that you’d like to work on? Quite a few years ago, in an interview with Modculture, you spoke briefly about the possibility of doing an animation. Would you consider doing a full-length animated feature?
I don’t have any interest in doing animation right now. That’s still something for the unspecified “distant future.” But I am interested in launching a line of hard alcohol marketed towards young children. I’d do everything: packaging, characters to sell the drinks, toys based on those characters, advertising, point-of-purchase displays. The only thing I wouldn’t do is actually manufacture any alcohol. It will be more of an experiment to see how people react to the idea that a company would actually market booze to young children.
Inscrutable Mystery Guide runs for three weeks in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth at Outre Gallery from 14 August. Details at www.outregallery.com.
Interview by Meisy Cheong