An exceedingly talented and impressively prolific painter whose aggressively dense and unnervingly corporeal work spans across a myriad of media, Joshua Hagler delves into his philosophical, moral, and formal investigations with incredible fervor and refreshing genuineness. Our man Sam took the time to really submerge himself in Josh’s work and the two ended up discussing everything from the necessity of an MFA degree for professionals, to the place and relevance of image makers in contemporary art, to whether Sam looks good in BDSM ballerina attire (spoiler: he rocks it).
Interview by Sam Rolfes
SR: First things first, what’s been on your mind lately?
JH: I’m planning an escape route from San Francisco. I’ve been here for over a decade and am ready for a change. In the immediate future, my girlfriend Maja Ruznic (Ed note: a fantastic artist herself, we interviewed Maja back in one of our favorite articles here) and I are headed to Europe for three months. We’re trading art for space for at least one month at a time in certain cities. So far, we have strong leads and a couple commitments, but we need help. Maybe someone reading this would like us to make art somewhere in Europe in exchange for art.
- You’ve moved from fairly violent imagery to more serene, symmetrical abstraction, to recasting historical painting fused with a myriad of cultural references, to your most recent work which dissolves some of the recognizable imagery into a slightly more painterly, abstract expression of your visual language–is the new work still a study into your personal struggles and relationship with religion? What prompted the loosening of form and brush stroke?
The question from which all the work originates is, “What is religion?” And I would say that its narrative aspects have always been rooted in conflict. But I’m not really dealing with big organized religion like I used to. I think it’s out of my system. I’m more interested in looking at the way in which a religious type of thinking permeates our everyday sense of reality and history. However, I feel more focused on a long-term mythology that I can build upon over time.
If the paintings seem looser it’s because I’m thinking more about what really needs to be legible as a literal object within the work, and what needs to be felt or understood in a different way. It’s nice to know how to render something that’s believable, but often not really that interesting. I want to feel a sense of discovery in the course of the painting. That’s ultimately what keeps me interested and makes the work mine.
When I first started making paintings about religion, I was really just culling imagery from the internet that brought back feelings of being involved with church. You could say I was looking at religion, whereas now I feel as if I’m looking into and through our usual go-to associations with religion. I’m more interested in it’s imaginary or chemical makeup. When you ask the question, “What is religion” it turns out to be harder than you might think, and soon one finds its building blocks everywhere: in the history of American painting, in everyday thinking (mine and those around me), superheroes and popular culture, the San Francisco Bay Area and its obsession with technology, and very very much in the art world itself.
In the way that I try to avoid making bland or obvious decisions in the handling of the medium, I’m also trying to stay open enough to be surprised by where the investigation leads. I think my field of vision has broadened. When I talk about religion in my work now, I’m intentionally not talking about religion in the way we commonly think about it, because we’ve been through that a million times. It’s too easy to say something polemical or simplistic about religion. I’m creating my own concepts such as “the needed enemy,” “the omission,” “the ghost dancers” and “knights of infinite progress” as models.
- What do you feel the role of the artist is, I realize that’s a broad question, but what function do you feel artists are meant to play–is it social practice, entertainment, or merely a pyramid scheme for rich people?
Well, all of those roles are certainly available. I guess I’m not one to say what other artists should or shouldn’t do. I think I tend toward a romantic ideal of the artist: one who devotes his life to continuous searching for a genuine expression of what it feels like to be alive in the world and to becoming proficient in communicating that feeling for the simple reason that he feels urgently compelled to do it. While I hope that’s useful to society in some way, I can’t escape the knowledge that art objects function as luxury goods in the market, and that once the art leaves the studio it dies among the clamor of villains and clowns. There aren’t too many nice things I can say about the art world, and I’d like to see artists do what they can to remain sincere through whatever means possible, because the art world itself is so often in direct opposition to this sort of spirit.
- In the contemporary primary-sale art world, it seems that artists working with any sort of representational, semi-illustrative content are dismissed in favor of minimalist conceptualism marinaded in a gallon of ambiguous, airy rhetoric. Why do you think image makers, figurative painters, etc. are still relevant and worthy of attention today?
I love the way you put that. This is a really big question worthy of a larger discussion, I think.
On one hand, I’m not probably going to be the first to go out of my way to defend representative or illustrative work, whether we’re talking about figurative or narrative painting or whatever. I know I make this kind of painting, but it’s hard to find a unique voice in this particular vernacular because it’s been done so much. I think it’s asking a lot to make work that’s perceived as relevant if you choose to do something that’s already been done to death. It’s important to have some humility about what you’re doing. If you don’t realize what you’re doing, how it responds to the world you live in, why you’re using a certain medium, what you intend in your work, then you’ll start to see your own shortcomings as a problem with art world rather than you’re own. It then seems to feel as if the art world is picking on “your kind.”
Now, having said that, the perception of relevance in the contemporary art world is ridiculously malleable and depends at least as much on how the work is situated around power as the quality of the work itself, and I’m being conservative in saying “as much.” That is to say, for anything to be perceived as relevant, it has to be relevant to some kind of group or individual situated around power.
A figurative painting, in particular, presents a noun and a verb, and as soon as those can be identified, the painting assumes a position, whatever it may be, its relevance in jeopardy. I’ve known representational painters who were encouraged by their dealers to remove the figure and were rewarded with better sales, which means eventual museum exhibitions once important collectors start picking it up.
By the time you’re reading the wall text in the museum, what you’re reading is an apology by the curator on behalf of the artist for the activity of art making. The apology implicitly seeks to justify the artists’s neurosis by positioning it within an ontological framework that imagines art history as something that flows naturally rather than something that’s invented by those situated around power. At the moment, we are called upon as narrative painters (depending on where we happen to have been born) to justify our activity in light of the fact that history has happened however it’s said to have happened, and only if our apology is good enough can it be looked at by the oligarchy before which the title of “relevance” could be bestowed. I call the painter who feels obliged to apologize for painting a “twitchy painter.”
A “twitchy painter” learns that in the absence of representational imagery, his position is either hidden or, more likely, nonexistent. He can now appeal to the too-informed-to-be-involved, the ivory tower crowd, those safely tucked in away from the lunatics on the street.
When I see the work of the “too-informed-to-be-involved,” all I see is smugness, a nihilism born out of a fear of taking a position, because any position you could take will inevitably look idiotic to someone out there. It’s more truthful to see relevance as dependent on momentary power structures, but wiser to agree with whomever you’re trying to impress, as the most cynical artists have learned.
- Despite being primarily grounded in painting, your work utilizes a number of digital processes like 3D modeling, kaleidoscopic compositions, and other non-traditional elements. How does the intermittent intersection of digital media play into your artistic investigations, are they simply artifacts from your creation process or do they factor in conceptually? Along that line of inquiry, why were the Evangelists recast as 3D meshes?
I had a solo exhibition last year called “The Imagined Chase” in San Francisco. The animated video projection “The Evangelists” was the central work to which all other paintings and sculpture were conceptually tethered. The four individuals–my neighbor who burned down my building, my father, a famous cartoonist, and a homeless friend–were transformed into 3D animated characters to get some distance from directly representing them. I wanted a difference between directly observed reality and myth. I imagined them existing in a near future, and that these animated moments were their testimonies as evangelists or prophets.
(an abridged, low-resolution version of the original which debuted as a large-scale, two-channel projection in March 2012).
This is how their immortality as religious figures would be achieved rather than as painted portraits, like in the old days. I then used these digital models in fragmentary ways in the paintings. By repositioning and almost disguising these fragments, then titling the paintings after audio clips spoken in the animation, the same material could be read in a very different way. I felt this way of working mirrored the way in which religion itself evolves over time and distance. I also wanted to extricate the psychological precursors of religion through a kind of aesthetic apophenia, the tendency to make meaningful connections between random pieces of information, visual or otherwise.
– The necessity for an MFA to validate someone as a ‘real artist’ is often drilled into art students’ heads, however your work is far more substantial than many MFA graduates we come across and yet you opted out of that system. What are your thoughts on the role and power of the academic system in the art world?
Well, thanks for saying so. I feel like I know and respect a lot of artists with MFA’s, so I don’t know if I can agree, but I will say that I don’t think an MFA is necessary for the work itself, and I think the pressure to get one is out of hand and is just as likely to make life harder for the (probably) young artist going through it.
To clarify my own view, I’m very much in favor of the artist having an education especially in addition to art subjects, but I maintain a skeptical attitude toward academia and its effect on the artist, which, in a word, seems to make the work more boring and at a greater distance from everyday society. But savvy artists learn quickly that without connections to power, you will be ignored. MFA programs, by default favor the privileged, and although faculty and students might pose in ways that suggest they object to art made for commercial appeal and adopt political views that give them more cache in small art communities, they learn ways to maintain that pose while benefitting from the fact that collectors will often buy work from MFA shows and help the artist begin a commercial career. The community that’s built remains insular even after graduation, and if you’re not in that group, you will have to work harder to break through. Academia also helps to maintain a certain level of employment to keep the cycle cycling. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, but it seems strange to me. I would like to see diplomas given out for other types of life experiences that might be as great or greater than a two-year MFA program.
I’ve been at it long enough now to have had assistants go on to get MFA’s and who will be allowed to teach. I’ve talked at schools and visited grad studios. Still, I’m not allowed to teach, even if my assistants are. That’s strange too. I once lied about having an MFA to be allowed to apply for the Tournesol Award given out by The Headlands Center for the Arts and was one of six finalists. Evidently they couldn’t tell the difference in my application. It’s strange to be discriminated against even if you show merit without an MFA.
To this day, I still wonder if I should have earned one. In principal, I don’t think most artists should, but if they were to ask me, I’d say do it if you won’t go broke. You’re just better off.
- As a full time artist, do you feel beholden to your patrons to produce work they enjoy? Do you feel the benefactor/patronage system in the fine art industry is feasible or relevant to today’s world? Can an artist relying on income from wealthy people to finance their living expenses truly be genuine to their own sense of self expression?
I can only speak from my own experience but: At the present moment, I have four patrons. That sounds like a lot, but, added up, it gives me just enough to live on in the San Francisco Bay Area. I live very much month-to-month, but I’m grateful to have a degree of security for at least the next year. I’ve worked with patrons before, and if not for the handful of collectors who have believed in me from early on, I wouldn’t be able to do this now. At no point have any of them ever made me feel beholden to make certain work. I don’t think they would have agreed to sponsor me if they didn’t already like what I was doing. So in many ways, I feel more free to make the work I want to make now than at anytime before.
I encourage younger artists to get comfortable asking for what they need to work. It feels awkward and embarrassing, but remember that you’re offering something in return. Collectors are also investors and they’re used to people pitching ideas and will respect a thoughtful proposal. That’s been my experience so far. Be generous and clear about what you need and what they’ll receive in return. It’s useful to demonstrate that you have a history of following through on your promises.
Also, I want to add that the artist is confronted with numerous constraints and obstacles that will create pressure to do one thing instead of another. It’s just as likely that simple biases held by a local-level art clique will effect creativity negatively, especially in areas like the San Francisco Bay Area where the only capital most artists have access to is social capital. An anti-capitalist agenda is often little more than a result of prolonged insecurity that the work is unwanted. I would prefer to see artists take control of their own careers, so that they can benefit more from a capitalist model than the third parties that capitalize off of artists. I understand and relate to artists’ ambivalence about art and commerce, but idealistically, I’d like to see artists become less afraid of money and power and eventually turn the food chain upside down, to the effect that only once the artists are paid, other participants in the art world can get paid too, since everyone in the game is depending on what we make.
– You’ve worked digitally, sculpturally, with installation and with animation–what keeps you centered in the painting practice; why do you paint? What role does painting play and why does painting stay relevant for you?
As a mixed media artist myself I often grapple with the necessity to paint when there are a myriad of digital processes that function in a similar, yet cleaner and quicker, way. Is the tactile, physical, human nature of the medium the primary thing that prevents painting from being reduced to just another method of stylization? After working in so many formats, do you find painting to be restrictive? Is it fair to ask you a dozen questions at once? Do I look pretty today?
You look stunning. I love the tutu and leather vest combination. Is that real leather?
Basically, I just feel that my strength is in painting. Aside from that, it’s cheaper to make and I don’t need any help with it. “The Evangelists” required a team of nine people and a year to produce. And if I didn’t have the help of assistants for the sculptures, they’d never get done.
I don’t think of painting as being restrictive, I just think of it as a particular way of thinking. Some ideas have to be thought about differently, so they end up coming to life with other media. But I definitely have ideas for animation, installations, and sculpture that I can’t get to because of various constraints. Eventually.
– One of your visual languages/motifs you utilize frequently is that of plastic, brightly colored gunk–something akin to barbie doll entrails. Other than being a good sculptural analogue to thick oil paint, what draws you to this visual language?
Yeah, you know, it IS a good sculptural analogue to thick paint. I never really thought of that. That must be why I find it so attractive. I like that observation.
One thing that I think has been true of my practice for several years is that I try to recycle things once they die. I see this as a preventing of entropy. I’m very much interested in death and rebirth, so when I had to destroy an eight-foot and a sixteen-foot sculpture when I moved out of my old studio, I couldn’t bear the idea of letting them go to waste. The sculptures, which were made out of thousands of torched plastic action figures were chopped up into little bits and stuffed into boxes and shoved into storage units after my divorce. So when I moved into my current studio, I started making Frankenstein monsters out of the pieces, who would become “knights of infinite progress” and “ghost dancers.” You could say I was trying to put the pieces back together. How cheesy is that?
- You title your work with entire passages of quotes and poetry, your stated intentions are often obfuscated and collapse inward into something resembling spoken sculptures of your complex and shifting paintings– embedded with kaleidoscopic pop culture, sex, and historical references fracturing against a bed of religious imagery and fervor–which leads me to wonder if this is some sort of world building; a schizophrenic narrative told across a variety of mediums and formats. The comic book characters acting as religious figures (who are many devout believers’ own super heroes in a way), engaged in epic struggles set against detonating landscapes certainly evokes fictional characters in a story arc. Do these forms and figures exist within the same universe or are they discrete occurrences, each existing within their own singular environment?
Excellent observation and question.
- Hahahah damnit, fine. Well what are you working on now, and what would you like to work on?
I’m working on new paintings and have just started on a collaborative stop-motion animation with Maja Ruznic and Natalia Gomez. In September, I move out of this studio and head off to Europe for three months. While there, Maja and I will be working, showing, and, if all goes smoothly in the process, volunteering at a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan with Patch Adams. I’ll have two solo shows next year, that I’ll begin working on sometime soon.
Beyond that, I’m currently fantasizing about collaborating with a band or musician to produce art around an album, music video, and/or tour. I’d love to work with Sufjan Stevens or The Flaming Lips. I’d also love to work on film with directors/writers like Charlie Kaufman, The Cohen Brothers, Baz Lurmann, or Darren Aronofsky.
Because I want to work with the most talented people alive.
To check out more of Joshua Hagler’s extensive art practice, slide on over to his portfolio site here.