Arguably the world’s hippest artist right now, my interview with Josh Agle aka Shag will hopefully go some way in explaining his popularity.
We asked the man himself a host of questions covering art, design, scooters, music, film, junk shops and anything else that springs to mind. And to his credit, he answered the lot!
When I first saw your pictures, they reminded me of 60s sitcoms, old travel ads, classic early 60’s flicks and cocktails…but all with a sinister edge. How would you describe your paintings to someone who isn’t familiar with them?
The paintings are based on stylized commercial advertising from the mid 50’s through the mid-sixties. Back then, a lot of magazine ads, TV commercials, and product packaging had sort of cubist-cartoonish look, which I’ve appropriated and expanded upon for these Shag paintings. I almost always try to paint a story…something that’s happening, often sinister, and usually a bit mysterious.
Why the animals? Wolves & apes seem to appear quite regularly!
I started using animals as a way to tell people that I wasn’t painting the “real” world…I didn’t want people to look at the work and think it was a depiction of actual life. Many of the animals represent personality types: the wolf is a “suave womanizer”, and the bull represents that part of being a male which is totally subjugated by the opposite sex.
Where did it all begin? What was the first thing you sold? When did you know you could make painting your career?
The first actual painting I sold was in 1995. I had been working as a commercial illustrator, so I was paid for my art, but I had never actually set out to sell an original piece until my longtime friend Otto Von Stroheim, who is the publisher of the “Tiki News” fanzine, asked me to contribute a painting to an art show he was setting up. I think the piece was priced at $200 & sold straightaway.
How are you viewed by the “art establishment”?
Initially I was completely ignored by the fine art world, with the exception of a few galleries that dealt with West Coast, Lowbrow artists. Lately though, legitimate galleries and serious art collectors have been after me with increasing diligence. The museums are still turning up their noses at me, with a couple exceptions.
Who inspired you to paint? Are there any artists or illustrators you owe a debt to? Do you purchase the art of others?
My Grandfather, who made a good living as a commercial illustrator, inspired me posthumously to take it up as a career. As far as artists and illustrators who’ve given me great inspiration, I obviously owe a debt to the pop artists of the early sixties, as well as later image/product oriented guys like Keith Haring. Robert Williams, a California painter, also inspired me to try to paint my own vision…not directly, as he’s always been a complete asshole to me, but indirectly through his work. I have quite a large collection of original commercial art from the 50’s & 60’s, & I have a few fine art pieces. I have a Warhol Shoe illustration from the late 50’s, & my other favorite is a painting by the contemporary artist Mark Ryden, whose popularity has exploded in the past five years.
How do you keep the ideas coming? Are they all yours, or do friends & family help with the creativity?
I have a little notepad where I write ideas down. I seldom sketch ideas until I sit down to do a painting. Though family, friends, acquantances and fans often suggest ideas to me, these ideas tend to be a little askew from my own perspective & I seldom end up painting things that others have suggested.
Have you or your family ever sneaked into the paintings?
I’ve been in a few paintings, & my wife in several. I’ve put my dog & car in paintings too! A lot of people recognize me in paintings even though I didn’t intend it to be me.
How much of your week is taken up with painting?
I paint seven days a week, usually early in the morning and late at night. The rest of my day is taken up with the “business side of being Shag:” phone calls, meetings, e-mail, etc.
Ever thought of painting a couple extra pictures a year, hiding them, and selling them when you’re 60 to pay for a comfortable retirement (plot © Dr Who!)?
People have suggested that to me! I’m always so behind on painting for gallery shows that everything I do goes out the door almost immediately. I do have a fairly valuable collection of ‘sold out’ prints and merchandise which I’ll sit on for a long time.
Do you have certain favourite paintings? Do your fans have favoured themes?
My favorite painting is usually my most recently completed one; maybe because it’s still fresh to me. Fans seem to favor the ones with ‘Tikis’, ‘hula girls’, ‘Planet of the Apes’, & the ‘Rat Pack’.
For those unfamiliar, how would you explain “Tiki” and what’s the fascination?
I started collecting mugs from Tropical bars about 18 years ago. The mugs were usually in the shape of Polynesian gods, or “Tikis”, and were manufactured from the 50’s through the 70’s. That led to my fascination with tropical imagery, particularly tikis. Now there is a big resurgence in interest in “Tikiana.” I think it speaks to the same longings today’s people have to escape their humdrum life and experience the exotic that caused the bars and restaurants to be established originally back in the middle of the last century.
Any thoughts of doing more “retro London”? Maybe something “Blow Up”? David Hemmings would be flattered! Thinking about it, did “3 Black Crows” cover that ground? Then maybe go for a “mod” theme…we’d all buy the prints!
Retro London is a recurring theme. “Blow Up” is one of my absolute favorite films and it definitely inspired “3 Black Crows”. I stayed away from the subject for a while because it was so identified with “Austin Powers” in most people’s minds but I am planning more “Swinging London” themes in the future.
Are there any celebrity “Shag” fans you are willing to name? Do you get invites to celebrity parties?
There are celebrity collectors, but almost any fairly established artist in L.A. will have them, as the celebrities are the ones with lots of disposable income! One of my biggest collectors is Whoopi Goldberg. Ben Stiller, Seth Green, Rob Zombie, and Nancy Sinatra also own paintings. I don’t feel really comfortable around famous people and usually decline invitations to “hang” with the stars.
If one of the rich or famous offered you a large sum of money to do a portrait in the “Shag” style, would you do it? If not, anyone you’d make an exception for?
I used to have a philosophy: for enough money I’d paint anyone or anything …except Elvis. Then one day, the Presley estate inquired if I might be interested in working on some Elvis memorabilia as they were trying to update the ageing franchise and make attractive to hip young consumers. I was flattered and puffed up that they thought that I would be the thing Elvis needed to make him “hip” again, so my philosophy flew out the window immediately.
I believe you’ve done albums covers, club flyers etc. Is this ongoing, or has the demand for paintings limited your time? Could I interest you in a modculture project (payment in records and old books)? Which album covers would we recognise as yours?
I do occasionally do projects like album covers & specific illustrations, but I don’t do a lot of custom work because of the demand for paintings. I don’t think a modculture project would be out of the question! Most of the recent albums I’ve done are Japanese bands!
Do you live in a “Shag style” world? Is home like the film mogul’s house in “The Party”? Would you like it to be? Was that house real?
I have been diligently trying to create a “Shag” world to live in; while my house isn’t quite as groovy or outlandish as the one in “The Party”, it is slowly transforming itself into the interior of a Shag painting. I have a pretty decent sized mid-century modern house, and I’ve spent the last 6 months trying to “overdo” it, having custom rock walls, iron railings & hanging lights added to the relatively simple architecture, & having large stone easter island heads carved for the pool. Eventually I want them to spit water into the pool itself, but that will take some engineering. It’s probably a travesty to an architectural purist, but I’m the one paying the mortgage! I believe the house in “The Party” was actually built on a soundstage, but I have been to a couple real houses in L.A. that come close!
I believe you’re a retro junkie (like most of us). Any interesting bargains lately? I imagine California is better than Manchester for retro chic? Anything you are still hunting for?
L.A. is probably the world capitol of cool retro stuff, but it’s gotten horribly expensive lately. I’ve found some great bargains in the past, but have been paying through the nose for other things recently. I’m still looking for an “ottoman” to go with the black leather Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair I found for $50 a few years ago. Unfortunately I’ve not seen an “ottoman” for less than $500…
Is there a decent retro scene in L.A.? If any of us travel there, any bars or shops we should look out for?
L.A. has tons of great retro stuff, but the city is so spread out that one must do lots of driving to see it all. There are 2 streets in L.A. that have a lot of good shops and architecture, Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue. A drive through the Hollywood Hills will allow one to see some of the most famous and impressive modern houses in the world.
Your merchandising (www.shagmart.com) is massive! What is the oddest bit of merchandising ever to bear your name? Do you keep personal control of what is produced? Any chance of record bags?
I’ve always considered merchandising to be a big part of my “art”. I don’t know if any of the merchandise I’ve licensed is particularly odd, but I have had odd requests which I’ve passed on – a Shag “dildo bag” (?!) & a Shag “bobbing head doll” that was actually a little statue of me (too creepy).
What’s this I hear about a “Shag themed” bar in Las Vegas?
I designed the visuals for a bar on the Las Vegas strip called “Venus”. It was in the Venetian Hotel. Unfortunately, so much of what I did was scavenged by enthusiastic collectors and eBay harvesters that the management decided it was in their best interest to do a redesign in a less desirable manner…I think of it as a limited edition bar! If you weren’t there during the year it was open you won’t get a chance to see it again.
Your work is probably most recognisable in the UK from the work with Paul Frank. How did that happen? Is this still happening? Anyone else you plan to work with in future?
Paul Frank and I had known each other for a few years before we collaborated. I don’t think we’ll do any other collaborations through his company, although we have worked together on “one-off” fine art projects, and will probably do so again. There are a few other designers I’d like to work with, but I think their egos might intrude: Phillipe Starck, Mark Newson, and I’d also like to work with some old, established companies, like Ben Sherman.
Would you be interested in doing animated films at all?
I’ve been approached by almost all the major animation studios. I do have a couple irons in the fire, but the entertainment industry is the sort of thing that one can’t really rely upon. I’ll believe it when I see it happen.
Who would do the soundtrack to your pictures? Something easy? Something French? Something with bongos? Or am I reading it wrong?
I like instrumental film music — if Mancini were still alive, I think he might do a good job. Some of the contemporary DJ’s who remix easy listening are pretty interesting too, and might add a modern spin to it. I like The Thievery Corporation, Ursula 1000, Dimitri From Paris.
Does music inspire you? What kind of stuff have you bought recently?
I haven’t bought a single record or CD since my daughter was born — she’s four now. Somehow she took control of the stereo and hasn’t relinquished it.
A print of “Blue Scooter” sits proudly in our dining room. Are you into scooters? Do you own a scooter? Vespa or Lambretta?
I’ve tried to restore both a ’66 Vespa and a ’62 Lambretta, but neither ever really got to the point where I could ride it, & I sold them in pieces. I’ve considered buying a fully restored one, as I don’t have time to work on it myself. As soon as my accountant figures how to write it off, I’ll get one. I think that scooters are some of the most aesthetically pleasing objects created by human beings.
Do you own a Mini? They seem to loom large in your paintings!
I’ve never owned a Mini, but my brother collected & restored them until recently. In the US they are quite exotic and seldom seen on the road. I’m always reminded of “The Italian Job” when I see one.
I’m guessing you don’t paint as a hobby these days? How do you get away from the day job?
The only way I can get away from my job is to leave town; I’m fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to enjoy my work as much as I would any hobby, so that’s what I spend the majority of my time doing.
Are you into the web? Any sites we might not know of worth seeing?
I don’t spend much time online, unless I’m trying to track something down. I have spent a lot of time recently at gomod.com looking for the perfect chairs for my dining table!
Any plans to display your work in the UK? Or do we need to hassle some galleries on your behalf?
Right now, my UK card publisher, Roger La Borde, is working with my US publisher to find a suitable gallery in London for my first UK exhibition. I hope it happens!
Many thanks for labouring through these questions! We look forward to seeing you in the UK sooner rather than later!
Shag’s Essential Book:
Slaughterhouse Five Kurt Vonnegut (Vintage Publishing)