Sunday, July 01, 2007

Art Space Talk: Joshua Hagler

I discovered the art of Joshua Hagler while observing member art on I was impressed by the expressive nature of his paintings.

Mr. Hagler graduated from the University of Arizona School of Fine Art with a BFA in Studio Art. His work has appeared in various art books, magazines, and journals- including the UK Guardian.

Mr. Hagler was one of ten international artists selected from a group of 10,000 entrants to show in a special exhibition put on by the Saatchi Gallery in London. His art is controversial and thought-provoking.

Brian Sherwin: Your current body of work is concerned with the problem of fundamentalism in America and the burden and social effects of religious faith. You presented several of these paintings in your recent solo show that you titled "Bring us Rapture" at the Mina Dresden Gallery in San Francisco. Can you tell our readers about the motive behind these works? Did the public accept them?

Joshua Hagler: I grew up in a small Illinois town going to church, youth group, Sunday school, and church camp. Later when I was in college in Tucson I joined an enormous campus Christian organization, although I never had the sense that I was fully accepted there. Later I would see how religious belief participated in the separation of my family, how it was capable of dividing the believer from the nonbeliever.

As I began to ask more questions about my faith, about its philosophical implications, its history, its evolution over time, I had what some might refer to as a crisis of faith, although what I really came to understand was that I merely started to be aware of things that, in the back of my mind, I always understood but would never allow myself to admit out of fear of the consequences.

During the past couple of years I've noticed that the kinds of arguments I used to have internally are being projected onto the big screen--the mass media. I think this is especially the case right now with the interrelationship of politics and religion. Were arguing about who we are as Americans, whether our nationality is defined by our dominant religion and vice versa.

The United States spends considerable time and energy imposing its views and culture onto other parts of the world. I'm concerned with our pursuit of hegemony and address the problem in my paintings. I do not think we can survive this way, but I also think that if one is to believe in the Rapture as most Americans do, then that line of thought will bring a person only to one conclusion: that destruction is a precondition for salvation. It's a stark belief to think we have to die in order to live. It's also stark to realize that one of the largest political lobbies in the United States believes this. It seems to be an undercurrent in our violent and wasteful behavior as Americans.

As far as whether my paintings are accepted by people who see them, I guess I don't really know. In San Francisco, most people who make it a point to be active on the art scene are not really put off by challenging subject matter. If anything, I think perhaps they don't actually recognize the subject matter. Northern California is not a very indoctrinated part of the country, which is partly why I moved out here. I sometimes wonder, though, if that's precisely why I should show them elsewhere. I think the issue of people accepting the work is less a problem than the issue of people recognizing where it comes from.

BS: What other social implications can be discovered in your work? Do you see your paintings as a form of advocacy?

JH: I definitely don't see them as a form of advocacy. I'm not really advocating anything in them. I'm certainly not advocating that people stop having religious beliefs because I don't actually feel confident that it's necessarily the best thing for the individual, nor do I think that human beings actually need religion in order to do harm to each other or the planet. I think we can do that just as well without. So what am I left to advocate?

Socially, the paintings imply that what you see is not necessarily what you get in terms of religion. I think there is this kind of exuberance that comes with organized religion that does a lot to mask the violence of thought that runs beneath it. I do not believe we should expect better from those with religious belief than those without. I do not believe they are more deserving of trust.

I have neither the high hope that my paintings can change anyones thinking, nor do I have the audacity to believe that they should. I will admit to hoping that in retrospect people will see them as a marker--a social litmus that shows how acidic the landscape can get when we believe in things without reason. All religion becomes myth over time. Who were we when we believed this myth instead of that one? I hope my paintings are one day seen when someone asks that question. How similar do we look? How different?

BS: Do you ever fear getting involved in some manner of witch-hunt over your art and thoughts concerning established religion? Do you ever feel like your walking a fine line due to the images you create? Has the controversy over your work ever caused conflict in your personal life?

JH: That' an interesting question. The short answer is no. I don't think the hypothetical witch-hunters will pay any attention to my paintings. I'm not really the paranoid type.

A good point to make on this topic is that I have plenty of non-witch-hunting Christian friends, family and acquaintances. While not all of them like my work, many of them do. Sometimes I think they have a better appreciation for the work than my non-religious friends because they come with a more specific context with which to approach the work. Everyone who knows me knows that I'm not after their souls, if you will. Nobody I know personally has said that they are angry with me or show that they are afraid of my work or somehow threatened by it.

Of course, none of my friends are marginal characters either. But I'm pretty sure the folks with their 'God hates fags' signs aren't especially invested in the contemporary art world. I'd have to show up on Yahoo news first. I don't have any plans to build anything out of elephant dung anytime soon.

To be more serious, there is a kind of discomfort when certain people close to me see it. I think they recognize what I'm trying to say but are afraid to ask penetrating questions. I'm not sure what to do about that. Maybe that's just how it has to be.

BS: Describe your process of creating. I understand that your method tend to be kind of destructive... or violent... compared to traditional methods of painting.

JH: Well, to tell the truth, I do tend to begin my paintings in a fairly traditional way. What I mean by that is I actually do have formal concerns with proportion, value, temperature, etc. It's just that over the course of the painting I reach a point where I've sort of found an opening, a gash in the side of some kind of carcass and spread it open. I feel as if something comes into my throat, like light or fear or anger and blasts out of the back of my head. I get goose bumps and I can't settle down.
I've sort of lost concern for how a painting should look and I feel more as if I'm attacking the canvas or panel than actually painting a picture. But it's a back and forth from the conscious application of paint to a more heightened aliveness. The latter doesn't actually last long, but I've learned to trust it more, so I let more happen during that time. Inevitably the wave passes and I'm left to clean up the mess. The problems that are created in my heightened state are solved in my more rational state, but both states are absolutely necessary.
Most of the art on this website was completed after my wife and I lost our apartment and my studio to arson. It was one of the most stressful, discombobulated, and delirious times of my life. When I got to the studio that I was sharing with a friend, it all poured out of me. It was a beautiful state of terror.

BS: Two of your paintings were selected last year by the Saatchi Gallery and Guardian readers to display with nine other artists from around the world in a group exhibition at the Guardian Gallery in London. I understand that you and the others artists were selected from several thousand people. Art critic Jonathan Jones acknowledged your work as his personal favorite of the group. He stated, "These are still my favorites - especially the nutty and grotesque art of Joshua Hagler, an anthropological window onto America's religious right.". Can you share any of your other experiences in regards to that exhibit?

JH: I tend to see that show as just one part of my larger experience in London. We were there for a week. I was blown away by what is going on artistically there. I was already aware that London is a place where some of the world's best artists are born, but I didn't understand how important art is there to people. I've never had the sense that most Americans are particularly aware of art or interested in it. But in London it's different. There's just a different feeling in the air.

The exhibit itself was a wonderful time. It was weird to be photographed by media people and brought from one person to another to be introduced to have one conversation interrupted for another. But the best thing was the kinds of questions that were being asked. It made me nervous to be asked things about the work that I wasn't prepared to answer, but it was a welcome change from the San Francisco art scene where it seems as if a question is rarely asked. There are just different kinds of observations that were being made in London. I think people here are more attracted to the party than to the art itself, and I didn't get that feeling in London. It felt really nice. I miss it.

BS: Can you go into further detail about your studio practice? What sets the mood for your work sessions? Care to describe your studio space?

JH: My studio can be best described as uninhabitable since the fire. Sadly, San Francisco is a hard place to find affordable space, so I've been without for a couple of months. I'm still in shock that I can't find anything. If anyone reading this knows of anything, I sure could use some help in that department. We're still sharing an apartment with friends until we can find a more permanent place to live.

BS: So how exactly did the studio fire start? Did you lose art work as well?

JH: The building in which I lived and made art caught fire because one of the tenants had a schizophrenic episode in which he torched his art studio because he believed it to be possessed by demons. The top half of the building was fried crispy. Roof gone. Lucky for us, we were on the second floor, one floor below his. My wife suffered some damage to her piano which has been fixed, and we lost some clothes because of water damage, but that's about it. None of my art was lost because my actual studio was almost completely untouched. Everything on the walls was safe enough.

BS: What artists from the past have influenced your work?

JH: For the sake of brevity, I'll keep the list short. Willem de Kooning, Giacometti, Francis Bacon, Flannery O' Connor (writer), Egon Schiele, Gustov Klimt, Carravagio, Kurt Vonnegut (writer), Goya, and more. Plus lots more living people.

BS: Concerning elephant dung and other controversial materials... we all know that some artists use certain materials to deepen the impact of their works. Do you think less of an artist who uses urine, feces, or some other controversial medium to make their point. In other words, do you think a painter should be able to make his or her point with paint... and not rely on these other materials? What is your opinion of these works... many of which deal with the same themes that you are exploring?

JH: No. I think it's silly to have some kind moral objection to any kind of media. I certainly wouldn't advocate the restriction of creative freedom. I'm all for knocking down boundaries if serves a higher purpose. My knowledge of Chris Ofili's work is limited so I don't have much of an opinion on the matter.

Getting back to the issue of relying on certain materials, I was just having a conversation with a friend about the difference between the words 'contemporary' and 'temporary'. This is sort of a tangent, but it's relevant to your question I think.

There seems to be some kind of implied pressure on artists now to push new materials in order to have relevance to the contemporary art world rather than to the world at large. For instance, if you use synthetic materials and digitally manipulate your images, all of the sudden you're more contemporary. But the funny thing is, the fine art world (vs. the commercial/illustration/videogame/animation world) is always way behind the curve in terms of its collective understanding of digital art for instance.

So if someone makes a vector tracing in Illustrator or uses Photoshop filters and paints that, or makes some crappy digital video in Final Cut or After Effects, people will start talking about how contemporary that is because it's using new methods. But the methods aren't really that new. I've been doing that sort of thing since my first year in high school, as have many of my friends. It's corny. And anyone looking from the commercial art world into the fine art world knows this. It's not contemporary; it's just temporary. Temporary, meaning that as soon as it makes its way into the gallery it's already dated.

In my opinion, 'contemporary' implies that you're among the first to get there--the contemporary conversation is one step ahead of the outmoded conversations. You're creating trends, not following them. Contemporary work has a heightened awareness of the subject that it addresses. Just because you use acrylic paint, doesn't mean you're more contemporary than someone who uses oil. It doesn't mean you're more contemporary if you use a Photoshop Filter instead of imagining something that looks unusual all by yourself. Coming up with a gimmick to add meaning to your work seems to me like a desperate scramble to do something in order for the art world to take notice of you before you turn 30.

So going back to the question, I don't have a problem with any media. I just have a problem with lending too much meaning and interest to media in which the artist is more of a prisoner to than a master of. A computer or polymer synthetic are just tools like any other. Just because there's a box with a glowing picture between you and your final outcome, or an injection molding mechanism to take the place of your plaster cast doesn't, by itself, lend more meaning, relevance, or contemporary-ness. It only means you've chosen a particular tool with no more or less intrinsic value at a particular moment to achieve your goal.

If the art critic understood the processes better, I don't think he would tend to lend so much relevance to it. It's just that technology changes so quickly now that it's hard for the audience to keep up, so it makes the artist look smart for a few years until the average consumer starts to learn how to make someone's eyes glow in Photoshop from a the photo his phone took. Then the eight-foot digital portrait with glowing eyes in the gallery doesn't seem so special anymore.

Though I'm not opposed to any medium in principle, I think, in the end, what's going to make the work last in the public's consciousness of it is not just what kind of materials the artist uses, but rather how the artist senses her world and is able to translate that vision into something that goes directly to the hearts and minds of those who experience it. Also, I recognize that whether something is contemporary or whether it lasts over time are two different conversations, but still, in order for the work to remain contemporary it needs to have some lasting power in order not to become just temporary. A little bit off the subject, but anyway. . .

BS: Finally, what do you see in your future? Care to reveal any plans for your work?

JH: I'm always biting off more than I can chew. The important thing is that I'm finally getting back into a studio after being without for a couple of months. In addition to painting, I also recently made a publishing deal for my serialized graphic novel called The Boy Who Made Silence, which will be released at the beginning of next year. I will probably be working on that for quite some time to come.

In terms of painting, I'm interested in a couple of traveling destinations for which I'd like to get a some grant money to support. One is Kentucky, where a biblical creation museum is being built. The museum asserts that the world is 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs rode on Noah's Ark. I'd like to take a tour when it's finished and make some work based on the visit and any conversations I might get to have.

The other destination is South America. My brother is currently serving in the Peace Corp and has said that there are a number of missionaries doing work around there. I'd like to see what it's like, to see what they actually do on a day-to-day basis and how the people there respond to and are affected by their work and his work actually.
I also have photos from my burnt-out apartment building that I want to use in some way. I'm interested in finding out what happened to our resident arsonist and possibly getting in touch with him. There are a lot of things that interest me right now. I just need to figure out what to prioritize.
You can learn more about Joshua Hagler and his art by visiting his website: Feel free to leave a comment.
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

1 comment:

Carl Wyckaert said...

Great article - looking forward to meet Joshua again in a couple of days