EK Interview: Joshua Hagler

Joshua Hagler, previously featured October 2010 is a really cool dude, a gentleman of the highest order, and he is really really really patient, because this interview was owed to him a long time ago, and he was really nice about it the whole time. I’m sorry Josh, but we do love your work and will be totally promoting it as you go on!

Introduce yourself and your work

My name is Josh Hagler, but my real friends call me Hags. I was born on an air force base in an almost mythologically small town called Mountain Home, Idaho. I was born jaundiced and endowed of a cone head. My head is still inconsistent in contour and dimension, but I go to a tattooed girl with half her head shaved who cuts my hair in a flattering way. I’ve spent the past ten years in the liberal, godless Babylon of the San Francisco Bay Area making art and occasional trouble. I began as an illustrator, cartoonist, and graphic designer. I now make paintings, sculpture, installation, and, more recently, created and directed an animated project that began after I searched for and found the guy who burned down my house in 2007. We got along well and he let me interview him. The work is called “The Evangelists” and you can watch an abbreviated low-res version on Vimeo now: vimeo.com/joshuahagler

Where did you study/or how did you learn your craft?

I went to the University of Arizona for a girl I was in love with. There wasn’t going to be any private art school allowed for me anyway. I made the best of it. I had a daily comic strip in the school paper and quickly became the art director there, doing illustrations for opinion columns and hiring other cartoonists. My first children’s book was published when I was 17 and I worked on a few more for a small now-defunct Phoenix area publisher while I went to school to help pay for things. Between my job at the paper, the children’s books, and scholarships, I learned a lot and paid for most of my education myself. I had a good teacher named David Christiana from whom I learned the academic foundations of painting that are so unpopular to teach nowadays.  I’ve always been grateful to him for that since there wouldn’t have been anyone else to teach it. As soon as my four years were up, I fled pennylessly from the desert in my Oldsmobile convertible and sold it when I got to San Francisco. I lived illegally in San Francisco Art Institute student housing with my best friend Kim Weinberg who was going to school there.  We threw ninja stars into walls, glass bottles onto the floor, and walked home from places drunk. I was making comics books on her back porch at that time and once in awhile this beautiful blonde dancer would come around picking blackberries and flirt a little bit. I learned a lot from all these arty kids at that time, which we didn’t have so many of back in Arizona. I realized I was sheltered and it helped to get me out of my albino peanut shell. One of Kim’s roommates got mad at me once for being dumb and that’s when it hit me that I was dumb and had a lot to learn still. So I went to some MFA shows and thought for the most part it was a bunch of boring crap made by rich kids for whom survival wasn’t their main concern, but now and then something they made contributed to the dislodging of my head from my ass. So I learned that it’s okay to fail most of the time as long as you can pull a diamond from the poo every now and then.

What medium do you prefer?

I guess I kind of like them all. But I don’t understand these people who wake up and decide one day, “it’s oil pastels for me, boy” and then that’s it; oil pastels is who they are.

Can you explain your book the origins, and what it means to you?

I started working on The Boy Who Made Silence in 2002 as an undergrad, which means that, quite honestly, I’ve forgotten what singular blissful wave of inspiration overcame me. Not to create a false sense of where the idea directly came from, but it is true that I had a brother who died when I was six. For as long as I can remember I had the feeling of wanting to bring him back to life, almost more for my mother’s sake than for my own, although, okay, I missed him. Even as I grew up, I’d sometimes imagine him “up in heaven” with any kind of super power you could think of. I guess, eventually, I settled on silence? God, that sounds sappy. Tell me that’s not how it happened.

In one of the first scenes of the book, a dog catches and mauls a cat, and Nestor jumps out of his mother’s car, which is stopped as a parade marches by. He’s trying to save the cat.  This stems from a memory I have of being in my mother’s car in front of my school. In the memory, I notice two kids sitting with shirts off and smoking in the back of a pickup. They’re laughing and pointing. I look to where they’re pointing. There is a dog mauling a cat in someone’s yard across the street. I jump out of the car, run across the street, scare off the dog, but it’s too late. The cat is ripped open and bloody, still alive, but obviously not for long. Basically, the book is based on situations and textures of my childhood, but is exaggerated and distorted by time and my neurotic misunderstanding of things.

I will admit, I never knew any three-eyed babies. You had to go further south for that. However, I did name the three-eyed baby in my book after my niece.

Why comics? What does the comic medium do for you in terms of exploring your art?

I’ve always maintained that the comics medium is the highest art you can aspire to. Whenever I say that someone giggles and I want to give them a slap. There is nothing that can’t be done in the medium. Growing up, my mythologies came from three sources: Marvel, DC, and Church. I was reverent to them in that order.

I love comics, and love how the art has evolved over the decades. Where comics were once a kind of geek hobby (still is), now you see a lot of artists who have a fine arts background and incorporate a finer style into the medium…what do you read, who are some artists you admire?

I think comics have always been a fine art. Europe has been approaching it that way since forever ago. In Belgium they call it the Ninth Art, up there with all the other great ones. It’s too bad that so many people have been missing out for so long. Style inevitably changes, but I think some of the judgment about what can be fine art is usually made superficially. I hold Dan Clowes in the same regard as Dave McKean, more for their decisions about what they put in or leave out of frame than for how their marks are made. I wish I would have understood that when I was younger.

David Mack (who did the intro to your book) is pretty cool, how do you know him, has he informed your work at all?

I’m sure he wouldn’t remember the first time we met. Have you seen all the girls that swarm that guy literally asking him to paint them topless? It’s like he’s a Beatle. My point is, he had lots of other things to conquer his attention. I was still in school, at some convention or another, portfolio in hand, trying to work up the nerve to show him and failing. Later I worked up the nerve and he seemed to like it, tried to help me get it in the right hands. Eventually, we ended up exhibiting together in Paris and Brussels and he was kind enough to write the foreward for The Boy Who Made Silence. I feel very lucky to have his support. I run into him about once a year. He is a super nice guy, but I’m always afraid I’m going to get ninja kicked if I stand too close.  80% of the time he’s a gentleman. 20% of the time he’s a ninja and you might get kicked.

Next time, though, you should ask me about Sam Kieth. I love Sam Kieth. (editors note: So do I!  What do you fools know about The Maxx?) Ages ago, we worked on a comic book together called My Inner Bimbo, or I should say he allowed me the privilege of contributing a little doodling to his mad genius. Did you ever read it? Also, one of my animated Evangelists was modeled after him. He and Mack are the coolest people in comics.

What do you hope people take from your work?

It. No, seriously, I want them to take it.

What’s next for you?

I’m going to buy a building. Not tomorrow or anything, but at the first opportunity. It will be called The Church.  We’ll live in there and rent out studios to talented, broke artists at a discount. We’ll buy a fixer-upper for around $60,000 and spend a year or so whipping it into shape. People will come from all over to see what we’re up to over at The Church.

But in the immediate future, I’ll be in LA for this fundraising rally for USSSA, a collaborative political group project that thirteen of us are doing. This will happen on June 2nd. We’ll have an exhibition in October. I’ll also be doing a couple other group shows in LA and NY, but can’t say much about them yet.

Next year, I’ll be doing a talk at the University of Illinois, Champaign and will have a show there. I hope to take it up to Chicago afterward. Kind of like I did last year when I did a show in Italy and then brought it over to Miami.

Does your work in different mediums affect how you approach your work?

Absolutely. Each medium informs the other, both conceptually and formally. A 3D model built in Maya can be animated or printed as a still image, which can be collaged into a painting. The painting might begin with a digital sketch, compositing 3D models with photographs on the computer as preparation. Various materials such as silicone, window frames, or doors, used to craft a sculpture can then be integrated into the painting process.  In my writing practice, I often extract narrative or descriptive fragments that will then be illustrated as a graphic story or novel. Often, in the process of illustrating the story, it will change direction, and from these welcome surprises emerge new ideas that can be isolated and enlarged as a single painting. My most recent sculpture is about to become part of a set, which I will photograph and use in a body of paintings.

Describe your style of art and what you hope people take from it?

If I could avoid style I would, but its a kind of muscle memory. I suppose, to some degree, that describes my style: in trying to end up with one result, I accidentally end up with another. But I live for the accidents; they’re ultimately what keep me interested.

I hope viewers get the sense that I care about what I’m making and why I’m making it–that I’m not trying to do something fashionable or trendy for the sake of advancement in the politics of art or for gobs of money or because I care about how it will play with curators. If both a sense of thoughtfulness and manic vitality can be read in the work, then hopefully its enough to arrest the viewer’s attention. I think especially of the newer work as a kind of mirror in which one finds a reflection of his or her own life, and I hope that the familiarity of it is startling.

Describe your process of painting, do you work from studies, plan a lot? Do you do any previsualization work on the computer to explore how you will be combining forms, colors, etc. or just go for it?

Yes to all of those things. I also continue to experiment with new strategies and materials. I am more and more interested in where a painting winds up physically, and less interested in the cheap and easy promulgation of imagery.

With a huge project like “The Evangelists” in which I raised $10,000 to make a twelve-minute animation, it was essential to plan and organize everything, which I did with much help from animators Andrew Klein and Josh Johnson. I worked with eight modelers and animators, so I had to learn the value of good communication, delegation and multitasking. I found it very challenging, but it was astonishing when it all came together.

Who are some artist you feel are successful at pushing their mediums and/or exploring different styles?

Well, the list would get tedious. To answer most specifically–who pushes the boundaries of their media and continues to legitimately explore (as in not the yawn-inducing “my work explores issues of…”)–that’s a smaller list because it really is such an incredible challenge to continually be moving forward like that. These present-day superstars come to mind: Cai Guo Qiang, William Kentridge, Adrian Villar Rojas, Lee Yongbaek, Urs Fischer, Gregory Euclide, and Markus Schinwald. I’d probably think of different names on a different day, but these work for the purposes of enumerating.

How/Where do you think your art is evolving in the future?

It will probably get bigger and cost more to make.

There will also be more levity in it so as to prevent that inner death drive from assailing me further. It feels like the right time for satire.

Voltaire said, “I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O Lord make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God has granted it.”

I am making up a cozy little bed in my future work where the ghost of Voltaire can rest easy knowing that the world is as ridiculous as ever.

The man, the myth, the legend -thanks for the interview, Josh!