The Cool and Capricious World of Artist Josh Agle, a.k.a. Shag

Nancy Lackey Shaffer

 

Judy Jetson grew up and became a swinger: That’s the impression one might get the first time viewing a Shag painting. The artist Josh Agle—his nom de brosse comes from the SH in “Josh” and the “AG” in Agle—is known for his martini-clutching mod characters in swanky spaces rendered in saturated colors with a distinctive mid-century style. Lithe ladies in bobs and beehives and their cool-cat men lounge on boxy sofas and egg chairs, or sip tropical drinks in bars next to zombies and skeletons while bongo drummers and guitarists play on. There’s usually a leering tiki or five; alligators, black cats, Shriners and Franz Kafka might also make an appearance.

 

The cartoon-like paintings are an ode to the cocktail culture of the 1950s and 1960s, done in the style (albeit over the top) of commercial art of the era. A nostalgia for the optimism and fashionable hedonism of that time is one reason for Shag’s popular appeal. But like the best art, it’s the doors in our own imaginations opened up by his work that keep viewers engaged—and coming back for more.

 

As he said in a 2012 interview for the British website Modculture, “I almost always try to paint a story…something that’s happening, often sinister, and usually a bit mysterious.” He plays with well-known symbols: wolf-headed men stand in for suave womanizers, while bulls are their more domesticated counterpart; alluring women are often shown with cat-like aspects; dancing Shivas suggest the exotic. There’s also a playful critique going on: despite the chic sophistication of his subjects, the ridiculous is continually looking over their shoulders. His characters may also be considered stand-ins for the now middle-aged Generation X (of which Agle himself is a part). Shag isn’t necessarily painting people from the past; he could be painting his retro-loving contemporaries who are adopting the styles of the past.

 

 

The most obvious reference point for Shag’s oeuvre is advertising from the 1950s and 1960s, with their sharp lines, vivid colors and two-dimensional aspect. Jim Flora’s jazz album cover art of the 1940s and 1950s and the work of cartoonist Gene Dietch also have left a lasting impression on him—and it shows in his own minimalist and stylized compositions. The swank and swagger of his imagery owes a lot to early James Bond films and David Bailey’s “Swinging London” photography. Other influences include Lowbrow artist (and Juxtapoz magazine founder) Robert Williams, graffiti and visual artist Keith Haring, and animator David Weidman. Agle greatly admires the Pop Surrealist Mark Ryden. While Ryden’s work is much darker and more disturbing than anything Shag has shown, both artists have a penchant for mixing cute with morbid.

 

Shag’s work is tightly linked to his connection with Southern California—but like a Shag painting, there’s more to the story. Born the eldest of nine children in 1962 in Sierra Madre, a community nestled at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains and close to Pasadena, he grew up in a strict Mormon household. His early childhood was spent in Hawaii before the family moved to Los Angeles. When Agle was in high school, his parents relocated again to Utah. He set foot in California once again for college, attending California State University at Long Beach in the mid-1980s, initially studying accounting and architecture.

 

 

However, his love of art won out. Bolstered by the legacy of his grandfather, a successful commercial artist in the 1930s and 1940s, Agle switched his major to graphic design and started exploring opportunities to turn what he loved into a source of income. At the same time, the underground culture of Los Angeles began to beckon. He started playing in bands (most notably a folk punk group called Swamp Zombies), exploring the LA garage music scene, and seeking out tiki bars (his love of tiki culture would play a large role in his art and career). He also discovered Mid-Century Modern design, his signature artistic element.

 

Agle first found success as a commercial illustrator, for such clients as Time, Forbes and Entertainment Weekly as well as local musicians looking for creative album art. “It took me eight years to graduate, I was so busy doing commercial illustration,” he told David A. Keeps in a 2005 article for the Los Angeles Times. Shag the Artist debuted at this time: Agle did the cover art for Swamp Zombies, and signed it “Shag” to make it look as though his band was successful enough to hire a graphic designer. His career took a dramatic turn in 1995, when Otto Von Stroheim, a close friend and the publisher of Tiki News fanzine, asked him to contribute a painting to an art show Stroheim was organizing in Santa Monica. The painting sold right away for $200...and brought Agle to the attention of influential art collector and gallery owner Billy Shire.

 

 

Shire has been instrumental in fostering underground artists and bringing new work to the general public since the 1970s—so successfully, in fact, that Juxtapoz magazine has dubbed him “the Peggy Guggenheim of Lowbrow.” When Shag’s next set of paintings were included in a 1996 tiki art show (also curated by Stroheim) at Shire’s famed La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Hollywood, he was blown away. “He created what could be called a whole new genre: twenty-first century hipster cool,” Shire wrote in the introduction to Shag: The Art of Josh Agle. Every Shag piece was purchased that night, and Shire gave Agle a solo show shortly thereafter. The gallery was packed, and the show sold out. Shag and his 21st century Hipster Cool had arrived.

 

Since then, Agle has had several shows at La Luz de Jesus and other Southern California galleries, and has shown across the country and in Japan, Australia and Europe. Celebrity collectors include Ben Stiller, Seth Green and Whoopi Goldberg. Hipsters from coast to coast have eagerly snapped up retro-cool Shag originals, as well as prints, books, stationery, Hawaiian shirts, tiki mugs, figurines and other memorabilia—many of which are sold from The SHAG Store, which opened in 2009 in Palm Springs. Agle is well known for his merchandising savvy: Shag’s simple and bold designs lend themselves well to product, and by choosing to offer so many forms of it, he has brought considerable attention to his art and made it highly accessible. “The average person can’t write a check for $4,000 just because they want a little painting,” he explains in his 2001 book Bottomless Cocktail. (These days, a Shag painting could easily cost you $10,000 or more). It is delightfully apropos that an artist whose work “celebrate[s] consumerism and consumption” has made it so effortless for fans to consume his own creations.

 

 

Shag merchandising deals have led to some interesting bedfellows. Agle has collaborated with Paul Frank and Harvey’s on handbags, and worked on a wide variety of projects for Disney (including a redesign of the Enchanted Tiki Room). The short-lived Venus Room at the Venetian Resort Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas—for which Agle designed the visuals, including matchbooks, napkins and swizzle sticks—was so heavily scavenged by Shag collectors that it ended up getting a remodel and then closed altogether in 2004. The Georgia Aquarium sports a 100-foot-long mural. Agle has even been involved in theater: he did most of the show art for Cynthia Bradley’s 2005 murder mystery stage show, Shag With A Twist. No matter the venue or partnership (and there are several others), Shag remains Shag, which further reinforces his brand.

 

When he’s not attending art show openings (Shag exhibits have appeared in Australia, Chicago and Los Angeles just in the last six months, and a solo show in New York opens in April), Agle leads a simple life, steeped in mid-century style. He lives in Orange County with his wife, Glen Way-Agle, a teacher and theatre director, along with their daughter and son, in a 1960 Modernist ranch the couple have decorated to match the era. (It’s said that being inside his home is like stepping into a Shag painting.) Agle paints daily, usually in the mornings and evenings, to satisfy the hundreds of customers and gallery owners who continue to clamor for Shag originals.

 

While diverse elements have appeared in his work throughout the years—2009’s “Autumn’s Come Undone” had an overall darker tone; “Animal Kingdom” from 2012 was partially inspired by Butterick animal costume patterns; architecture has played a larger role in more recent works—his artistic sensibility and popularity remain consistent. Agle loves what he does, and has stated in numerous interviews that his work and his hobby are one and the same. How lucky for him that his groovy sense of style has been so well received by a frequently fickle public. And how lucky for his adoring fans that he keeps on, well, swinging.

 

Shag’s “Thursday’s Girl” will be at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York City through May 4.

 

Author Bio:

Nancy Lackey Shaffer is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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