Josh Agle has unleashed his wild side. The SoCal artist better known as SHAG recently created new imagery that includes vintage pin-up girls in animal patterns set in the urban jungle. The colorful visuals are witty and racy, and the narrative themes continue to promote female empowerment from what was once a sexist pin-up culture. SHAG spoke with PRØHBTD about the new images, classic punk rock, gage-inspired jazz and his favorite tropical drink.
The pin-up girl culture had sexist elements in the 1950s, but pioneering women in the 1980s and 1990s transformed it into something empowering. Do your portrayals in Jungle Drums further reinvent the imagery?
In the ’80s and ’90s, when the girls themselves and the photographers took control of the medium, they were exerting their power trying to say, “Hey, this used to be a sexist thing, and now we’re reclaiming it.” In the paintings I’ve done, the women are actually in power as opposed to just taking this medium and using it to show their power.
For the painting Bunny and the Beasts, you have women in either creative or glamourous roles, while the men are just holding stuff.
Yeah. The men are lackeys. That’s a theme that’s run through my art since the beginning. The women, just the way they’re placed in the paintings or the emotional expressions they have, I generally think of them as the ones with the power.
In the painting Duetto Buffo Di Due Gatti, the man is wearing the same pattern as a sofa on which a woman is sitting. Can I assume that is a metaphor?
Yeah, definitely. I don’t want to get too detailed about specific paintings and what I’m trying to say because a lot of times, when I explain it, it takes the viewer out of the equation. Whereas if I don’t say what it’s about, maybe they’ll figure out what I meant, and maybe they’ll figure out something that means more to them. Maybe they’ll figure out something that was better than what I had thought.
What steps do you take to capture your signature style without being overly repetitive?
That’s tough because I could paint a variation on the same painting over and over, and I could blow them out the door because there are certain things everybody wants in a painting. If I put a black cat in it, a beautiful woman, a tiki, that would be enough. That’s why probably seven or eight years ago, I started basing my gallery shows around specific themes so it would break me out of just doing the same thing over and over. I’ve got to figure out how to create a body of work that all fits in with this same theme, which might not be something that I would normally paint.
This group of paintings was a little different because the whole Jungle Drums, pin-up girl, is pretty close to my wheelhouse. The last show I opened in New York was all paintings based on Old Testament stories, which is not a SHAG thing at all, really. If you read the Old Testament and look at the interpersonal relationships between the characters, they tell these stories about sex and love and life and death. Those are big themes. They’re fun to paint.
What was the moment you decided to go with the Jungle Drums theme?
It was actually a few years ago. People kept asking for tiki paintings. “More tikis. Paint more tikis.” I was like, “I don’t really want to paint tikis.” I still paint tikis, but I don’t want to do a whole show based around tiki, tiki bars, drinking. One of the things that drew me to tiki was this idea of taking yourself out of this civilized environment—this urban environment or this suburban environment—and sticking yourself in this savage environment, even if it’s a totally ersatz phony savage environment.
When you go to a tiki bar, you’re leaving the city, and you’re entering some jungle in the South Seas. I wanted to play on that, taking the human out of civilization and putting him or her in this metaphorical jungle. To me, it played back on the pin-up girls and the old men’s magazines where, a lot of times, they might have World War II soldiers running through the jungle, but then this tribe of native women—who were white, for some reason, and beautiful and looked like pin-up girls—are chasing these soldiers or have them in cages or something like that. It played off a bit of that as well.
A few years ago, your primary color palette seemed to shift to darker hues. Is that correct, and if so, what motivated that shift?
Beginning around 2008, I don’t know. I started going through something personally where I didn’t want to paint bright things anymore. I didn’t want to paint happy situations. I started painting a lot more stuff from my own life, my own experiences, my childhood. A lot of dreams and subconscious things. The paintings got a lot darker, and I followed that path until the end of 2010 when I fell through a big glass window at my house. I have big walls of glass, like in my paintings. I ended up in the hospital, and I almost died. After that, it snapped me out of it, almost. I wanted to return to the bright colors again and the… not necessarily happy… but the more social, less introspective themes. That was a little phase for about three and a half years.
I still see darker colors on the new pieces compared to a decade ago.
There’s still the lingering influence from the really dark work.
When you had to rehabilitate after the accident, did you channel the frustration or energy or triumph or whatever emotional roller coaster you were on into the artwork in concrete ways?
After my accident, I took a break for a year. I didn’t do a lot of painting except for a few commissioned paintings that year. All this stuff built up in me, making me reassess what I wanted to do as an artist, the things that were important to me, the things I portrayed, even going to things like why people collected my art or paid attention to it. “What about my art was attractive to people?” I tried to reassess that stuff, and I think it improved the quality of my work, actually.
What was an insight you gained as far as why people appreciate your work?
I think the art is aspirational for a lot of people, so it’s like painting people and situations they wish they were in. I had gotten that a little bit, but then I started thinking about it, and I realized that’s the reason I started painting this stuff as well. I was painting parties I wanted to go to and people I wanted to hang out with. That was one of the insights that I focused on a bit more, realizing that was one of the things that drew me to painting this world that I paint. I wanted to refocus on that and amp it up a little bit.
My favorite SHAG piece is The Summer of ’76 with the Ramones. I read that you created the image after seeing the Ramones in 1980. What was it about the show that connected with you?
I first saw the Ramones in L.A. in 1980, and when I did this piece, it was 2014, probably. That’s what, 30, 40 years later. I saw the Ramones several times since then. [The painting] is a little out of what I normally do, a little bit more gritty and set in a different decade. A lot of the music I grew up with had a big influence on me. When I saw the Ramones in 1980, I remember thinking, “How are these guys still together?” A lot of the other original punk bands like the Sex Pistols had broken up, and the idea that the Ramones, who predated those early punk bands, were actually still together and still touring was amazing to me. I was just like, “Man, these guys have longevity. What has it been, like five years?” Little did I know they’d go on for the next two and a half decades touring.
I don’t know. The Ramones, the early B-52’s stuff, the early Cramps stuff, they all have this thing. Those three bands have this weirdly kitschy element to them. I hate… I don’t hate the word kitsch, but I hate that people run away from the word kitsch. I have two books on my bookshelf here about kitsch in art. One was actually written in the 1970s. The other one is from the ’80s. They’re both really disparaging about kitsch in art, but at some point, I think kitsch began to be embraced in fine art. There’s definitely kitsch to my work, but that kitsch can be put in a context where it belongs in an art gallery or museum.
Is it true that you once got drunk in Tokyo and started challenging people on the street to karate matches?
I was just imitating what I had seen a young Japanese businessman do the day before. I saw this group of really drunk guys in their early 20s, and they were in business suits stumbling out of this bar at about 7:30 a.m. One of them was doing these flying karate kicks into his office mates, right into the small of their backs when they weren’t looking. I guess later that next night, I had too much to drink, and it seemed like a good idea. I don’t remember it, actually, but people showed me pictures.
If you accepted a challenge to create a legalize cannabis poster for California, what would the imagery look like?
Hmm. I’d have to think about that for a while. I’d want to stay away from any stereotype about smoking cannabis.
Would you set it in the ’50s, ’60s?
Maybe. You know how the early jazz musicians were really into smoking pot? I might set it in that period. [Cannabis] obviously was creatively inspirational for those guys. I don’t think I’d depict the late ’60s music that was really inspired by pot, but I like the idea that a lot of jazz was inspired by that as well, but that kind of music isn’t what people immediately associate with marijuana. When you hear about the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane or whatever, you think about LSD and pot, but when you think about John Coltrane or Jimmy Smith, you don’t necessarily first go to pot.
Anything else coming up in the first half of the year?
I just opened a store on Melrose Avenue [in Hollywood] that sells prints and merchandise, and we have a tribute to the [San Fernando] Valley coming up in early March. I’ve designed some touristy merchandise like you’d see about L.A., except it’s about the Valley, because the Valley gets no love. That’ll be at the store on Melrose.
Last question: What is your tropical drink of choice?
Singapore Sling. It’s actually not as sweet as most tropical drinks. It’s a lot more tart, and it’s not made with rum. It’s made with gin, which is unusual for a tropical cocktail, even though I love rum. That’s the one that fits my palate the best.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.