The Nine Lives of Anthony Ausgang

By David Jenison

The Nine Lives of Anthony Ausgang

A dog is a man’s best friend, unless that man is Los Angeles-based pop surrealist Anthony Ausgang. The Trinidad-born, Texas-raised artist found his creative muse in cats, and he typically expresses his feline characters in bright psychedelic colors and energetic visual narratives. As an island-born artist, Ausgang naturally supports the plant, and the images featured here include cannabis-themed pieces. Likewise, he will debut a new piece (featured first in the slider below) on February 12 at a show called Fail Better at the Last Projects Gallery in Hollywood, California. 

Was there a specific cartoon cat that made an impression on you as child and influenced your interest in feline characters? 

In the early 1960s, a lot of cities had their own regional programming, and there was a live action show called Kitirik on KTRK-TV in Houston. Kitirik was a young woman dressed in a black body stocking with a tail and wearing cat ears, and she really grabbed my attention for reasons I couldn’t understand at the time! Anyway, if you were a kid in the studio audience who had a birthday or answered a tough question correctly, you got to ride on her carousel. In those innocent times, the whole fetish angle was completely overlooked. 

Cats were always around when I grew up because we lived out in the country and people would dump their pets in our neighborhood. Eventually there would be just too many cats, and some of them would be taken to the vet to be “put to sleep.” Well, I knew they weren’t going to sleep so I started making drawings of the defunct cats to give them back their lives. It was art with a purpose. 

What feline characteristics do you find particularly appealing as an artistic character? 

Cats work as artistic characters whether they’re on all fours or standing upright. I never could envision a dog walking around on two legs. Too much information, if you know what I mean… 

"Pot Culture is now part of Pop Culture, and I see no reason not to make reference to it."

When you work, do you typically envision a specific narrative first and then decide which particular moment to capture? Or is the overall narrative meant to be loose and interpretive? 

Generally, I start with a drawing of a character in some pose and work the narrative around that. As an artist, one has to be cool with sometimes taking orders from the painting and not forcing the story. So, I may get to play god and invent a universe, but relinquishing complete control leads the characters to interesting places within that arena that I might never have considered. 

Some of the newer pieces have a more psychedelic edge. Did something in particular lead you in that direction? 

The art movements that I am most frequently associated with are Low Brow and Pop Surrealism, the defining characteristics of which are the presence of narrative stories acted out by recognizable protagonists. In this new body of work, I wanted to introduce psychedelically abstracted characters engaged in non-specific activities. The primary actions are the forces that have altered the characters. Low Brow artists have always shunned Abstract Art, maintaining that it represents the most damning aspects of the Fine Art world, and I wanted to shake things up by bringing in some new influences. Even so, I cannot deny the influences of certain mind-altering substances. 

Some of your pieces incorporate cannabis imagery in the artwork. What impression did you hope to evoke? 

Pot Culture is now part of Pop Culture, and I see no reason not to make reference to it. I include cannabis in the schemata of my paintings because it provides a reason why the characters are so, well, weird. Art viewers sometimes need an explanation why the events they are observing are taking place. 

In what ways do cannabis culture and lowbrow art overlap? 

Although Low Brow Art and Cannabis Culture are popularly accepted now, there are still renegade aspects to both that provide the necessary “anti” attitude that people cultivate to distinguish themselves from mainstream culture. Ultimately, I would like to make a painting that involves cannabis as much as Malcolm Lowry’s book Under the Volcano revolves around mescal.

Has your art ever directly influenced the name of a cannabis strain, and if not, what do you think an Ausgang art-inspired strain should be called?

I believe I’ve had an influence in an oblique way: A certain grower I know bred an interesting hybrid that he named after the band MGMT. I did the artwork for their album Congratulations, and it’s possible that the psychedelic imagery I provided had something to do with his process! But if I had my own indica heavy strain, I would call it Catatonia!

The improved art pieces are fun. What originally motivated the idea? 

I did my first Improved Art piece in the mid-eighties, and I got the idea while picking through a pile of paintings at a thrift store. The landscapes I was looking at were perfect settings for my cats, and it wasn’t that big a leap of logic to use them in the same way that background illustrations are photographically combined with the separate cells of cartoon characters. The critic Carlo McCormick preferred to call these works “interventions” and likened them to graffiti on walls, which I was also doing at the time. I still do Improved Art, but it is much harder now to come up with a story I haven’t done before. How many surfing cats will I have to paint on beachy seascapes?

In what ways has technology helped your art? Do you ever create on a computer rather than a canvas or other tangible surface? 

Xerox copy machines were basically the first graphic art “programs” available to the public. When I began attending the University of Texas in the ʼ70s, I was super stoked to find copy machines on every floor of the library. The U.T. library has a phenomenal collection of old magazines and books so I did all kinds of funky stuff with this source material, like moving the image around as it was scanned and other psychedelic manipulations. Anyway, the years went by and copiers got more sophisticated, and I was finally able to start changing the scale and location of my pictorial elements, essentially doing “paste up” and designing my paintings there in the copy shop. Consequently, I was pretty much ready for personal computers and Adobe Photoshop, which was as big an advancement in art technology as the invention of oil paint in the 15th century.

"If I had my own indica heavy strain, I would call it Catatonia!"

I draw everything by hand before flatbedding it into the computer with a scanner. Once I have all the elements together, I figure out the best composition and project the line drawing on the primed canvas. I find the correlation between colors on the monitor and colors on the canvas to be problematic—one is luminous while the other reflects light—so I very seldom use the computer to determine the colors. That’s instinctual.

Was your family in Trinidad & Tobago when it gained independence, and if so, do you have any memories of the event?

I was born in Pointe-À-Pierre in Trinidad when it was still a British colony but left as a small child when my family moved to Houston, Texas. As I was growing up, we visited Trinidad and Tobago several times, and my mind was always blown by the parallel reality there. The scene was so radically different than what was going down in the USA that it made me question the Manifest Destiny of American reality.   

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