Ausgang is a master recycler. His work often incorporates what he calls "ready-made
backgrounds", paintings he picks up at garage sales or thrift shops, which
he then "augments" by adding the cartoon characters that he loves
to work with. He uses the 'toons as abstract representations of humans, "creating
a bottom line of wackiness from which ever larger heights of lunacy are possible.
My characters are metaphors for the nonplused people we meet everyday, and parables
for the kinds of situations in which these people find themselves mired."
We had a plan for this interview, Anthony Ausgang and I. The plan was that he was going to come to New York, I was going to take him out to dinner and were going to pass a pleasant evening talking about his work and art in general.
Then Anthony got hit by a car.
Anthony is no stranger to skid marks and tire treads, he's been knocked down and rolled over by three cars now. And, as if that wasn't weird enough, one of them was being driven by a dead man. Evidently the guy had a heart attack at the wheel and was stone dead before he ran Anthony down. It's hard not to see some sort of "Tales From The Crypt" script there.
Anyway, Anthony had some serious bone knitting and other recovering to do after his latest highway mishap, so the following interview was conducted via Ma Bell.
Your bio sheet says you grew up in the West Indies?
Anthony Ausgang: I was squirted out into this mayhem in Trinidad but I actually grew up in Houston, Texas.
MD: Is there some sort of logical progression there that I'm missing?
AA: Sort of, but not really. My parents met in Europe after the war and fell madly in love. My dad needed to get a job and saw an ad in some paper saying there were jobs in Trinidad. He went there and my mom followed him shortly after. My dad was involved with computers, back then it was still a beginning technology. At some point he decided he had to move to the states, and that's how we ended up in Houston.
MD: Was it horrible after Trinidad?
AA: Well, Houston is one of those typical, once interesting, little utopias. Downtown Houston was okay but we were way out in the burbs. And they kept knocking down the cool old buildings and replacing them with these sanitized modern things. That depressed me. Even though I was a baby when we left the island I guess Trinidad imprinted on me somehow 'cos I dream of having a nice colonial house surrounded by palm trees...
MD: A lot of people dream about that who have never set foot on a tropical island in their lives.
AA: Yeah, I guess.
MD: When did you start making art?
AA: I'd always mucked around with it. My parents provided me with reams of paper and made a gallery of my work in the kitchen . My dad used to bring home these great books from the library like "New Yorkers Best Cartoons from 1946" That's when I got turned on to Charles Addams...
MD: I loved him when I was a kid. Mortitia Addams was my role model. I thought she was so hot.
AA: I think that's where my love of narrative art work came from. And it was interesting too because my dad was bringing all this strange stuff home and my mom had a real high European fine art aesthetic. I got to see first hand that there was no difference. Art is art. But what really got me going was vacation trip we made to Bali when I was 16. I was totally impressed with how the people there saw art as a basic part of their daily lives, as necessary to their well-being as eating, sleeping or making love. And they didn't attach ego stuff to their work. One thing sticks in my mind even now; this big old tree had did beside the road and someone had come along and carved the tree into this magnificent sculpture. He or she didn't sign the work, and probably didn't mention it to anybody but his or her spouse. Art for art's sake. That blew me away.
MD: We make art so formal and scary and intimidating in this country. Did you do the whole art school thing?
AA: Well, actually I planned to enroll in a journalism course. So on freshman orientation day I found the journalism class, walked in, sat down, took a look around and was horrified. The journalism students were the weirdest pack of people-definitely not cool! Then some guy got up and actually started doing this stupid cheerleading routine "We're going to be reporters! Yeah!! We're going to be writers! Yeah!!" My god! It was all too crazy for me so I walked out. I wandered around the campus until I saw a bunch of hip looking people standing around. It was the art building. That's how I decided to major in art.
MD: What a well thought out and carefully considered decision!
AA: Yeah, right? But it didn't last long because they also wanted me to study things like math and Texas history and deadly dull stuff like that. I just couldn't get into it. Finally one of my teachers said 'why don't you just go to art school?' and I was like 'art school-what's that? You mean I could just study art?' It sounded great so I transferred to the Otis Art Institute.
MD: Was it a good thing?
AA: The best part of it was that it introduced me to the art scene, to the fact that living people were actually doing art. And it taught me what you had to do to be successful as an artist. If you sit in your bedroom and just draw whenever you happen to feel like it, you're never going to get anywhere. You have to develop a certain discipline.
MD: Why did you decide to work with cartoon imagery?
AA: I was always fascinated by cartoons. To me they are a particularly bizarre form of abstract art. Working with them is very free and liberating. When you are rendering the human figure you have to be very precise and careful. Everybody knows what a person is supposed to look like.
MD: We all have that very immediate and accessible point of reference.
AA: Right. But cartoons can be however you want them to be. You have to get the technical stuff right, like foreshortening. But after that, you can fudge it a lot.
MD: I like the work you do with found canvases, where you add a cartoon character to an existing scene.
AA: I have a lot of fun with them. There is a myriad of talent coming out of those little store fronts, Tuesday night art classes. Raw talent is not a rare commodity. But to me a painting has to be more than technically proficient, it also has to have an interesting narrative. I like to browse in thrift stores and I kept finding these carefully rendered paintings of seashores, fall foliage scenes, you know, that were just dead- absolutely no action in the painting. No problem- I can fix that! I thought of them as great ready-made backgrounds.
MD: How do you think the original artists would react to what you've done to their work? Would they be flattered or insulted?
AA: I have a great deal of respect for the original artists who painted whatever pieces I alter. I just recently bought a beautiful painting, a very intricate painting of a Buddhist ritual. It took me ages to augment that. I wanted to get it just right.
MD: What did you end up doing with it?
AA: Oh, I turned it into a hot rod swap meet.
MD: (long pause) How does a hot rod swap meet tie in with a Buddhist ritual?
AA; I don't know. But the painting jelled together. I figure a hot rod swap meet is a religious ritual anyway.
MD: So getting back to the original question, how do you think the artist who painted the Buddhist scene would react to Buddhist Hot Rod Swap Meet" a la Ausgang?
AA: I think he'd be surprised.
MD: I bet. Speaking of augmenting surfaces, do you still do graffiti?
AA: Nah, I'm an old fucker now. People want to see the new kids chops.
MD: Somebody who reviewed one of your shows said you had the color sense of a tattoo artist. Did you take that as a complement or an insult?
AA: Definitely as a complement! I've been playing with the idea of doing a big monster of a tattoo piece, working on flesh colored leather and doing the tattoos with an actual tattoo machine.
MD: That sounds cool!
AA: But would it work?
MD: Why not? Leather is flesh.
AA: That's what I figured.
MD: What are you working on now?
AA: Right now the big plan is to do another car piece like the one that was in "Kustom Kulture". Doing that piece fits in with the work I do with found canvasses, reusing and recycling stuff that's perceived as worthless.
MD: Where'd you find the car?
AA: In the junkyard, on it's way to being crushed and probably turned into a couple of compact cars.
MD: Does it run?
AA: No. Everyone keeps telling me I should get it to run but I already have two cars that run okay.
MD: What was your take on the Kustom Kulture show?
AA: It was cool to see alternative art in a museum setting and I was stoked by the attendance - lots of people came to check it out. But I was kind of bummed by the attitudes of some of the artists.
AA: It's like they think they're way above what they perceive as "fine" art and more evolved than the artists who produce it. Like they're the next great thing and soon they're going to take over the art world and get rid of all those hacks who are doing abstracts. I don't like that.
I believe that all artists, no matter what techniques or mediums they use to create their art, are all trying to solve one common dilemma. We're all in this together.
MD: That's a great way to see things. Unfortunately it's a pretty rare attitude. Where and when is your next show going to be?
AA: My next one is a group show called "If You See The Buddha In The Road - Kill Him." After that I've got some other stuff coming up but I don't obsess about where and when anymore. I can't create when I'm worried and hysterical about when I'll get another show.
MD: It's like you have to make the choice between doing your work or promoting your work.
AA: Yeah, and I figure I'll just concentrate on the work. I don't want to end up like, say, Jeff Koons, who might have some good ideas, but has surrounded himself with so much hype that now his work is secondary. I want to concentrate on doing the best work I can, paintings with a serious message rendered with serious technical expertise. To me, Robert Williams epitomizes what I want to achieve, He's got some bitchin' ideas and he's a master technician. That's what I'm devoting myself to now. I want to continue to explore the relationship between static comic art and the sequential movements of animation cartoons. With animation, each drawing is dependent for its proper context on the image that preceded and follows it. As a painter my challenge is to convey that same sense of movement, limited as I am to a single canvas. My last accident really changed the way I see things. I realized that none of us have any guarantee about our time on this planet. The only way we're going to survive this boiling cauldron we're stuck in is to dream our best dreams and carry them close to our hearts.