WRITTEN BY: HOPE URBAN
This interview, like everything in Southern California, took place in a car.
'68 Cougar, to be exact, driven by Anthony Ausgang, the tall, lanky Trinidad-born,
Texas-raised, Hollywood residing artist who is currently enjoying the popularity
afforded the outsider art craze.
The king of comics, Ausgang puts the "car" in cartoon with his krazy-kolored kitties and dogs often paired with vintage vehicles, which serve as humorous commentary on human foibles in a highly palatable technicolor world where the anvil always bounces back.
Anthony and I are on the hour and a half drive to the Kentucky Shooting Range in Angeles Crest National Forest in Santa Clarita, California, along a twisting canyon road. It's hotter than fuck. One of Ausgang's favorite pastimes is driving out to this desolate no-man's land shooting range where, on the weekends, it's common to see white supremacists shooting alongside gang members: "You know in the outside world they'd love to blow each other away, but out here, they're nodding to each other, saying 'good shooting,'" he says.
I'm glad it's a Monday.
We're packing a Ruger 9 mm, and a serious-looking shotgun, as well as a Nazi-era metal helmet and some assorted Russ and Wallace Berrie figurines circa 1970 (you know, those cloying "I Love You This Much" plastic figures with the big eyes) from Ausgang's personal collection to shoot at. This is the second stop sign he has sailed through since I got in the car. Born in Trinidad, where his father worked at an oil refinery, and later raised in Texas, he still hasn't lost the vestiges of his easy-talkin' drawl, despite fifteen years racked up in Hollywood.
Of his upbringing Ausgang says, "My mom took me to the opera, and my dad made me watch Looney Toons." Ausgang is still, despite being in his mid-thirties, a kid in love with Hollywood. "Sometimes I go to the corner of Hollywood and Vine, even though it's shitty now, or walk along the boulevard. When I first moved here [in 1980], there were still vestiges of old Hollywood, the Brown Derby and so on. This is what the rest of America believes in." Gesturing at the suburban Glendale sprawl (we're on our way to by ammo), Ausgang says, "My parents remind me, 'You can move back to Texas, Anthony.' They don't understand what art is, you have to be in this shit to make really good art...you need that edge."
The first thing you notice about his work are the colors, from gorgeous transparent washes to deep-hued shades of magenta and cyan, always brilliant. It comes as no surprise then, that Ausgang credits his real art education with his on-the-job experience as a production artist matching color swatches for a furniture company in MacArthur Park after he graduated with a degree in Art from the University of Texas at Austin.
"It's funny, when I went in there, I didn't even know the fucking color wheel, and they hired me as a colorist. 'Well, what are the primary colors?' Red, green, blue?--I don't even know now. I had to paint hundreds and hundreds of yards of fabric, they'd give me as much paint as I wanted, any color, and come up to me in the morning with twenty color chips and say, 'By noon, you have to have every one of these perfectly matched.' That's how I learned different painting techniques, and how to make different colors, through trial and error."
After a number of respectable showings at the Zero One Gallery in LA and at Bess Cutler in New York, it was Ausgang's inclusion in the seminal Kustom Kulture exhibit, with his painted car doors from a '36 Chevy truck a la Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's Rat Fink refrigerator door, that really vaulted him to notoriety. "That show helped out in terms of visibility, but also in terms of solidarity with other artists--there were a lot of people who were working separately, and all of a sudden, there was this feeling of, 'We're all in this together.' But after a certain amount of time, people began to think they were the king, or whatever-whatever. The Custom Kulture was like a door opening into just total freedom, as far as I was concerned, and I think there are a lot of people involved in that who are just letting it restrict them, grabbing the motifs and iconography and just rehashing them--'I gotta paint chicks with tits and hotrods'...it was the '90s incarnation of the '70's do-it-yourself ethic--all about fixing your car up and making it go faster, instead of going out and buying one already fast, but also about D.I.Y. art, ya know? As opposed to finding somebody else to be derivative from."
Speaking of do-it-yourself, now that we're finally at the range, Ausgang insists I learn to load the gun myself, showing me once to get the hang of it. I haven't shot a pistol since I was a kid pestering my dad to fir his .44 Magnum into the tree in out backyard. This time, thankfully, I don't get knocked on my ass. We're having a swell time plugging away at anything that doesn't move.
In addition to his original art and a performance piece here and there, Ausgang is lately getting a lot of attention for his collaborative pieces, Thing is, he's collaborating with artists he's never met, and probably never will.
"I'll be in a thrift store, and there'll be a landscape painting, or a still-life, and they're great scenes, but with no action in them, so I beef them up a little by adding a little character or two to the scene. This one I'm working on now is some toxic waste drums to fuck it up a little bit."
Ausgang affixes his signature directly below the original artist's and insists he means no disrespect with his alterations. "I really agonize a lot over what to do, and I work to get the same lighting and scale the original artist used. I mean, someone's put a lot of effort in this, it's a piece of their soul. Plus, I've learned a lot of technique from this, like how to paint trees."
Not just any old thrift-store find will do: "It has to be painted well. I've bought some paintings and brought them home, and then decided just to leave them alone. It's a helluva lot of fun, though, cause I'll go to the store, and I never know what I'm going to do... in a sense, it's just like how, in animation, cels go over a previously painted background."
Though friend and mentor (and progenitor of this whole scene) Robert Williams is still a hold-out, Ausgang has jumped on the computer bandwagon recently purchasing a rad rad MacIntosh Quadra 605, though he admits he'd never use it for finished art: "It's just being ruined by legions of people who are doing chrome people on checkerboard planets with the rings of Saturn behind it, or whatever--I'm still into the traditional medium."
What Ausgang does do, though, is scan his No. 2 pencil drawings into the computer and tweak the fuck out of them. "Say a hand's too big or the head's in the wrong place--Adobe photoshop has all these bitchin filters that are just really incredible, things that you could just never do yourself, of that would take a really long time."
"It's almost like in this country, there's an attitude like, you're either a smoker or a non-smoker, you're either an alcoholic or an ex-alcoholic. And the way I look at it is, I want to be right in the gray area between being a painter and being a computer artist...I want to use computers just like I use a fuckin' No. 2 pencil."
"I just designed this three-dimensional character that's hooked up to an animatronics suit that actresses wear for this video game company called the Big Pixel, and the people that actually did this inputting of the information--it took four people almost two weeks, twenty-four hours a day, to build this 3D character into the computer. I could never learn that. And these people are brilliant, but they're idiots, in terms of creativity."
Now that his appetite's been whetted by multimedia, Ausgang has plans for the future: "I'd like to do a cartoon that would combine this really super elaborate three-dimensional character, but for backgrounds, just use paintings from thrift-stores. I could totally pull that off if I just keep working with these guys."
Ausgang is notoriously non-precious with his work--he conceived the genius "ATM Show" at a local coffeehouse, where all the work was $40 --"Just hit the quick cash button on the ATM," I myself have been on the receiving end of Ausgang's generous spirit as the proud owner of his jar of "Curley Preserves" from the Zero's Curley Show, which honored the now-deceased World War II vet who lived in the back room of the gallery. While we're cruising around, he gives invitations to his show at Bess Cutler Gallery in New York to the gas station attendant as well as the two wild little old ladies who run the Lynch-esque diner halfway down the mountain from the shooting range, where we stop to get some grub.
The final score on hits to the Nazi helmet: Urban 3, Ausgang 1. This artist is all right, even if he can't shoot. (Sorry, Aus, you knew I'd print it.)-FIN