Ausgang's art spawns more questions than it answers, and the questions are good
ones. Like, how did he do that? How the fuck does he get away with that? The
same questions you might ask a magician or a good con man. But Ausgang is neither,
not by a long stretch, although it's a fair guess that he'd be successful at
both if he tried.
Occasionally, Ausgang "improves" items that fall into his hands, including shot-up old car doors that he finds in the desert attached to shot-up old carts. Another artist might be breaking his own arm patting his back and telling himself how cool he was with this car door stuff, and his audience, depending on their place on the evolutionary scale, would either be applauding the coolness or shuffling their sandals and yawning.
But Ausgang gets away with it. His car doors look neither hokey nor contrived. Then there are the "improved" thrift store paintings. There is nothing else out there like them. Without being tattoo-oriented in content, they still have a close relation to real-world human skin in the sense of being intentionally layered art. People get tattooed with an image, and somewhere down the line go to another tattooist with an entirely different style and get a new piece linked to the first. Time lag sometimes gives the first piece that magnificently soft edge of an old tattoo, and then the second dose comes in hard, clear and bright in contrast. There's a strong similarity between this effect - which before was strictly limited to tattooing -and Ausgang's improved thrift store paintings - different artists, working with different frames of reference in different times on the same patch of real estate.
Unlike most of the other serious painters working today, Ausgang is friendly with computers and uses their graphic capabilities to tweak his images and explore possibilities. But then, tweaking and exploring is pretty much what Anthony Ausgang is all about.
Born in Trinidad, Ausgang went to college in Austin, Texas, and moved to California in 1980.
Anthony Ausgang: I had all these crazy notions about what California was like. I had a girlfriend who came out to California before me, and I was convinced that in California people just had sex on the streets, and Hollywood Boulevard was on the beach
Chris Pfouts: If you'd come ten years earlier, you'd have been right about the sex part. Was it a disappointment, then?
AA: No, it's been really good here. I've met a lot of people that I respected; artists, writers, people in films.
CP: That was something I meant to ask you. What do you read? What's on the night stand right now?
AA: My favorite book right now is by Cormac McCarthy, called Blood Meridian. It's about this war that went on between Mexico and Texas, and the US was basically a new country, and the Apaches went around killing everybody. It just blows the whole myth of the old west.
CP: That would have to be set at the turn of the century, as horses were losing it to cars.
AA: That's one thing that fascinates me, the way automobiles play into this culture. I've been collecting photographs of families taken with their kids in front of cars. It's such a loaded image. I'm really enjoying paintings with hot rods in them.
CP: For a lot of people, especially farm people, the care was freedom. The horse and buggy took all day to get to town. The car was fast. What else is on your reading list?
AA: Good writers of all different styles. I like Ginsberg, I like a lot of the beat stuff. I've been reading a lot of Kerouac lately. The book that's been the biggest influence on me is Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. That book really opened my eyes to the essential duality of things, and the chaos factor, stuff like that.
CP: That's the one that's very difficult to read, if I remember right.
AA: It's tough, you really have to get into it. But there's a lot of really good writing and stuff he's getting across about the human condition. I always have it around. If I can't get to sleep, I'll pull it out and read a few pages.
CP: The reason I bring this up relates directly to what you said in your "Rantifest," (Your Flesh magazine #32), that " western paining revolves around the depiction of crucial moments in collective or personal destiny." But actually, a lot of paintings depict passive moments: pastoral scenes, seascapes, still lifes - there's no drama. You can't tell a story without a conflict. It seems like you always add an element of conflict to your thrift store paintings.
AA: That's a very interesting take. They're perfect scenes with nothing going on in them.
CP: Like "The Old Story," the little girl standing on the trail. Nothing's happening until you step in.
AA: It's about to happen. Everyone knows the story, the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood. In some of those things I try to make people anticipate what's going to happen next. This is something that's jut before the climax, so I'm kind of kicking the prick of convention. It doesn't have to be an image of destiny turning.
CP: That particular image, I think, holds more weight than if he's been touching her.
AA: Some of the paintings I buy to paint on top of, after I've had them around for a while I realize that they don't need anything and I can't touch them. I don't know who the hell they're by, or anything like that, but I can see something in there that I have to respect. I've had people get really pissed off at my working on found paintings.
CP: I bet you have. Anything like that is bound to piss someone off.
AA: I like working on these broken down cars I get, cars that'll never run again. I like painting flames on them and really fucking with them. Since they're no longer mobile, you can't really consider them cars; to me it just becomes a big shape I can fuck with. I just did a whole car, a 1970 Cougar that had gone under a school bus. I turned it into a phone-sex car, where the guy had bee having phone sex and ran into the bus.
CP: Other than the tattoo you designed for yourself a long time ago, you just designed your first one for someone else.
AA: It's an image off the car phone sex piece. It's like a lion that has a crown on it with hot rod flames coming off it. And the kid really dug it, and I was taking to him about it, and just idly fucking around on the computer. He was checking out what I was doing on the computer to it and said, "No, no, I like that better." It's warped on the computer, and I'm really impressed that he liked that better, you know what I mean? There's a new graphic sense coming up in people as a result of computers. He saw this one image I had done, with a pen, slamming it on paper, and he just wanted this little tweak on it. A little difference that I couldn't come up with. Nobody could. It has to be done on computer.
CP: When you do a thrift store painting, you don't use prints, only real paintings?
AA: I will us a print if it's on stretched canvas. I just messed with a Norman Rockwell. It's the one of the doctor and the kid with his pants down and the doctor's about to give him a shot in the butt. I really wanted to mess with that. It's like Spike Jones fucking with the classics.
CP: The colors you get are amazing. Do you work with oils or acrylics?
AA: It's all acrylics. I used to work a s a colorist for a textile company. But it really stretches back a long time to when I was a kid. My mom would give me food dye and I'd play mad scientist, mixing up all these crazy colors. That's where I started mixing colors. I don't use straight colors at all. I mix four or five different colors into each one of them.
CP: You use cats as images. Cartoon cats carry a freight; they have history. The wolf has a stronger freight, of course, always the dude on the make. But cats have an identity in cartoons.
AA: I don't really think that has anything to do with it. I just want to paint something other than the human body or recognizable pattern.
CP: But you use mice, or dogs, or raccoons.
AA: I really don't know why. Everybody asks me that, and I really have no answer for it. I turn them into Cyclops's, give them one eye, a lot of times, one eye in the middle. I was always attracted to cartoons. And cats. And as far as real cats go, I get along with them really well. Also they look the best if you want to give them a human body. A cat's head on a human body graphically makes sense.
CP: It seems like you manage to neatly avoid icons like card suits and dice.
AA: For me, the idea is to take those motifs like that and go somewhere else with them. Not just paint them and represent them, and make reference to them somehow. I want to hook up into what all those things mean, but I don't want to use those icons. What they represent to people is something I'm really interested in, and I think it's where I'm most highly regarded, by people that have that aesthetic.
CP: This goes back to what Coop said (ITA September 1996), That Robert Williams sort of created the dictionary that showed people how to tell stories with images that already mean something. You're making your own dictionary here, I think. Does that make sense?
AA: Robert taught me a lot, but I think I'm using words that aren't in the vocabulary of a lot of my fellow artists that are involved in this. I'm not saying that I'm better, but I think I have a different approach from a lot of people.
CP: It seems that there's only so much you can say with card suits, dice and things like that. You're working past that, and it's going to be interesting to see where it goes.
AA: That's one of the reasons I do work, is to see where the hell it's going. There's a certain point where it can get boring. It's a tough line, because people expect you to do a particular style and after a while, if you've been selling and people have been digging it for a while there's a weird sense of responsibility to keep with it. But when I realize that's happening I try to kick myself in the balls and move onto the next stage. For me, it's computers. I don't know what's going to be next.
CP: With computers, do you ever flatbed in a thrift store painting and dick around with it?
AA: Just for fun. I'm more interested in using the computer just like a piece of paper. It's just another step between the drafting table and the canvas. But I think there's always going to be this need for physical objects - visceral, touchable fucking things like paintings. There's such a difference between a painting and a photograph, which is why I just want to do the paintings.
CP: That goes back to the old joke about, "You'll be able to read the newspaper on a computer," and the response is, "Not unless you put a computer in the bathroom, I won't."
AA: We live in a world of physical objects, so we're used to that.
CP: In terms of gallery work, have the car doors been selling?
AA: Yeah. I sold one car door to Nick Cage, he like that one, and he bought another one from someone else. I went out to the desert, and I was really fascinated with these cars I would see out in the middle of fucking nowhere. There wasn't even a road. How did these things get here? I was so fascinated with it. But this is sort of what you're talking about with the images being loaded. There's also to me a response to the physical nature of these things, like that's such a beautiful thing and it has such a weight of experience to it that I just want to use it. I want to bring it out. I'm not one of those conceptual artists who's just going to bring the fucking door out and hang it in a gallery. I can understand where those people are coming from, but I want to add to it, then put it out there.
CP: Do things appear to you full blown? Like you look at an object and see what it's going to be when it's finally done?
AA: Very seldom. I have a big stock of car doors and thrift store paintings. I keep them around and eventually the idea will come to me, but I don't know why the hell I decided to get a particular thrift store painting. But one day I'll just suddenly flash on exactly what could go in there.
CP: That's not much different from what I mean.
AA: Yeah, I'm agreeing. But sometimes I'm in total jealousy of the action painters from the fifties, these guys who would paint with rollers, or do these abstract expressionist things, these big insane painting that just look like they were so much fun.
CP: Like a Jackson Pollock type of thing?
AA: Yeah. That cat didn't know what he was doing, he was just thrashing around and it looks like a hell of a lot of fun. Sometimes I'm so envious, damn. I wish I could paint like that. I have to sit down with like a one-hair brush for a couple of hours to do a square inch.
CP: I don't know if people think like that.
AA: One thing I had to realize a long time ago is that what I do is not going to appeal to everyone. People will hold my work up as a representation of how things are going wrong.
CP: How do you figure that? Have people said that to you?
AA: No, but people on the far right as popular as someone like Robert Williams is, he's appealing to a very small percentage of the population. It'll be interesting to see how history handles him. My girlfriend Amy and I were in Philadelphia and they had a Cezanne show, and they had calendars and cookbooks, and Jesus, all this shit there. And I thought, what if one day this is Robert Williams' work? Years later, people would be buying his stuff to put up in the kitchen, like they buy Cezanne. What would the radical work in that day be?
CP: That could easily happen, what you just described.
AA: I don't know how history is going to deal with tattoos and tribal culture; how's that going to be looked at in even twenty years? The same way we look at the Beats?
CP: The Beats weren't that long ago. Some of 'em are still around. One of the things that does seem to be happening, and it has to be due mainly to electronics, is the speed at which things that are counterculture are being sucked into the mainstream.
AA: It's definitely being sped up. It was a sad day when they used hip hop on a McDonald's commercial. I thought, my God, the teeth have fallen out of that dog. And rock 'n' roll, you know. It's this really terrifying concept that something that means so much to you personally could be used like that.
CP: Well, it could happen to one of your paintings, too.
AA: In a culture like this, basically, American culture does not like art. In Hollywood, for example, they're tearing down all these beautiful old buildings. There's no respect for architecture. Once upon a time, people really built these things to last. They believed. And if society can recycle itself so fast, like we're talking about, then there's really no belief system.
CP: I don't really know what this absorption speed means. It doesn't seem like it could be good.
AA: In terms of tattoos, it's a great thing. I always like seeing tattoos on people, even if it's something that doesn't appeal to me. And the process of getting tattooed is always a before and after experience. My girlfriend just got tattooed, and she says she feels different than she did before. In a culture like this, we've done away with rituals and rites of passage totally. Rituals, anyway. Tattooing is a ritual; going in there, being shaved, getting the image transferred on there. It's a beautiful ritual.
A friend of mine was working for an art dealer, and she decided to hook the guy up with E-mail. He didn't know anything about it, and she told him he needed a number, a password. He was thinking about it, and then he rolled his sleeve up and just used the number that had been tattooed on him in a death camp as his password. I thought it was really a beautiful acceptance of it. And the way he's using it is really beautiful to me. It's another way of overcoming his fears.
CP: Back to art. You work on canvas, never on boards or anything like that?
AA: Stretched canvas, yeah, but I put a board behind the canvas. I used to work for an art moving company, and I would see paintings just get trashed. People really don't know how to handle are, so I try to make mine as sturdy as possible.
CP: Do you do album covers, things like that?
AA: I just did one for Sony. It was pretty funny, because they wanted one on a thrift store painting, and I had one of a street scene in Sorrento. They liked that one. So I designed a character in it and everything. Then I got this panicked phone call and they said, we just talked to the legal department, and if that artist ever shows up he can sue us for millions. So they hired this guy at Warner Brothers to do and exact copy of the thrift store painting.
CP: Why is it you don't paint people?
AA: It's mostly that I live in this urban environment and we see people everywhere. For me it's a form of visual release to look at something and not see a person. I think the appeal of my work to a lot of people that buy it its that it has nothing to do with reality. You can step outside of reality for a second and it's really refreshing. Because of television, people have a really advanced visual knowledge of things. I want to excite people, which is why I use bright colors and crazy cartoon characters. People are bombarded with images so much because of television and advertising. They might not be particularly sophisticated people, but they can recognize what things are. There was a strange syndrome that was prevalent back in the 1800s called the Stendahl Syndrome, where people would become physically sick from looking at art. They would look at too much art and get sick and vomit, and it was from an over exposure of images. And people don't get that anymore because we're born into this TV culture. It shows that art is a very powerful thing. I don't consider my work to be propaganda by any means. I leave that to political artists, but I make comments on what I think is right and wrong. Like the surfer's cross
CP: I'm wearing a surfer's cross right now, the real deal, California early sixties - an Iron Cross, made of iron, with a guy riding a long board in the middle of it. It's a big hit with all these skateboard kids.
AA: Well, this is the first revival of all that imagery. The hot rods and everything really went down for a while, which is going to happen to everything, and now it's just come back.
CP: It's all symbols.
AA: Absolutely. It goes back to the first Egyptian hieroglyphs. That was a written language that was based on symbols. To me, it's a form of efficiency. A symbol can get the same idea across instantly that an entire book can get across. That's why people are frightened of art, because it has that ability to instantly communicate to people.
CP: You think that people are scared of art?
AA: People are scared of things they can't understand. You get Jesse Helms who can't understand a crucifix in a bottle of urine, and his only reaction to that is he's frightened. He wants to see that go away. He doesn't want to have that stuff around.
AA: You've got people who define culture and people who create the culture by embracing it, and they're both totally necessary.
CP: You think so?
AA: You've got to have people to create a movement. You can talk about Robert Williams, but one of the things he said to me was that he needed us behind him, he needed people like Coop, the Pizz, and me - whoever - working behind him so that it became a movement instead of a lone voice in the wilderness. Something that can't be ignored anymore, you know: "We can ignore this guy, he scares us, but he's the only guy doing it, so we can shove him under the carpet. But suddenly it's a whole crowd and somebody's got to acknowledge it.
CP: I hadn't thought of that, but I had wondered why he was so supportive of people who dead-on used his images - the sombreros, tacos, stuff like that.
AA: It's a double-edged sword as well, because and original concept can be destroyed by legions of imitators. Eventually you can't even trace back where it came from. So that's where you've got to stay ahead of everyone else.