Written by Dan Brown
Published January 23, 2013
Since the early ’90s, Anthony Ausgang has been leaving his distinct mark on the contemporary visual art scene. The L.A.-based artist may best be known for acrylic works featuring cartoonish cat characters, placed in settings as absurd as they are darkly psychedelic.
The cats and critters in Ausgang’s world are sometimes within classic comic book scenarios, including jalopies, nature or night club settings; yet their bodies contort, leap and stretch to the point of being unrecognizable, as a shocked expression with bugged-out eyes is pulled like taffy across a shifting, checkerboard background.
In the last century, the feline has been immortalized everywhere, from the 1920s’ surreal flavor of “Felix the Cat” to Dr. Seuss’ “Cat in the Hat” (1957) to Robert Crumb’s notoriously pornographic puss of the swinging ’60s, “Fritz the Cat.” In that same tradition, Ausgang’s rendering of man’s other best friend is one of the more iconic images of what is known as the Lowbrow Movement.
In the ’90s, underground art maestro Robert Williams coined the term “lowbrow” to describe the diaspora of artists born from scenes and styles that were by their very nature the antithesis of “highbrow” culture. Everything from hot rod pin-striping, tiki culture, Betty Page adoration, horror film monsters, acid rock posters of the ’60s, punk rock fliers, skateboard designs and graffiti were celebrated and absorbed under the umbrella term Lowbrow.
While Ausgang is considered one of the de facto kingpins of Lowbrow, in the past two decades, his art (ausgangart.com) has been gradually clawing its way up from the underground. Ausgang’s imagery has been featured in more than 50 international group and solo exhibits and appeared in a variety of places, from Volcom skate graphics to The Boredoms’ and MGMT’s album covers. The L.A.-based Ausgang, interviewed by email, explained his views on Lowbrow art, his tripped-out imagery and feline affections.
1) Do you feel comfortable with being identified with the Lowbrow movement/category? Do you even care about that scene or feel any kinship towards it? Do you ever get annoyed when you see younger artists still slapping pin stripes on their work or creating these “Betty Page meets Tiki Frankenstein on a Hot Rod” images? Do you feel like they might be missing the whole point of what you and artists like Robert Williams were trying to originally achieve?
I wear the Lowbrow Art label like a badge of honor since after all, I was one of the originators of its second wave. Basil Wolverton was arguably the O.G. of the lowbrow style but Robert Williams and his Zap crew were the primogenitors of what would become Lowbrow with a capital “L”, essentially forming the first wave. That’s because Williams made a great effort to get his paintings in legitimate galleries, an attack that had never been attempted before. He also knew that a lone voice in the wilderness is easily ignored so he invited all the brothers and sisters of the Lowbrow cloth to participate in group exhibitions. But it wasn’t until rich art collectors began to buy Lowbrow Art and art critics wrote about it that the art dealers became seriously interested in what was going on.
In the early 80s I was horrified and disgusted by most of the Fine Art being created and shown on the West Coast. I considered certain artists and dealers to be aesthetic dictators that needed to be destroyed, just as Punk Rock had rebelled against 20 minute drum solos. So I was more than happy to have a posse of like minded haters… even better if we weren’t just complaining, we were actively making art that would replace that decorative shit. But there’s none of that aggression now. Yeah, Frankenstein chasing Betty Page in his hot rod meant something hardcore once but now its just a mashup of motifs more suitable for coffee mugs than gallery walls.
2) The Lowbrow movement seems strongly identified with music, particularly underground bands. Many artists (Gary Panter, Robert Williams, Frank Kozik, to name just a few) have done artwork for bands or album covers and you did work for MGMT, The Boredoms (incidentally, one of the greatest fucking bands of all time) and Buckshot LeFonque. While your work seems to utilize more cartoon-like signifiers and characters, I’m wondering if you feel directly influenced by certain bands or music scenes as well as any particular album cover artwork or artists associated with rock albums?
With the invention of recording, music became the dominant art form of the twentieth century, mostly because you could listen to it while you drove or had sex. So Art just fucked off into the background and was only occasionally called in to dress up the final product with a bitchen album cover. Certainly, Warhol showed that artists could also be rock stars but it wasn’t until the rise of the PC and internet that visual imagery became as popular as it had before music took over. So Art and Music have had a relationship for a while now, and since Lowbrow had a definite “anti” edge, bands that wanted to show off their attitude chose those sorts of artists to represent them. It also helped that Lowbrow was illustration based and the artists were usually ready to go.
I was initially influenced by Roger Dean, who did most of the Yes album covers, but then Punk Rock ripped my brain out of its box and I got into Raymond Pettibon who did work for Black Flag.
3) When you began creating the “Improved Art” paintings, were you approaching those ideas as a prank or tribute to familiar schools/movements in art?
I didn’t think it through to that degree. One day I just found a pretty good forest scene and figured I would put a cat up to no good somewhere in there. Also, I realized that I could buy a “finished” painting at a thrift store for less than a blank canvas at the art store. Most innovations are sparked by poverty…
4) I personally see some weirdly subtle similarity to your painting and those of Thomas Hart Benton, especially in the way that the cats in your work can seem to bend, reach across or shift their position across the composition. Do you feel like there may be any truth in that observation? Considering you are identified with things like Lowbrow or underground art, do you have any direct visual art influences that people might find surprising?
Yeah, Thomas Hart Benton and I are cousins in some respects! I always found the way he depicted reality most appealing but I didn’t have the technical skills to pull it off. When I first started painting for myself and not a class assignment, I was quite cavalier and punk about it, really spreading the paint on thick and just gooping it around with the shittiest brushes I could find. Once I refined my technique somewhat I found myself gravitating toward that sort of “soft” reality of Benton’s.
When I was young my parents took me on forced death marches through Europe’s finest museums and I always liked the Flemish paintings of village scenes and medieval life; my Mom would let me stop and look at those while she forged ahead… I sure didn’t give a fuck about the saints and scenes from the bible. But the great shift happened when I turned 17 and went to Bali where I saw people making art with no fanfare or chest pounding, they just got right down to it. This moment of clarity would serve me well later in life when I realized that no marching band was gonna suddenly appear in my studio to help me celebrate finishing a painting. I would finish the painting and no one but me gave a shit…
5) On the manifesto on your site, you state that your goal is “to reduce the use of the human figure as much as possible in the representational visual arts.” What compelled you to take this approach? Do you feel that figurative art is “dead” in visual art or if it is not, do you want to kill it off completely?
Well, artists like to jabber over a bottle of wine about the Avante Garde but to truly break new ground one has to get up from the table occasionally and act on a practical level. So, since I had been indoctrinated with this classical idea that Art began as soon as people began drawing the human figure, I decided to forego it entirely. That left me essentially at “year zero” and when I examined famous paintings after that decision, I studied up everything BUT the figure, sort of like watching the background action in a movie while ignoring the stars. I was quite properly amazed at what all the figure worshipping art viewers were missing.
That, at least, is one explanation… The other is that I despised life drawing class!
6) You seem to like to focus on using these cartoon cat characters in most of your pieces and in the same manifesto that you use those creatures in “an attempt to explain the human condition.” After seemingly twenty years of using this same motif, do you ever struggle or feel confined by working with that particular image? Is it in some way a tribute/nod to classic cartoons of the 1940s-60s and things like Felix the Cat and Fritz the Cat? Is it in genuflection and devotion before the Egyptian cat goddess, Bastet? Who are the two cats that are always coupled together in your work?
Anyway, we are all influenced by the style of our times, and as much as I admire the cat painters of the 19th century, I really can’t relate their aesthetic to nowadays. I much prefer the cartoons of the 1940s-60s because that is what I grew up seeing on Saturday morning TV. Now of course the kids are all influenced by entirely different cartoons and video games so I’m often called “old school”. Christ knows what they would call me if I was artistically influenced by Bastet!
I used to paint individual cats engaged in whatever pursuit I had chosen for them. But after a while it seemed a good idea to begin having some sort of interaction between different characters in the painting. That gave me a much broader narrative and also people began seeing all sorts of stuff going on in my paintings
7) How many cats do you own?
I have two cats that are all mine and two that come over everyday and chill out with us. One of them crosses the street to get over here and actually looks both ways for cars, quite an impressive feat. Sorry, but I’ve never seen a dog do that.
perhaps I should answer that question by saying that four cats own me!
8) When I look at your paintings, I am baffled as to whether or not you are trying to tell a story or convey some kind of narrative or simply creating an image as an icon or graphic. In fact, over the years is seems like you are creating even less of a “story” but rather playing with the plasticity and shape of the cat-like characters where it seems like you are almost saturating the figures just to the edge of complete abstraction. Do you have any thoughts on this? Am I off the mark with this observation?
No, you are correct. Most figurative Art is an attempt to capture a particular moment in a narrative. That is why we see George Washington crossing the Delaware and not eating his cornflakes that morning. The trick is to catch the most dramatic moment. So Lowbrow took on that dogma and some very interesting and new stories began to be told. Meanwhile the Lowbrow artists were trashing Abstract Art, holding it up for public ridicule as the most offensive manifestation of Highbrow Art. Well, that got me interested in importing such hated elements and seeing if I could slip them by these arbiters of taste.
Back in the early 1980s I worked as a production painter for a furniture upholstery company who’s gimmick was selling handpainted fabric. I learned a lot of techniques to make the various decorative patterns, but there was just no way to apply these methods to anything representational. After a while I forgot most of that knowledge and just worked on developing my own style, eventually getting so good at my method that I got bored and the paintings began to look stagnant. Around that time a few healthy doses of the powerful psychedelic drug DMT reintroduced me to the joys of abstract visions and a deconstructed reality. I eventually combined my new interest in a non linear psychedelic narrative with the painting techniques I had shunned for years; the marriage was perfect and completely reignited my interest in painting again.
9) How many pieces will be featured in your space:eight show “Negro y Blanco” and, what medium (acrylics?) and what is their average size? Why did you choose to work only in black and white? Is there a theme or idea behind this show, other than limiting it to black and white?
10) I’m curious about your actual process. How do you use Photoshop to sketch out your initial ideas? Do you use the computer to help you generate the perspective tricks to create the almost sea-sick, nausea-inducing effect of something like “The Great Escape”? How long does each piece take to complete? Do you like to work on each individual piece separately or do you work in mass production, creating several pieces at once?
I make my prep drawings with a #2 pencil on a sheet of paper then scan them in to the computer. Once I have all the elemenst digitized I use Photoshop to move them around and arrange them with no definite “mission” in mind. Eventually something will happen and a painting begins to appear. I use Photoshop filters to warp certain elements, some radically and some just a bit.
This is a stage I particularly enjoy because I have only a certain amount of control over the filters. Eventually “the ghost in the machine” wakes up and I enter a certain level of controlled chaos.
I seldom work on more than one painting at a time, its too much like having a wife and a mistress… Not a bad deal but too much hassle!
11) The colors in your paintings seem to have a matte/airbrushed quality where they seem flat and even, yet still seem to “snap” off of the surface. How do you achieve that effect?
I mix up a minimum of three values of a color so I have a highlight, a mid tone and a dark tone. Properly used, this can create the illusion of a mass operating under a consistent light source. I don’t over emphasize this, it should be a subtle effect that registers on the mind without conscious effort. I also mix a dulling color element to the background colors and leave it out of the foreground colors so that there are two sets of colors going on…
12) On your website, you state that you “still hold the cartoon world sacrosanct and (...) never felt the urge to pervert patented cartoon characters.” Do you feel that part of the general decline and increasing rise of stupidity in America is due to the fact that our children are no longer being taught the nature of reality by radical animated entities like Bugs Bunny and Rocky and Bullwinkle? Incidentally, I personally believe this to be true. It’s like the “Merry Melodies Bell Curve Effect.”
Interesting theory, a sort of Doctor Fredric Wertham in reverse…