COVER ART PROJECT-ANTHONY AUSGANG MGMT “CONGRATULATIONS”
MGMT’s Congratulations was one of the most memorable albums of 2010. The psychedelic pop duo got a little less pop and way more psychedelic and experimental. Artist Anthony Ausgang captured the soul of the album with the playful, yet well-constructed cover featuring a three-headed surfing cat on a checkered background — which are a couple elements featured in many of his pieces.
Ausgang creates surreal artwork that brings the cartoon aesthetic to the fine world in a fun, yet tasteful way. I had a chance to talk with Ausgang about why paying too much for art school sucks, how environment and music affect his work, and how he got together with MGMT to produce the cover.
How did you get started with your work? Why art?
When I was around ten years old my dad would bring cartoon books back from the library for me. They were really offbeat stuff like “Best Cartoons of The New Yorker 1948.” I could understand most of these single panel cartoons, but there was always the occasional one that made no sense to my immature mind; it was those that turned out to be the ones I remembered the best.
When I went to college I decided to be an artist because I wanted to hang out with all the weird looking people and punk rockers that were lying around on the ground in front of the art department, which had been placed way off at the edge of campus near several bars. My parents were pragmatic and didn’t care at all; they were just happy I wasn’t a junkie.
The first paintings I did in school were kind of modeled on those screwy New Yorker cartoons. It turned out to be good training because I already knew how to push a whole narrative into a single panel. That reduction of nonessential content is difficult for artists to learn; people aren’t conditioned for brevity.
How has the environment you grew up in and live in today influence your work?
For over ten years I had a studio in a very dangerous and fucked up neighborhood. Once I got through my front door everything was cool, but it was completely cracked-out mayhem on the street. At that time my paintings were very edgy and reflected the turmoil out front, which was perfect because the whacked-out urban look of my paintings was unusual then and quite memorable. I now live in a much more sedate place, so my immediate environment isn’t the overwhelming influence it was once. Now I tend to find my inspiration in the bizarre inner space of my mind.
You dropped out of Otis College of Art and Design. What turned you off about the school?
I was pretty broke while attending Otis, so I sustained myself on the wine, cheese and crackers at art show opening receptions. I ended up spending a lot of time hanging around the galleries and bullshitting with artists who were out of school and showing their work commercially. After a few semesters at Otis, I arrogantly felt that I had learned enough and quit. I did, however, continue to attend classes there for couple of months before they figured it out and I got the boot. Gary Panter was one of my teachers and he didn’t give a shit; he let me stay on until his ass was on the line.
Dropping out was a smart move in that I began showing my work almost immediately at punk rock clubs and galleries. Fortunately, I also got a job painting fabric and learned a lot of practical techniques and processes that I probably wouldn’t have been taught in school since the emphasis there was on concept.
The alternative story is that I met some drunk in a bar who told me he owed 50 thousand dollars for his art education and was working as some data entry shitworker to pay it off. That scared the fuck out of me. I didn’t want to owe money and be a slave to anyone.
How did you hook up with MGMT for Congratulations? Explain the process for creating the cover.
Sonic Boom from Spacemen 3 brought Ben (Goldwasser) and Andrew (Vanwyngarden) over to my studio before a Spectrum show here in L.A. They knew nothing about me and I had only heard their music a few times, so we found out about each other through conversation and just hanging out. When they were recording Congratulations in Malibu I was asked to provide certain supplements to facilitate the creative process, so I went up several times.
The process of recording is somewhat like combat: there are periods of utter boredom punctuated by moments of intense activity. I spent one tripped-out evening drawing on napkins and sheets of paper while the band fucked around. At the end of the visit I left all the drawings on the table and forgot about them. A month later, Josh Cheuse, the art director at Sony/Columbia who was designing the packaging for Congratulations, contacted me at the band’s request to do the cover.
At that point the idea was for the cover to look like a lottery ticket — A “Congratulations, you won!” look. With that in mind, half of the cover was to be printed on lottery ticket scratch off material. Well, I worked on that for about a week and it looked good, but it just didn’t spark. Finally, I decided to can all the work I had done and start over, and that is when it all began to happen. Andrew liked the new drawings and let me go with it. He knew what he wanted, but he let me go about it my way — which is a very rare approach.
There was a lot of anticipation at the time for the MGMT release and the fans were screaming for anything at all. Since the cover art was finished a month before the final mixes, Sony leaked the album cover via BoingBoing.net — which is when shit hit the fan. People absolutely fucking hated it. They wanted to see Andrew and Ben with their shirts off again, not some psychedelic cat eating a surfboard. I was chagrined to say the least, but the band and Sony chose to ignore the storm and stuck with it. After a while, the hating diminished; but it was pretty weird for a while. One chick named Robota wrote on Perez Hilton’s blog, “The artwork sucks! Reminds me of needlepoint in the ‘80s. I heard the artist is impotent from all the blow he did.”
How has music influenced your work? How was MGMT’s sound and style involved in the process of the cover choice?
Everything was very secretive and I was not allowed to hear any of the new Congratulations material while designing the cover. I was extremely pleased to find the music and art worked so well together when I finally got an advance copy. At an MGMT show in Atlanta, Andrew introduced me to all the fans outside after the show and most of them thought it was perfect for the music — even the ones who had only experienced it as a one-inch square icon for iTunes. I hadn’t considered that; I designed the cover with 12-inch vinyl in mind, so I was stoked it worked in various formats.
I listen to all sorts of music while I work, like dub, ambient and drone — all sorts of weird shit. I threw Oracular Spectacular in the mix to get some appropriate inspiration while working on the cover. I am a big fan of Mick Taylor-era Rolling Stones and listen to bootleg recordings of live shows while I paint; it makes me feel connected to something outside of my studio because it can get pretty weird in here with just me and the cats for eight hours a day. I also have some live recordings of MGMT that get me interested in being alive again.
Music has a lot to do with what goes down here in the studio. When I was a punk rocker I would throw on loud, fast and snotty music so I could paint fast and furious. Now I’m older and the dub keeps me going at a good, steady pace.