Interview by Barbara Parvone
November 12, 2014
I imagine Trinidad and Tobago, Texas and California are rather different when it comes to their vibes – did experiencing all three early on in life have an impact on the kind of art you started creating? Do they have an influence today?
By the time I was 19 I had traveled all over the world and thus experienced living in many different cultures. I was most impressed that no matter what language was spoken or god was worshipped, art was part of the equation. That made me realize art is the only global language. I was in Hungary once and I wanted a lemon for my fish dinner; no matter how I pantomimed and blabbered, it wasn’t until I drew a lemon that everyone figured out what I was after.
You were one of the first lowbrow artists to emerge (before it grew into the ‘mainstream’ umbrella term it is today). Did you know you were onto something special that would set you apart from the pack forever when you were first starting out? Were you consciously thinking about how you could throw the art world a curveball or did the style just develop organically?
Lowbrow is based on cartoon imagery, which is a fitting starting point since most of “the fine art mafia” considers comics to be beneath contempt. I didn’t start out with anything in my mind other than making art that hadn’t been seen before, something that would fit with the Punk Rock attitude. My style developed organically from there; I got better as an artist and my ideas became more sophisticated.
Is it true your first art sale was to a drug dealer?! Do you remember the piece you sold him?
My art dealer at the time was a particularly lax individual who had methods of selling art that didn’t always involve money; art was often traded for drugs or other commodities that the artist was then expected to sell for the cash. Nice, huh?
Looking at the lowbrow art being created today and comparing it to what was happening in the ‘80s, how has the movement changed? Has it lost any of its excitement?
The 80s were different because there wasn’t yet a group of motifs that had been deemed quintessentially Lowbrow. The emblems in use were primarily taken from the hot rod world, stuff like eight balls or fuzzy dice and they were part of the larger narrative in the painting. But as time went by, those same visual tropes began to be used with no real service other than to just look cool. Think about it this way: A painting of Frankenstein driving a hotrod is exciting; but isn’t it more exciting if you know WHY Frankenstein is driving that hotrod?
Cats are a huge part of your work. Thinking way back to those very first sketches – were cats always involved? When did the first one make an appearance and why did you stick with ‘em?
I understood the reason that I was forced to take life-drawing classes of the human figure, but I didn’t understand why artists insisted on populating their artworks with even more people. I decided to break entirely with the long historical lineage of Figurative Art by using something other than the human figure. I felt that the history of cats has paralleled human history for thousands of years and that they would be a suitable replacement for people.
Your art can be found on everything from canvas to commercial advertisements and cars – is there one outlet that's more gratifying than the others? Or just more challenging/fun?
Painting on square and rectangular canvases can get boring; there are certain visual equations that apply when a 90º angle is involved. I first broke out of this by painting on round canvases and I eventually began to paint on complex shapes and surfaces. I love painting on actual cars since placing the artwork becomes a sort of “geographic” problem; where do the flames go? Why not put then where no one expects them? That is satisfying to me, but more satisfying is having my artwork used as an album or CD cover; when I did the cover art for the MGMT release Congratulations I was gratified to see the image go worldwide.
If we stopped by your studio right now, what would be the first thing to catch our eye?
When I paint, I keep tight control on what I’m doing; as you can see, this isn’t Expressionism! But I tend to let everything go to hell outside of canvas; I have a large wall mounted easel and the wall behind it is almost completely covered with splatters, drips and overspray from the hundreds of paintings I’ve completed in this studio. It’s really thick in places, almost like a vertical palette! I’ve actually had collectors come over and want to buy part of that wall.
What’s your favorite material possession in your home? Something you’d never want to part with...
A pocket size Pop Art history book that Andy Warhol signed the night I met him and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Andy and I talked about goldfish mostly…
The works that fall under the ‘Improved Art’ category are my personal favorites – I think they’re absolutely brilliant. Can you tell me a bit about the inspiration that sparked that bold juxtaposition?
At a certain point in my life I was completely broke and I would buy framed paintings at thrift stores and do my painting over the previously painted canvas. But I only chose really cruddy paintings, because it seemed mean spirited to destroy quality work by another artist. Then I got the idea of buying those decent paintings and not completely erasing them; instead putting my cat character in the perfect spot to work within the reality or scheme of that painting; its an additive process, not destructive. I have had certain paintings for over 16 years before figuring out what to add to them…
People react in very different ways to the Improved Art,; some want me to work on paintings that have been in their family for years, and others criticize me for messing with another artist’s work. Look, life is cruel; I’ve seen my paintings slashed, burned, left out in the backyard to rot and even completely annihilated by idiots. Once a piece of art leaves the studio, the artist has no control over its existence.
If you had to put all forms of art – painting, writing, etc. – on hold for a week, what would you do to replace that gap? What outside the art world gets you really excited?
The art world is full of people who are trying to avoid reality; they feel more comfortable looking at a painting of a homeless man than interacting with a real beggar on the street. When I get sick of making art I go out and take the bus or subway someplace and just wander around looking at the carnival that is life outside of art.
Who’s one artist, contemporary or otherwise, that will never cease impressing you or inspiring you as a peer?
I am not inspired by other artists so much as I am impressed by other works of art. Every artist I know has done at least one or two stinkers, but the same masterpiece never disappoints.
I have a solo show in May 2015 at the Copro Gallery in Santa Monica, California.
Please finish this sentence for me: Anthony Ausgang is…
… more than the mere sum of his parts.