High speed hotrods and “lowbrow” paintings populate the Petersen Automotive Museum’s ode to Juxtapoz magazine.
They didn’t set out to create the most popular art magazine in the country. When the founders of Juxtapoz magazine published their first issue in 1994, they just wanted to create an outlet for “lowbrow” artists that had been excluded from the mainstream art world. These included artists from various outsider communities, including hot-rodders, graffiti writers, the tattoo scene, skate and surf culture, psychedelia, underground comics and pop-surrealism, to name a few. The initial print run of 23,000 quickly sold out, with the magazine’s popularity increasing with each issue. By the late 2000’s, its circulation would reportedly eclipse that of more established art magazines such as ArtForum, Art in America and Art News.
Recently, “Auto-Didactic: The Juxtapoz School,” an exhibition of art cars and art about cars, opened at the Petersen Automotive Museum showcasing the work of 50 artists spanning six decades, including those that influenced the magazine as well as those who have come of age since Juxtapoz burst onto the scene almost 25 years ago. “All these very talented people who didn’t have a chance down the street here, they found a home in Juxtapoz,” pioneering lowbrow artist and Juxtapoz co-founder Robert Williams said at the show’s opening, gesturing toward the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, just a stone’s throw from the Petersen.
But the Juxtapoz story goes back even further than the magazine’s founding. The previous year, a wildly popular exhibition, “Kustom Kulture,” opened at the Laguna Art Museum, bringing together a motley crew of artists whose work was loosely based around the automobile, including Williams and hot-rodders such as Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Von Dutch, then-emerging LA artists including Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw, alongside Robert Irwin and other “finish fetish” artists of the 1960s, who brought sleek auto aesthetics into a fine art context.
According to Williams, the automotive theme was just a ploy to get a bunch of under-recognized “feral” artists — a term he prefers to “lowbrow” — some recognition from the institutional art world. “Some of my friends ingratiated themselves down at the Laguna Museum,” he said when reached by phone the morning after the opening, “and talked them into putting on a car art show, so all these disenfranchised artists could slip into a museum under the pretext of automobile art.”
The show broke attendance records at the museum and gathered momentum as it traveled around the country. Emboldened by its success, a group of artists and collectors, including Williams and his wife Suzanne, artist, writer, and surf and skate historian Craig Stecyk and gallerist Greg Escalante, approached Fausto Vitello, the publisher of skateboarding magazine Thrasher, about putting out an art magazine. The rest is history.
“Auto-Didactic” starts off by setting the stage, featuring artists and work that predates Juxtapoz, before focusing on artists whose work bears the influence of the magazine.
“We didn’t want to do another Kustom Kulture show,” says exhibition co-curator Joseph Harper, who organized the show with Stecyk. (A follow-up to the original, “Kustom Kulture 2,” opened in 2013 at the Huntington Beach Art Center.) “The strength of that show was them breaking the barrier, going into the art museum. This is bringing the art that came out of that back into the car realm.”
All the classics are here: Von Dutch’s bright orange Kenford Truck, emblazoned with his signature flying eyeball painted on the front; a larger-than-life size statue of Rat Fink, Ed Roth’s grotesque, bug-eyed answer to the family friendly Mickey Mouse; as well as paintings by Williams that fuse comic-book style action scenes with his hyper-realistic style. Next to Williams’ maximalist canvases are small but captivating abstract paintings by his wife Suzanne that distill hot-rod pinstriping to its essence of line and color. The contrast between their two styles epitomizes the range of work on view.
The other spokes of the Kustom Kulture wheel are all represented: Zap Comics’ first issue, illustrated by counter-culture cartoonist R. Crumb; Rick Griffin’s psychedelic rock posters; a striking painting of a flaming skull from the godfather of the “Cholo Style” of graffiti, Chaz Bojorquez; Gary Panter’s exuberant punk painting. Anthony Ausgang’s “Salome” is a cartoonish take on the classic Old Master subject, here represented by a cat who holds the head of a feline John the Baptist, his headless body still perched in a hot-rod. Kenny Scharf, an artist who has straddled the worlds of street art and the museum since his days on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early 1980s, is represented by a 1959 Eldorado, the exterior covered in retro space-age cartoons, while the trunk is filled with kitschy toys, figurines and a disco ball.
The second half of the show features work produced since Juxtapoz gave artists license to pursue forms of art that were rejected by the institutional art world, including the car. Nicola Verlato’s “Car Crash 3” from 2013 depicts a bikini-clad body flying through space, having been recently ejected from a car. Painted with a sense of theatrical realism, the woman’s contorted body resembles that of a Baroque saint. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Patricia Piccinini’s “Deathmatch” from her “Car Nuggets” series of 2004, a deep red shiny orb that sports a small car fin on top. All killer, no filler, it captures the car’s formal essence without all the useful parts such as a motor or wheels. Providing a somber note of reflection is Shepard Fairey’s 2014 silkscreen “Endless Power,” which depicts a fuel pump over his signature “obey” motto. It draws attention to the power those in the oil industry wield, especially as this finite resource becomes scarcer.
A quarter of a century after it was founded as a refuge for artists that didn’t fit in with the establishment, Juxtapoz seems to finally have secured some recognition for the “mulligan stew of all these talented people that were kind of disenfranchised from academia,” as Williams puts it. But now the question is, can you still be an outlaw, outsider artist once you’ve made it to the inside? For Williams, the sweet spot is in the struggle.
“It’s more vital and better when it’s crawling its way up to the top,” he told me. “When it gets to the top, it’s gonna get tender and caring and acceptable, and then in 50 years, something else will come along and push it aside.”
A visit to Luna Park in Coney Island, New York is a summertime tradition for many New Yorkers. Visitors both young and old enjoy its thrilling rides and colorful attractions, and travelers from around the world make it a point to stop by the amusement park while visiting the Big Apple. Through the fall, Korea’s very-own Luna Park will open up and offer an opportunity for visitors big and small to experience work from the world’s leading designers of the 20th and 21st century.
“Luna Park: The Design Island” opened its doors at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in central Seoul on July 27 in the Design Exhibition Hall and promises to be not just any design exhibition, but a chance to really engage in the creative worlds created by the designers. The exhibit is ticket seller Interpark’s first ever attempt at holding their own exhibition and it is directed by renowned designer Stefano Giovannoni.
“This is an exhibition mostly for children, but for adults as well,” said Giovannoni on the opening day to the local press. “Allowing children to have fun at the exhibit will help them engage in the world of design while playing around like they’re in a theme park. And by displaying big-sized objects of smaller designs and making them into art sculptures, there’s also something there for adults to connect to and have fun with.”
The exhibit hall may not be the size of a jaw-dropping theme park, but the DDP’s hall is filled with works from the highest number of designers that have ever been put together in Korea: 100 designers and 428 works. Stephano Giovannoni himself, Eero Aarnio, Alessandro Mendini, Philippe Starck, Jaime Hayon, Benoit Convers, Manolo Bossi, Javier Mariscal, Thomas Heatherwick, Benedetta Mori Ubaldini and Anthony Ausgang are just some of the 93 international names included in the vast exhibit, with a separate section dedicated to works by seven Korean designers.
Giovannoni’s famed “Magic Bunny” toothpick holders, first created in 1998, Mendini’s corkscrews from 1994 and other landmark designs welcome guests as they walk into the main exhibit space. The hall allows people to roam around freely as if they were wandering through a large playground. The famous “Spun” chairs by Heatherwick are placed in different parts of the hall for visitors to enjoy, For the younger visitors, “Jungle Gym: Elephant” by Kim Chung-jae and a Lego section are sure to entertain.
“This exhibition was produced like a theme park, but if you look at the things that are on display, they are things that we see everyday,” said Cristina Morozzi, one of the three directors along with Giovannoni and Chiara Savino. “Like chairs and tables, they are all basic furniture in our households. But we believe they can be a source of inspiration for children and a chance for them to bring out their creativity.”
Some of the products on display may be bought at the gift shop located at the end of the exhibit, and special edition goods are also available at a pop-up store located inside the Blue Square theater in Hannam-dong, central Seoul.
“What I have learned through my 30 years of design career is that there are so many different people out in the world,” said Giovannoni. “We learn different things from different people. And as with any other things, there’s change and development within the history of design. For this exhibition, we chose the people with whom we could show that flow to the audience.”
From the Desert to the Sea: The Desolation Center Experience
Between the utopian music festivals of the late 1960s and the corporate behemoths they’ve become, a series of site-specific concerts in Southern California once offered an alternative, wildly independent vision of what these types of events could be. Spanning only a few years in the mid-80s, the Desolation Center happenings were punk concerts that took place in unorthodox locations, such as the Mojave Desert northeast of Los Angeles, or aboard a chartered whale-watching ship. Despite the challenging nature of their settings, these events featured some of the most influential punk and post-punk bands of the era: Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, Einstürzende Neubauten, Saccharine Trust, Savage Republic, and others. A number of notable visual artists were also involved, such as Raymond Pettibon, Anthony Ausgang, and Rick Potts, a founding member of experimental collective, the Los Angeles Free Music Society.
From the Desert to the Sea: The Desolation Center Experience aims to re-examine the significance of this phenomenon through period photography and video, as well as paintings and sculptures by related artists and musicians including Mike Watt of Minutemen, Cris Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets, Kristine Kryttre, John Tottenham, Bruce Licher, and others. Co-curated by Desolation Center founder Stuart Swezey, with Laurie Steelink, Craig Ibarra, and Mariska Leyssius, the exhibition should illuminate this overlooked but fertile period in LA’s musical and artistic history.
If you could collaborate with one artist, living or dead, who would they be?
Walt Disney. He and I would go mano a mano in the studio as I showed him how to get psychedelic and he taught me his marketing skillz…
Last art show/exhibition you saw:
I really enjoyed the International Pop exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It showed that Pop was the first art movement to engage artists and audiences worldwide; it’s impressive that such a thing could happen before the Internet.
A quote that has stuck with you:
Kit Coleman said that an artist should not demand an entrance fee to their show, but should ask the public to pay as much as they like just before leaving. From that sum the artist would be able to judge what the world thinks of their work — and there would be fewer mediocre exhibitions.
How would you describe your work?
My paintings are a passport to a parallel reality.
In your opinion, what is the power of art – what does it do?
Art is a soft weapon that can only change the viewer’s opinion; but once it become propaganda, it can change the world.
How did your unique aesthetic come about/develop – where/what are your artistic roots?
Art requires a different way of seeing than anything else in the world. I was fortunate to learn this skill as a kid because my parents took me to Museum of Fine Arts in Houston where I learned how to look at both Western paintings and African sculptures. When I grew older and began going to car shows to catch the newest Ed Roth custom, I didn’t see any difference between the convention center and the fine art museum; they were both places to go see unusual things. Consequently I never learned any art elitism, which led to my ultimate identity as a Low Brow artist.
Why do you think your work resonates with people– what do they see in it?
Art requires seduction; the artist must be convinced that the painting is worth doing just as much as the viewer must be convinced it’s worth spending time with. Nobody wants to look at painting they could make themselves; isn’t it the ultimate put down to say, “I could do that myself”? People want to marvel at technique that is beyond their ability, yet at the same time believe in the truth of the story being told. The cleanliness of my paintings describes a universe without bounds, and if the two dimensions of the painting could become three, one would be able to place one’s head into it and see the world continue in all directions. I believe it is this sense of completeness that resonates with my audience.
When you were a youngster, was there a specific cartoon cat that made an impression on you? And did you experiment with other animals before focusing on cats as the primary character in your art?
In the early 1960’s a lot of cities had their own regional programming and in Houston there was a live action show called “Kitirik” on KTRK-TV. Kitirik was a young woman dressed in a black body stocking with a tail while wearing cat ears, and she really grabbed my attention for reasons I couldn’t understand at the time! Anyway, if you were a kid in the studio audience who had a birthday or answered a tough question correctly, you got to ride on her carousel; in those innocent times the whole fetish angle was completely overlooked.
There were always cats around when I was growing up because we lived out in the country and people would dump their pets in our neighborhood. Eventually there would be just too many cats and some of them would be taken to the vet’s to be “put to sleep”. Well, I knew they weren’t going to sleep, so I began making drawings of the defunct cats to give them back their lives; it was art with a purpose.
What feline characteristics do you find particularly appealing as an artistic character?
Cats work as artistic characters whether they’re on all fours or standing upright. I never could envision a dog walking around on two legs; too much information, if you know what I mean…
When you work, do you typically envision an overall narrative first and then decide which particular moment to capture? Or is the overall narrative meant to be loose and interpretive?
Generally I start with a drawing of a character in some pose and work the narrative around that. As an artist, one has to be cool with sometimes taking orders from the painting and not forcing the story. So, I may get to play god and invent a universe, but relinquishing complete control leads the characters to interesting places within that arena that I might never have considered.
In what ways has technology helped your art? Do you ever create on a computer rather than a canvas or other tangible surface?
Xerox copy machines were basically the first graphic art “programs” available to the public. When I began attending the University of Texas in the ‘70s I was super stoked to find copy machines on every floor of the library there. The U.T. library has a phenomenal collection of old magazines and books so I did all kinds of funky stuff with this source material, like moving the image around as it was scanned and other psychedelic manipulations. Anyway, the years went by and copiers got more sophisticated, and I was finally able to start changing the scale and location of my pictorial elements, essentially doing “paste up” and designing my paintings there in the copy shop. Consequently I was pretty much ready for personal computers and Adobe Photoshop, which was as big an advancement in art technology as the invention of oil paint in the 15th century.I draw everything by hand before flatbedding it into the computer with a scanner. Once I have all the elements together, I figure out the best composition then project the line drawing on the primed canvas. I find the correlation between colors on the monitor and colors on the canvas to be problematic (one is luminous while the other reflects light) so I very seldom use the computer to determine the colors, that’s instinctual. Some of the new pieces debuting at Copro have a more psychedelic edge.
Was there something in particular that lead you in that direction?
The art movements that I am most frequently associated with are Low Brow and Pop Surrealism, the defining characteristics of which are the presence of narrative stories acted out by recognizable protagonists. In this new body of work I wanted to introduce psychedelically abstracted characters engaged in non-specific activities; the primary actions are the forces that have altered the characters. Low Brow artists have always shunned Abstract Art, maintaining that it represents the most damning aspects of the Fine Art world, and I wanted to shake things up by bringing in some new influences. Even so, I cannot deny the influences of certain mind-altering substances…
You have a few older pieces that incorporate cannabis use and/or imagery in the artwork. What impression did you hope to evoke by including it?
Pot Culture is now part of Pop Culture and I see no reason not to make reference to it. The reason I include cannabis in the schemata of my paintings is that it provides a reason that the characters are so, well, weird; art viewers need an explanation why the events they are observing are taking place.
In what ways do cannabis culture and lowbrow art overlap?
Although Low Brow Art and Cannabis Culture are popularly accepted now, there are still renegade aspects to both that provide the necessary “anti” attitude that people cultivate to distinguish themselves from mainstream culture. Ultimately, I would like to make a painting that involves cannabis as much as Malcolm Lowry’s book Under the Volcano revolves around mescal.
Has your art ever directly influenced the name of a cannabis strain, and if not, what do you think an Ausgang art-inspired strain should be called?
I believe I’ve had an influence in an oblique way; a certain grower I know bred an interesting hybrid that he named after the band MGMT. I did the artwork for their album Congratulations and it’s possible that the psychedelic imagery I provided had something to do with his process! But if I had my own indica heavy strain I would call it Catatonia!
Was your family in Trinidad & Tobago when it gained independence, and if so, do you have any memories of the event or what led up to the event?
I was born in Point-A-Pierre in Trinidad when it was still a British colony but left as a small child when my family moved to Houston, Texas. As I was growing up, we visited Trinidad and Tobago several times and my mind was always blown by the parallel reality there. The scene was so radically different than what was going down in the USA that it made me question the Manifest Destiny of American reality.
The improved art pieces are fun. Do you still regularly produce them, and what motivated the idea in the first place?
I did my first Improved Art piece in the mid-eighties and I got the idea while picking through a pile of paintings at a thrift store. The landscapes I was looking at were perfect settings for my cats so it wasn’t that big a leap of logic to use them in the same way that background illustrations are photographically combined with the separate cells of cartoon characters. The critic Carlo McCormick preferred to call these works “interventions” and likened them to graffiti on walls, which I was also doing at the time. I still do Improved Art, but its much harder now to come up with a story I haven’t done before; how many surfing cats will I have to paint on beachy seascapes?
Lastly, let me know about any upcoming events, like a new art book, a cartoon, album cover, etc. I want to make sure we plug whatever you have coming out this year.
I will have two toys in the upcoming Art of Toys show at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster, California; two paintings in the ten-year anniversary exhibition of the annual Don’t Wake Daddy show at the Feinkunst Krüger gallery in Hamburg, Germany; a new psychedelic cat toy produced by Munky King, and whatever else the universe decides to throw over my fence
Hi Anthony, thanks for taking the time to join us. Before we get started, can you tell us a little about your background and what it was that led to you becoming an artist?
I was born in 1959 in Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean but grew up in Houston, Texas, and split for California in 1980. I became an artist because I couldn’t play a musical instrument but I wanted to hang around people who were regarded as either cultural renegades or just plain useless by most people’s standards. Punk rock had a lot to do with it; there was a feeling in the air that a big change was happening and I had to decide which side I was on.
What are your feelings about the academic training you had and academia in general?
I was quite naïve when I decided to become an artist; I had no idea that there was any such thing as an art school or even a gallery scene for that matter. I thought that artists were just these iconoclastic figures that existed outside of any professional network, practically surviving on air. But once I began taking classes at the Otis Art Institute here in Los Angeles I wised up pretty quickly and began going to every art opening I could find, mostly to “graze” on the free wine and cheese. I learned many technical tricks and got a lot of important art-making information from school but the cost seemed high, and after three semesters I dropped out. I then began working as production painter making hand painted fabric for furniture and learned a lot of painting tricks and wild secret techniques. At the time I figured it was way smarter to get paid while learning at a job than paying to learn in some classroom.
You are celebrated as a pioneer within the second wave of the ‘Lowbrow’ art movement, a scene that has always been regarded as an outsider of the art world. What does the term ‘Lowbrow’ mean to you? Also, who or what do you regard as today’s outsider equivalents?
Lowbrow Art is inspired by manifestations of “low culture”, which often involves the revival of obscure marginalia from previous eras. Its nostalgia based, making the lowbrow impulse tinged with an unreality that transits to surreality. It’s unreasonable in that respect; I didn’t begin making art to bring back forgotten icons, it was all about what was going on at the time for me. Some Lowbrow artists traffic in that sort of revivalism but I feel that is suicidal. Will anyone give a shit about the TV show My Favorite Martian in twenty years? Does anyone care now? The point of art is to make timeless messages.
Lowbrow and Outsider Art are cousins; distantly related but mutually exclusive. Lowbrow artists are generally aware of what they are doing and the external value of the finished piece. Outsider artists are working free of such expectations; in a way, that makes them more pure.
Can you talk to us about the psychedelic aspect of your work? One can only assume that the development of your visual aesthetic was expedited through experimentation with some interesting substances – the sort that would be very much at home in Timothy Leary’s medicine cabinet?
Abstract Art is based on real objects in space and the artist’s interpretation of them; Non-Objective Art is concerned with the expression of an artist’s self-generated images of non-reality. There is a similar differentiation in the psychedelic experience. On LSD, one witness the abstraction of a surrounding reality, on DMT one is suddenly involved in a completely distinct non-reality. My “experimentation” with these substances certainly had an influence on my artistic process and I became interested in the point at which a recognizable image becomes unrecognizable; I wanted to pare the image down to the minimal number of visual clues.
Some people may be surprised to learn that you use a computer to aid your compositional development. When did you start using technology as a creative tool and can you describe what you like most about working with digital media?
I began using Adobe Photoshop in the late 90s when many artists considered it a tool of Satan that was going to bring down the art world. It’s difficult now to image such an attitude, but a Luddite panic seems to occur at just about every technological innovation. I have no doubt that Adobe Photoshop is the greatest innovation in the art making process since the invention of oil paint in the 15th century. I was more than happy to use computer graphics programs to scale images up and down, move elements around; easily accomplish all the things that I previously had to do with scissors, glue and a copy machine. But I was ready for it; in the late 70s collage was a punk rock medium and I used to spend hours at the copy machine in the library, moving the paper around as it was scanned, doing weird shit with flashlights… In a sense, the very first computer graphics programs were copy machines themselves…
Digital media is a tool that makes many things possible; I can now “remix” my drawings as easily as a musician remixes a song. This makes hybrid visual compositions easy; now my vast library of sketches is not just a repository, it’s a trove of available images I can refer to easily.
Tex Avery had a huge influence on you as a young artist; particularly regarding the way you approach the look and stylization of the characters in your paintings. Can you talk to us a little about your love of Tex and do his animations still inspire you to this day?
Tex Avery was an animator and cartoon director for Warner Bros. and his cartoons were originally made for theatrical release in the 1940s. In the 60s, his cartoons were broadcast on Saturday morning television, and as a kid I was really impressed by the high quality of the sight gags and violence. After the Warner Bros. show, live action “cartoons” such as The Banana Splits would come on with their serious psychedelia, and I guess the two approaches kind of melded together in my mind. Consequently, when I got to The University of Texas, my drawings and paintings started from this “psyche-cartoon” base and there were only a few teachers, like Peter Saul, who got it.
Inspiration is liquid; influence is concrete. Tex Avery will always be my influence; but out of necessity, I am inspired by more recent manifestations of contemporary culture.
You once believed that ‘art could change the world’ and have recently come to the conclusion that this might not be the case in contemporary culture. What do you believe art’s purpose to be now, and what is it that keeps you painting?
Until very recently, art was the domain of an educated cultural elite, and as such, it defied being co-opted by the mainstream; it lacked the same “democracy of stupidity” that ended up neutralizing popular music. Look, eventually everything gets absorbed by the Establishment and used for purposes other than its original intention; for example, the song Rock and Roll by Led Zeppelin was used in a Cadillac commercial. More recently, Shepard Fairey brought Art to the public attention by way of Graffiti and now street crews like Tatscru are hyping Coca Cola. Art can’t change the world any more because people aren’t interested in making that happen; but apparently art can change the car you drive or the soda you drink.
The power of art has always been in its ability to communicate universally in a non-linguistic way; why even sign language changes in different countries, but a drawing of a cat will always be recognizable as a cat. The purpose of art is to make the invisible visible; once the instant has passed for a perfect photograph, the only way to recreate that moment is to draw or paint it.
The unfortunate truth is that not everybody can, or should be, an artist; what keeps me going as an artist is the knowledge that I have an ability many people don’t, and not to waste it…
Which of your own creations do you feel has been the most successful and why?
My most successful creation was the cover art that I painted for the MGMT album Congratulations. I consider it a success, not because its my most widely recognized image, but because I feel that it perfectly captures the spirit of the music on that album… which is fortunate because they were still mixing the tracks as I was doing the artwork! I also feel that it was success because several people have gotten tattoos of that image on them, which proves it’s worth beyond any association with me personally.
What is your relationship with the history of art and do you feel that it is important to have a good understanding of what has come before? Can you talk about some of the artists from the past who have inspired you and then bring it up to date with some of your contemporary favorites?
Knowledge of history indicates an acceptance of one’s mortality and an understanding that humanity’s accomplishments are the results of individual actions. Art history is no different; if you want to be remembered then you better remember those who went before, because one day, you’re gonna be history too! Remembrance is something we do for the dead who were once just as alive as you, the person reading this.
I don’t have favorite artists so much as favorite art pieces. The Hermitage Museum in Russia has some incredible Dutch and Flemish paintings from the 16th century that manage to clearly get across what it must have been like to be alive then. As far as more recent art, my father used to bring home books like Best New Yorker Cartoons 1948 and from them I got a real definite idea of how to pack as much punch as possible in a single panel.
As far as contemporary artists, well, I’m always looking for undiscovered talent; but it can be so disappointing when someone has everything they need to succeed and it just doesn’t happen.
Having watched or read previous interviews with you it is clear that you’re a person with a wealth of fascinating stories to tell. Can you tell us an anecdote from your career that you’ve never told publicly before?
I showed at an art gallery that also represented an artist who took clothing worn by famous people, dunked them in paint and then displayed them in ornate gold frames. One piece was supposedly made from a dress worn by Rita Hayworth in the movie Gilda, and it sold right away. The collector brought it home, took the dress out of the frame and had it cleaned at vast expense so he could put it on and watch the film. Turned out that the scenes in which Rita Hayworth wore the dress never made the final cut so the collector sued my art dealer. In order to pay for his defense, the dealer told a lawyer he could take three Ausgang paintings as payment, and he gave the value of my work at about 100,000 dollars each, a completely insane amount since my work was selling for maybe 2500 dollars tops at the time. Anyway, my dealer lost the case and the lawyer took possession of three of my paintings as payment. Fast forward to about five years later: I’m talking to some friends at an art opening and I feel this insistent tapping on my shoulder so I turn around and there is the lawyer, red in the face and already screaming at me that my work turned out to be worthless and I had better figure out some way to pay him the money he was owed! I told him it wasn’t my problem but he wouldn’t stop bitching at me so I had to run out the back door of the gallery to get away from him…
What did you set out to achieve in your career as an artist and do you feel that you have come close to your goal?
I moved to Hollywood, California to become a star, just like everyone else getting off the bus; the only difference was I wanted to be an ART star! I guess it happened to some degree since I’m answering your questions and not busking chalk drawings on the sidewalk…
What’s next for Anthony Ausgang?
A solo show at the Copro Gallery in Santa Monica in May 2015!
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 told me that he loved my movie…
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.
The introduction to your mocoloco interview says, “Ausgang remembers what it was like to watch Saturday morning cartoons…” what was it like?
My family moved from Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean to the Houston, Texas in 1960; my parents had seen a television show in England once but had never owned a set. Upon moving to the USA they purchased one so that my brother and I could watch a regional Gulf Coast kid’s show called Cadet Don.
At first, my Mom took a “cinematic” approach to watching a show; if I wanted to see something I had to be cleaned up, well dressed and in my seat long before the program began. Fortunately my Dad discovered Saturday morning animated cartoons and soon we were watching them together before my Mom woke up, both tripping out because neither of us had seen anything like it before. Sure, some of the cartoons had originally been for theatrical release but there were also these weird shows like The Banana Splits that combined cartoon animals and live action. That particular show was psychedelic in the extreme, so watching it and the Bugs Bunny show on the same Saturday morning made for a pretty mind boggling start to the day.
So anyway, there was this stretch of morning TV time dedicated to weirdo juvenile programming that mostly excluded adults, making the whole experience a psychedelic clusterfuck of animated cartoon animals on one channel and live action actors running around in freaked out animal costumes on the other.
We were ‘marinated’ in the classic animation (WB, Fleischer etc.) that filled kids’ TV at the time, and some of it was quite surreal; what inspired you to use cartoon characters in your work? Did your use of psychedelics play any part in it?
I had no theory or manifesto and just began making paintings of animals in the cartoon style, which seemed to fit somehow with the anti-humanist attitude of Punk Rock at the time. I’m sure my choice of imagery was influenced by what I watched on TV as a kid but at no point did I actually sit down and make a memorable decision to use cartoon style characters. What I did decide to do was make my own characters and not use Bugs or Felix; I wasn’t interested in being ironic and riffing on them like Ronnie Cutrone.
Were any particular cartoons or cartoon characters most influential, or “spoke” to you, either/both as a kid and an artist?
The first cartoon I remember was called Tom Terrific on the Captain Kangaroo show. By today’s standards it was utterly crude, but I still found it amazing. I was also impressed by Clutch Cargo but a little freaked out by the human mouths superimposed over the cartoon character’s faces.
Back in the 70s movie theatres would have outrageous midnight movie double features of rock concert films and offbeat features. One night I went to see Ralph Bakshi’s animated feature Fritz the Cat, which was “based” on R. Crumb’s character of the same name. I had never seen an X rated feature length cartoon before and I was struck by the fact that a cartoon could express such subversive and perverted sentiments.
Does your main (and “supporting”) character(s) have a name/personality/“back-story,” or is he just an image/symbol? And if he is, what does he represent?
Each of my paintings is a ‘stand-alone” piece that doesn’t relate to any other work. I do repeat certain ways of drawing the main characters in my paintings but there is not a narrative beyond that which appears in the individual painting.
“In the early 80s I was one of the few artists …that eschewed the human figure in favor of cartoon characters and I really felt I was doing something that would measurably improve the world if it were broadcast to a larger audience.” – fecalface.com Sounds tongue-in-cheek; was it?
No, I was serious when I said that. Unspecified cartoon characters (that is, not trademarked) were being used by some artists, but most cartoon characters in the fine art world were familiar but used in some ironic way, like Mickey Mouse smoking a joint or something. I just decided to draw my own animals and use them to depict the human condition in non-human terms.
Was there a turning point when your art became ‘acceptable’ into mainstream art world? (Or is there no such thing as a mainstream art world?) Was it the rise of the “lowbrow” movement, of which you were a “pioneer” (boinboing) and “one of the original godfathers” (fecalface); do you feel you helped create “lowbrow”?
Lowbrow Art began as a loose collection of disenfranchised artists who shared a visual vocabulary based on cartoon styles and tropes. The first wave of such artists included Robert Williams and Ed Roth, and it revolved around the connection between cartoons and hot rods. I was part of the second wave of Lowbrow artists who also used hot rods to build a narrative. The first museum exhibition of Lowbrow Art was the Kustom Kulture show in Laguna Beach Art Museum in 1993 and as a result of being in that show my paintings became acceptable to the mainstream art world.
Of course, before this show I was selling my paintings to collectors but none of them were connected to the mainstream art world. Not only were the artists obscure, but so were the collectors. It wasn’t until rock stars began buying Lowbrow Art that “better” collectors began to take notice.
Yeah, I helped create Lowbrow Art by busting my ass. The difficulty in those days was that, when I took my portfolio to galleries, I had to not only educate them about my work, but I also had to explain Lowbrow in general… and gallery directors don‘t like lectures from an artist!
Again, boingboing:”His tripped-out, surrealistic narratives feature cartoon characters in exaggeratedly provocative situations.” The 1990’s were also the early days of “furry fandom,” and a good deal of furry art features anthropomorphic animals (cartoony & otherwise) in more than ‘provocative’ situations (i.e., “furry porn”). Fursuiting is also popular in the fandom, and the characters in “Night of the Hunter” are humans in leopard suits; did you know about the furry scene before I contacted you? If so, did it have any influence on your work?
My painting The Night of the Hunter is about “species bending” and the characters are obviously having a tough time dealing with the switch! I was aware of “furry porn” before I did this painting and decided to reference it in a painting of a non-sexual but potentially fatal situation.
Do you have any particular feelings or opinions about “furry fandom” or anthropomorphism in general, cartoony or otherwise?
I believe that many of society’s ills are caused by sexual repression and I welcome any type of indulgence in that respect as long as it is consensual. If people were allowed to get off unimpeded by society’s restrictions, there would be a lot less aggravation on the street. I’m was also fascinated by “furry porn” because its something I never would have thought of myself!
Your family moved from Trinidad & Tobago to Houston; you said they never owned a TV in England; is that where they were originally from? Any particular reason they made such long-distance moves?
My mother was born in Sumatra, Indonesia to Dutch Colonial parents but spent the war years, 1939 to 1945, in Switzerland. My father was born in Swansea, Wales but grew up in England. My parents met in London, England in the early 1950s and decided to leave since opportunities there were low. They ended up in Trinidad and Tobago but eventually moved to Houston, Texas where my father worked for Texaco on very early computer science. He used to bring home hundreds of used punch cards which I got to draw all over!
You said you were aware of furry porn before you painted Night of the Hunter and decided to reference it in the painting; how did you learn about or first come across furry porn?
Artists are cultural renegades, always looking for some subculture to pillage or mock. I first came across furry porn at an art show in the late 80s when a crew of kids dressed in animal costumes showed up and began pantomiming sex with each other; right then and there I figured that they were doing it at home too! I knew that I certainly would! In those days one had to go to the bookstore for off beat (pardon the pun) porn and, once it was on my radar, I began seeing furry porn in magazines. But I still figured it as some gay “thing” and it wasn’t until later that I understood it was a “non-denominational” fetish…
What I like about furry porn is that it gives animal cartoon characters a definite sexuality. Most of them seem to exist with rudimentary (if any) genitalia in a weirdly sexless world.
What are your inspirations and passions?
Kustom Kulture (hot rod cars and motorcycles) has always inspired me since it is an interesting interface between Fine Art and “secular” Non-Fine Art. I have always been passionate about Street Culture; both the “aerosol art” murals painted by Graf artists and the hand brushed signs for small stores and businesses. Skateboarding and surf culture are also important influences. I love a good Rembrandt hanging in a museum as much as a custom car parked on the street.
What was the training that led you to use your current language?
I went to art school but left before graduation to try to sell my paintings. That didn’t work out as well as I thought so I got a job as a Production Painter for a company making hand painted fabric for furniture upholstery. I was taught a lot of interesting practical painting techniques that I would have never learned in school and I have used many of those tricks ever since. In the 80s I also was hired to paint graffiti for movie sets and I could duplicate just about any gang style in Los Angeles. Since I made paintings of hot rod cars I also learned how to pinstripe on cars. Rd Roth actually taught me how to pinstripe.
What is your approach to figurative?
Art has revolved around the human figure ever since cave paintings and it wasn’t until the “invention” of abstract art that painting was released from this bond. I don’t believe these two schools of art are mutually exclusive so I explore the area where the two blend. This hybrid is the basis of Psychedelic Art, for it dances on that edge of recognition. When we look at another person, we see them only at that moment; I want to depict as many movements and as much of the passage of time as possible.
What difficulties have you found to put yourself into the art world still strongly anchored to a certain kind of conceptual art?
Once I left art school I stopped worrying about theory and became more concerned with practice. See, when I was a Punk in the 70s and 80s, my attitude was “Fuck you if you don’t want me” and I still feel that way, I don’t give a shit. What bothers me is that in my lifetime Conceptual and Actual artists have gone from sharing the definition of Art and the world to believing that only one approach is correct. I don’t mind Conceptual Art, some of it is interesting but usually its meaningless “art-speak” passed off as gospel. Actual Art does away with the ridiculous; one doesn’t need a book of instructions to understand it. There is a disease called “art damage” and people usually get it from Conceptual Art and not painting.
What are the techniques that you like? And why?
My dream is to be a painter in the classical sense; that is, an artist and a canvas in an atelier. But my projects often go beyond that and I paint cars, surfboards, guitars and even some graffiti. Each of those pursuits use different techniques and materials and I enjoy the that variety. I often use the computer to arrange my drawings but the final product is always a painting. Most importantly I believe that, just as learning figure drawing is a requirement for painting, the skill of actually painting and drawing on paper or canvas is a prerequisite for digital media. If an artist is going to make a digital image that looks like a painting, I feel strongly that they should have had the actual experience of making a painting.
For collectors, it may be beneficial or limiting the medium that you use?
When I first began painting I had no money so I used the cheapest materials, figuring the world was going to end in 1984 anyway. But I still wanted the work to be as close to perfect as possible; I never let anything leave my studio that I wasn’t 100% sure was the best I could do. Now I use much better materials because I actually want them to be around after my death. I paint on canvas stretched over a wood panel to make it sturdy, paintings on canvas are some of the most vulnerable works of art, I’ve seen paintings worth millions of dollars ripped or badly dented. The artist has a certain amount of responsibility to make sure that their art endures, That’s what I don’t get about Street Art; if you’re going to go to all that trouble, why not make it last as long as possible?
In documentary “The Treasure of Long Gone John” you talk about Robert Wiliams’ art as the most great manifestation of hot rod cars. What do you think about lowbrow’s term copyrighted by Williams? Do you feel represented by this word? or do you prefer the most recent definition “pop surrealism”? or you don’t feel not represented at all by both terms? What is your position about this “subcultural” artistic movement?
I don’t mind being classified as a Lowbrow artist but I think that the term shouldn’t be used to show opposition to Highbrow art. Lowbrow Art stands apart from the art mainstream because of it’s influences, but that doesn’t mean its any better than other art. Still, it is interesting that a Lowbrow art form like drag racing cannot get funding from the government but ballet or opera can.
Naturally I am pleased to be considered a member of the Pop Surrealism movement but I do wish that a different term had been used. Pop and Surrealism are both established art movement whose names do not refer to anything else. I would have liked a “stand alone” term.
An art movement is usually most interesting in its beginning stages, when all the participants of that movement are involved in establishing it’s definition. Once the parameters of what constitutes that movement have been defined, anyone who joins afterwards is avoiding the hard work of getting collectors and critics to take notice. I’m proud to have been an ‘originator”.
How important were Ed Roth and Von Dutch to your career?
I first encountered Ed Roth’s rods at car shows back in the ‘60s. Back then the deal was that Roth would make a custom car like the Beatnik Bandit, the car would go on a show tour and then kids like me would buy the model kit and Hot Wheels of it. I was the perfect age for that process, consequently Roth was a major influence on my life. Decades later I met Roth at a Ratfink Reunion party here in L.A. and he was kind enough to show me how to pinstripe; later he was very complimentary of a 36 Plymouth on which I had painted flames and my trademark psychedelic cats.
When the art movement of Kustom Kulture began, Roth was around and many of his studio assistants were part of the scene. It was almost cozy how everyone got along. We all had the common enemy of the Fine Art world so there was a lot of camaraderie. Now all that has vanished and the Lowbrow/Pop Surrealism artists are in competition with each other. I mourn the loss of the collective…
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, Bettie 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?
Sure, I often regret basing my life’s work on an impulse, which was essentially how I chose cats. There was no brainstorming, no anguish over theory, I just found a cat figure in a comic that was in the correct pose for what I was trying to do and that was it. As I became more famous, people began asking me why I chose cats, what it meant etc. Andy Warhol said once that he gave different answers to the same questions asked by interviewers so he knew what people had read when they talked to him. I have all sorts of answers to why I chose cats, thanks for not asking.
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 hand painted 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?
Some decisions are theory based and others are practical. For this show I decided to do twenty 18 x 24 black and white paintings; no grey, just black and white. I do very precise preparatory drawings for my major color works so I use these same drawings for my minor black and whites. But instead of just painting the same line drawings, I essentially “remix” them, taking different elements from different paintings to come up with entirely new paintings from these piles of old sketches. My payoff is that I get to see what a character from a 2001 painting looks in an environment from2011. Musicians get to remix songs so why can’t I remix a painting?
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…
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.
Having been surrounded by the many different art movements over your long career which form of art do you see dominating today?
The identifying element of my paintings is cats, sometimes they are involved in the painting’s main event and other times they are just spectators. When first I paired these characters with hot rods my paintings fit in a genre called Kustom Kulture; later, when I changed the focus to other issues, critics described my work as Low Brow and/or Pop Surrealism. This variety of terminology is basically describing the same thing, which makes me question the whole idea of “movements” and linear progress in the art world.
My partners in Low Brow were all convinced that their representational imagery and skillful painting would eventually become the dominant art movement of the new millennium. But Street Art effectively shoved Low Brow to the back of the room. Still, many of the Graf artists have a great deal of respect for the Low Brow artists because we made it easier for them to get galleries since collectors had begun to appreciate Reactionary/Populist art.
I believe that filmic sequential imagery is the dominant art form. As one young art hater told me, “I don’t like looking at a painting because no matter how long I look at it, nothing happens.”
What is it about Lowbrow art that make people so fascinated with it?
The fascination is about nostalgia. The images and narrative of early Lowbrow referred to the Pop culture of when many of the artists and most of the collectors had matured. As kids, a lot of art collectors had once tried to get every Odd Rod bubblegum card; now that Lowbrow was in the galleries they wanted every pinup and hot rod painting. But video games and graffiti are the new starting points, not Saturday morning cartoons and car culture.
When I did the cover art for the MGMT album Congratulations, Sony leaked the cover image before releasing any of the musical tracks. My art became the focus of brief but intense criticism and I was surprised that people complained the cover looked like a video game from the ‘90s, something I would have thought they’d appreciate as emblematic of their childhood. Anyway, as time passed my cover just became part of irreversible reality, timeless.
How do you get ideas for your pieces? Are you a big cartoon fan?
Generally I start with no specific narrative in mind, just a drawing of a character engaged in some sort of action. Of course there are situations where I know exactly what I want to do way in advance, but often that gets derailed. Its funny that these characters I make end up directing me, sort of like a bunch of Frankenstein’s monsters.
When I was young my father made it a point to bring me cartoon books from the public library, stuff like The Best of New Yorker Cartoons, 1946. These books were filled with single panel cartoons, most with captions, some without. I learned from such cartoons how to get a complex idea across with only one image, something that I didn’t get from paintings in a museum, oddly enough.
Please explain to us how you come up with your brilliantly crazy ideas for your pieces?
I have always felt that the best art reveals some aspect of the human condition. Consequently my ideas usually revolve around an issue or event common to all the different viewers of the painting. The twist is that I eschew the human figure, using cartoon characters instead to get my message across. But in order to create a bitchen painting with a fully developed narrative I often resort to strong personal experience; after all, some people say that the best art is autobiographical. My more psychedelic paintings are direct references to specific drug experiences, since once the sanctity of an image has been broken I see no reason to return it to a previous state. What happens in that situation is that the paintings become about the distortion of a character and not the story.
When I was in Slovenia I needed a lemon for my meal but no one could figure out what I wanted until I drew a picture of it! To a certain extent, the use of images is the only global language. Use it.
Although your artwork hits the funny bone…there also seems to be some kind of weird tragedy going on. What are you showing us?
Funny jokes often involve tragic events; after all, someone gets punched in every punch line! But seriously folks, I use humor to seduce people and sneak serious messages into their brain. A painting of a black man and a white man fighting is a loaded image but two dueling cats of different colors is only that at first glance; it helps to be oblique, people don’t expect subtlety.
The longer I live the more appalling things I encounter, which makes me believe that life is essentially tragic. But there’s no use in overtly promoting that viewpoint. I prefer to brighten people up from their own personal tragedies with some Lowbrow humor.
Can you tell us what your pieces mean to you?
I attended art school back in the late 70s because I was interested in changing the status quo of “fine art”, just like the punk musicians taking music in a new direction. But it wasn’t until I met other Lowbrow artists that I began to feel I was on the right track. So, once my need for critical approval was satisfied I began to think of tactics to make my living by selling paintings. When I look back now at over thirty years at the easel my paintings are representations of a life well spent.
Where do you see yourself 1 year from now? Will you always do this kind of work or are you willing to experiment?
A few years ago I had gotten so good at my technique that working in my studio was about the most boring thing to do other than wait in line to get in another line. I finally decided to explore the grey area between abstraction and representation by taking an image as close as possible to being unrecognizable but still leaving just enough so that it was evident what was going on. I managed to mix it all up proper and after a few stinkers the paintings all got interesting again. Fortunately the right people agreed, and I had a new and different audience.
All I ever really wanted to do was become a painter in the classical sense. Paint and do nothing else.
Did you learn anything you didn’t already know in art school?
Going to the Otis Art Institute put my art production on a schedule for the first time and figuring out the skill necessary to cope with that was the most important thing I learned. To make a long story short, I dropped out of art school and began trying to get my paintings in shows. By then I had I realized from the volume of art being made in schools and shown in the galleries that the last thing the world needed was another shitty piece of art so I decided to make a painting only if I felt that its existence was crucial, vital to the reality around me. But the most important thing I discovered about art making hit me after I left school: that when I finished a painting there would be no marching band outside playing a fanfare, no dancing girls; in fact, nobody else would give a shit, it’s strictly a personal triumph.
Can you give any advice to the new breed of artists trying to make it today?
An artist should always have a clean suit ready to wear… and own a pickup truck.
Anthony Ausgang is a top name in the lowbrow art movement. His cartoony color-popping paintings of psychedelic cats appear in galleries around the world and on the cover of MGMT’s Congratulations, which hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200charts. As a noted artist and cannabis enthusiast, the Trinidad-born Angeleno was a natural choice to create cannabis-themed art for a self-described “very large legal marijuana company in Seattle.” The company reached out to Ausgang and sent him a proposal to design labels for different cannabis strains, but after he submitted the first two pieces, the company lawyer quickly gave him the ax.
“The lawyer came through and said, ‘Nope, those cartoon cats are just going to make kids want to smoke weed,’” Ausgang explains. “The concern was that the art would attract children to edibles. He was afraid the art would appear on pot candy, and the kids would munch out on cannabis popcorn or something. The job of these assholes is to look out for every possible problem. You know what I mean? But I don’t think the art would attract children. I mean, I don’t think kids are that stupid, for one thing.”
Ausgang was disappointed. He loves cannabis culture, but he is not a fan of its branding history. He cherished the opportunity to help elevate the plant’s image, and he loved that this company planned to do just that.
“They sent me pictures of the packaging, and it was very high end,” he explains. “Like, you would get an eighth or a quarter in a glass jar with a wood plug on it, and they wanted bitching artwork on the label. This wasn’t just some lame ass little plastic container with a sticker on it. They’re really trying to go for high class and get away from the Rasta thing—the red, green and yellow colors. That’s cool because marijuana graphics, if they’re not mystical, they’re generally Bob Marley, and these people are trying to get away from that. They didn’t say it in as many words, but they did say they’re sick of going into dispensaries and seeing posters of Bob Marley smoking a joint the size of his arm.”
For his cannabis labels, Ausgang envisioned imagery of vintage fruit boxes. In the early 20th century, produce companies started attaching colorful lithographed artwork to fruit boxes to help them stand out at public markets. Viewed as an early form of branding and advertising, the labels helped companies compete in a produce marketplace that the rail system suddenly connected on a massive scale. Pre-printed cardboard boxes replaced the artistic labels by the 1950s, but Ausgang wanted to channel the vintage artform that previously helped rebrand traditional produce.
“Once I came up with the idea of making it resemble or reference old California fruit crate art, I was like, ‘Damn, this could really be something,’” he recalls with excitement. “That stuff is really interesting to me, how it promoted the West and gave this really romantic vision with beautiful valleys and fruit trees and the crazy names they would come up with for different types of oranges and stuff. It’s the same thing with weed, man. It’s exactly the same thing. They’re coming up with crazy names for different types of weed. I was really excited, and I would love to design a line of pot labels that made reference to old fruit crate art.”
As evidence of his affinity for green hues, Ausgang previously included cannabis in gallery artwork. Ausgang continues, “I had a couple of pieces in [a past show] that made overt references to marijuana. People bought them because there are people out there who smoke and like to have that kind of art. There’s ways to get marijuana imagery across in a way that doesn’t make it stoner art. That’s the secret, to work it into the narrative of the painting in some way that’s oblique. It’s not the point of the painting, you just go, ‘Oh wow. These people are smoking weed’ or ‘They’re stoned,’ but it’s not obvious at first.”
Celebrities have lent their names to strains, and different high-profile players are trying to get into the game, but pop artists like Ausgang might have the potential to prompt the most immediate change. By rebranding the image of cannabis, their artwork can move the plant away from traditional stereotypes and stoner imagery. Ausgang sees a need for such change.
“Rebranding cannabis means taking it away from the realm of Rastas and Dead Heads and bringing it into post-pop art so it’s not all high school and retro,” he argues. “Contemporary art is really an important cultural benchmark, and I think the company reached out to artists to contemporize the whole image of marijuana in American culture. Like they always say, if you look at a profile of people who get [medical] marijuana cards, it’s not always stoner kids in high school. It’s businessmen and housewives who just want a little bit of relief, and they don’t want to take [prescription] medicine. Different clients are trying to rebrand the whole thing so they want artwork to go along with it. I think that one of the reasons art is so popular right now is that it has a high level of hipness that it didn’t have until recently. Young people are really involved in individual arts in a way they’ve never been before.”
Ausgang was one of several artists contacted about the project, but he does not know if the other contributors faced similar problems. At the same time, he was also uncertain about the other choices.
“I don’t know how much research they’d done really, or what kind of artwork they were into because they sent me a list of 10 [artist] names, and I didn’t recognize anyone,” he admits. “It wasn’t like it was Gary Baseman and Tim Biskup or anyone like that. It was like, ‘Who are these people? I’ve never heard of them.’”
What will happen to the artwork? Well, there might be a cannabis-themed art show in the works inspired by Ausgang’s submissions.
“Mat Gleason wants to show at Coagula Curatorial in Chinatown,” says Ausgang, referring to the curator and his downtown Los Angeles gallery. “I only designed two [images] before I got shit canned so it’s not like I have a whole exhibition of it, but we were thinking about doing a show of pot labels and stuff like that.”
Ausgang says he’d also love to create a legalize cannabis poster for the prohibition-repealing efforts in California. He enthuses, “I’d really put all my energy behind it because I think it’s a good thing. Legalizing weed is really important. Really important. It’s not just about the weed, it’s about the will of the people. I just think it’s like in the 80s when the [Parents Music Resource Center] came down on bands for having obscene words in their lyrics. You can hardly turn the radio on now without hearing some rapper using cuss words. It’s a similar sort of cultural censorship in a way. What’s on a marijuana label is not going to affect the kids, just like listening to some rapper or rock and roll band say the word ‘shit’ isn’t going to change kids’ lives.”
Ausgang even sees the censorship as counterproductive. He continues, “Everything that’s done for the children pisses me off. ‘It’s for the good of the children!’ Well, the children can handle it. The children, they don’t need to be protected from that kind of stuff; they need to be protected from being molested by freaks. This stuff is out in culture. It’s there. It’s part of culture. To try and hide it is stupid. It’s similar to parents who smoke weed, but they don’t want to tell their kids that they smoke weed. When I was a stepdad, the mom said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t tell him you smoke pot.’ I was like, ‘Why?’ The kid’s going to get offered pot at some point. He’s probably going to get offered cocaine. There needs to be more communication—the parent and the child—in regards to culture and society.”
Ausgang notes that the woman who reached out to him was “really bummed out” that the lawyer nixed his artwork, and despite his personal disappointment over the censorship, he plans to continue making art that helps rebrand the plant.
“I was really into it,” he concludes. “I thought, ‘This is really great.’ This is as good as the MGMT album cover. Art on the walls is one thing, but I like making art that has a purpose, like the rock posters or green room paintings backstage that I’m doing at the Echo. I was super stoked on the idea of designing labels for pot art. I’m going to pursue it, man.”
One reason you make art:
It’s far too late to switch careers.
The last good movie you saw:
Cinema is an overrated art form.
Something you’ve always wanted to do, but have yet to:
Properly render something in a painting that is clear.
Favorite country or city visited:
Favorite country: Bali. Favorite city: Amsterdam
A few words that sum up your philosophy on life:
To leave Spaceship Earth in better shape then when I got on board.
Something you want the world to know about you:
I am just the latest incarnation of THE ARTIST that appears in my family’s history every other generation.
Something that annoys or frustrates you about people:
Excessively beautiful people annoy me.
Something that concerns you:
Why do people need to believe in a god?
Artists you admire:
Greg “Crayola” Simkins, Mark Tansey, Robert Williams, Barry McGee, Camille Rose Garcia
“I know its painted wrong and you know its painted wrong, but the collector won’t notice.”
The first record or CD you ever bought? The last album you downloaded?
First record: “Fragile” by Yes
Last download: “Crazy Train” by Metallachi
Something you do when you’re procrastinating?
Buy stuff on Ebay that I don’t need.
What is your most defining characteristic?
I can talk to anyone about anything for at least five minutes…
What is your greatest fear?
A slow death by torture.
The moment you realized you were an ‘artist’:
When my parents forbid me to be an author.
Your greatest quality:
Empathy for all living things.
Something you wish you could change or alter about yourself:
I wish that I was 25 again…
What is the biggest risk you’ve ever taken and was it worth it?
I quit my job to become a full-time artist and somehow I managed to succeed.
Something you wish you had known five years ago:
How to surf.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next five years of your life?
Get a gallery in New York City…
Anthony’s Ausgang vision of a twisted yet friendly Walt Disney on weed has produced some of the most remarkable artworks of the so called Lowbrow Los Angelinos art movement. I really thought it’s about time to give some credit to this amazing subcultural revenge. Is it fine art? Who cares? some might waste precious time asking the same old and boring questions. Yes, it is exciting. indeed. Interesting and challenging vibrant art. Call it pop surrealism, call it mass surrealism- call it as you prefer but get into it. It’s never too late!!
Antonio Colombo organized the show at his gallery where he invited a local rockabilly band but went a bit further this time when he decided to talk to me 1 year ago about Anthony’s incoming show.
It took 1 or 2 days to convince La Rinascente to commission the Christmas Windows to Anthony. I was sure it was going to work. I thought it was going to be superexciting to produce big crazy cats surreal and naughty sculptures for the most important store in Italy. Right in front of the Duomo.
I started this job while I was at independent ideas but event if I left I wanted to carry on with this particular production and make sure it was going to happen for real. I must say that most of the credit goes to the team that produced such a beautiful result as well as the client itself that believed in it from the very beginning.
…Ladies and gentlemen AAA ATTENTION! AUSGANG IS IN THE CITY!…
If you stick the two words “mondo cane” in search engines you get a wide range of different results. There are products, information and advice about man’s best friend. Then there is the famous “docu-drama” film (a genre that blurs lines between realism and fiction) that was the directing debut, way back in 1962, of the Italian journalist Gualtiero Jacopetti. “Mondo Cane” (which in Italian is also an exclamation of frustration – it’s a “dog’s world”) caused a true scandal (much truer than the terrible sequences in the film), because it showed the cruelest atrocities, many with overtones of S&M sexuality, perpetrated in different regions of the planet. True or false? No one has ever found out for sure. This led to what turned out to be a fleeting vogue, that of the so-called “Mondo Movies”, perhaps the vilest sub-genre ever hatched by pop cinema, and harbinger of another notorious current, that of “Snuff Movies”. For those accustomed to thinking about dogs as meek, loyal creatures, all this was rather traumatic. They were faced by terrifying visions of crazed Rottweilers, Dobermans and St. Bernards, like Stephen King’s Cujo, and other beasts foaming at the mouth. Better steer clear of dogs, and of a dog’s world.
After all, pet lovers have always been engaged in a debate between two radically opposite camps. Dog lovers seldom love cats. Dogs depend on their owners, while cats have no owners. The cliché says that cats tolerate humans only to satisfy a basic need, the need for food. It’s true that cats like warmth, caresses, the lazy atmosphere of a comfortable bourgeois parlor, but deep down they are uncontrollable, unpredictable, prone to betrayal and deceit, hunters that have never quite suppressed their basic “wilderness” instincts. Just consider the difference of treatment of dogs and cats in cartoons. The canine prototypes of Walt Disney are Pluto, the orange hound and companion of Mickey Mouse, a faithful and affectionate troublemaker, and Goofy, another pal of Mickey’s, a dimwit who resembles an adolescent whose body has grown more than his brain. In the world of Disney cats, on the other hand, are relatively rare, with the exception of the great film “The Aristocats”, from that series of feature films in which the animal were complete humanized. But we should also mention the diabolical Lucifer, a fat, sadistic, tireless hunter of mice, henchman of the wicked stepmother and stepsisters of “Cinderella”.
In cartoons, then, cats get the role of the individual plagued by obsessions, like the fantastically neurotic Sylvester J. Pussycat, Sr., drawn by Friz Freleng in 1945, a protagonist in many episodes of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, whose only goal in life is to catch and eat the little bird Tweety or the lightning-fast rodent Speedy Gonzales. His mad pursuit of these eternal rivals, his frustration and failure seem to reflect a psychoanalytical projection of the plight of modern man.
Cartoons have also made a contribution to redeeming black cats from their stigma of superstition, since Felix the Cat became a popular character way back in 1919, well prior to the success of Walt Disney and the advent of films with sound.
Social and cultural revolution has been metaphorically embodied by a cat named Fritz, invented by Robert Crumb and immortalized as a film in 1972, the first cartoon for adults on relatively strong themes like free love, drugs and revolution. A forerunner of the tone of cartoons like the Simpsons, Fritz became an underground hero of the politically incorrect, whose roots can be traced back at least half a century on the American West Coast, in California.
Anthony Ausgang’s “Mondo Gatto” is a world that knows no other characters or counterparts. Everything that happens in his very colorful paintings, his drawings, decorations and customizing of objects, orbits in the feline cosmos. The cat has the same vices and virtues as human beings, and through him the artist interprets every aspect of reality, while demonstrating outstanding ability as a painter and graphic designer.
Ausgang’s roots are known and accepted now in the art world, ever since even the most solemn, demanding critics granted clearance to or at least acknowledged the existence of one of the most active and vital movements on the contemporary painting scene, namely Pop Surrealism or, if you prefer, Lowbrow. In a historical moment in which painting was seeming to succumb by self-suffocation to the white background, outlining minimal minor episodes of no interest at all with hesitant, weak scribbles and lines, somebody finally realized that the revitalization of a dead language can happen only thanks to a wave of energy arriving from capable, nonchalant “artisans”. In our present painting is the equivalent of the contemporary readymade – depending on where you put it, it takes on value independent of the real weight of the work – so it has finally been discovered that neither academicism nor the manner of the upper-class galleries could be the places in which to look for something really new, provocative and vital.
Ever since Robert Williams, the “guru” of this movement of alternative figurative painting, gained the biggest honor for an American artist, namely an invitation to take part in the Whitney Biennial, his disciples and students raised on the pages of “Juxtapoz”, the magazine that more than any other should be given credit for having focused – way back in 1994 – on the alternative scene of streeters, writers, illustrators, photographers, tattoos and hardcore metal, have become the authentic heroes of the new painting, breaking down the fences that kept them stuck with only a niche audience, breaking out of California to invade Europe and, finally, Italy as well. This might explain why most of the protagonists of Lowbrow (or Pop Surrealism) are not youngsters or even people in their thirties, but solid forty-fifty year olds who don’t hesitate to display their passions, like teenagers who never grew up (or grew up twisted).
But let’s get back to Ausgang, whose popularity is presently soaring, also due to his collaboration with the indie rock band from Brooklyn, MGMT, which used one of his paintings to illustrate the cover of the album “Congratulations”. Ausgang’s whole poetics could be summed up in just three words: genre, stereotype and parody. The first term, genre, establishes the range of action. After centuries, painting finally has nothing left to invent, but instead it can turn to the reservoir of a historical legacy, overturning clichés and typologies. From the portrait to the interior scene, the landscape to the holy icon: this is the world from which the artist freely draws his inspiration, and only those with untrained eyes, those with a merely superficial gaze, can claim that Ausgang is just an excellent cartoonist instead of a complex, erudite artist who amuses himself by disrupting the genres of classic painting, starting with Italian Mannerism. The symbol of this love for our late 15th and early 16th century is the stretched, anamorphic, enlarged, suspended and floating figure, caught in unnatural, theatrical poses, cut out just as happened in the pictures of Pontormo, Rosso or Parmigianino. Take the French Rococo of Chardin, the illusionist ceilings of Tiepolo, the Arcadia of Poussin, mix it all up with Disney, acid psychedelia, hotrods, the world of surfing and pinups: the result is an explosive, irresistible blend.
After all, the stereotype has been the basis of the success of classical painting, age upon age. The imagery of saints encodes modes of behavior, physical traits, items of clothing and accoutrements that immediately make each character recognizable and familiar. The great masters of the history of art were expected, first of all, to tell stories, and painting’s abandonment of the narrative is perhaps the most evident reason behind its weakened condition, something that does not happen, in fact, on the Lowbrow (or Pop Surrealist) scene. Ausgang, furthermore, underscores the clear lack of tradition in American art and reminds us that in the past the best students of art academies were sent to make a tour of Europe, to copy antique and modern paintings, which their wealthy countrymen then displayed in their living rooms. Lacking in historical background, the art of the United States based its development on reiteration of stereotypes. This has been true of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimal Art: any style and trend, taken to extremes of repetition, winds up losing the symbolic force of the unique gesture, and is paradoxically reinforced precisely by its reiteration.
Because his world is not populated by men and women, who would require psychological interpretation, but only by cats, Ausgang can afford the luxury of overturning history in terms of parody. Many of his pictures – in details or entire frames – return to key moments of art, slipping from the tragic toward the comic. Some of them are very famous, like the cat descending a staircase after Duchamp, Futurist dynamism, or a wild Matisse-like dance. Others emerge from the sugary, artificial colors of his brushstrokes.
The parody explodes, in particular, in that cycle of works made on paintings of little value, copies or amateur efforts found at flea markets or small antique stores, similar in method to the “overpainted paintings” of Peter Schuyff. Rooting out the worst output of weekend daubers, Ausgang takes possession of that world where painting, perhaps, is still a passion, not something calculated. Then he inserts his notorious cats, as an element of disturbance and chaos. Thus Pop Surrealism kills the last legacy of tradition, disrupting its balances, throwing in abundant doses of sex, paradox, commodification and stupidity.
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, 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 laying 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! Anyway, the first paintings I did in school were kinda 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; I think that reduction of nonessential content is difficult for artists to learn, people aren’t conditioned for brevity.
How has your environment you grew up in and live in today influenced 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 that it was once. Now I tend to find my inspiration in the bizarre inner space of my mind.
You dropped out of OTIS? What turned you off about the school?
I was pretty broke when 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, 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 that 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 their Congratulations cover? What was the process of creating the cover like?
Sonic Boom from Spacemen 3 brought Ben and Andrew over to my studio to get irie 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 just didn’t spark. Finally I decided to shitcan 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 let me go about it my way, 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 and that is when the 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 80’s. i heard the artist is impotent from all the blow he did.”
How has music influenced your work? Was MGMTs 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 when I finally got an advance copy to find that the music and art worked so well together. 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 that 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 varying formats.
I listen to all sorts of music while I work, like Dub, Ambient and Drone, just all sorts of weird shit, so 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 recording 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 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…
What was your first experience smoking pot like?
The first time I ever smoked pot was at a Deep Purple concert in Houston back about 1975. It was also the first concert ever in the Astrodome and the newspapers made a lot of jokes about how plastic pot plants were going to grow out of the plastic turf football field. It was kind of weird because at that time the concert promoters in Houston were basically the same guys who put on rodeos and demolition derbies and they had no clue what to expect. People could actually bring in their own booze and pot wasn’t even on those cats’ radar. So fortunately there was no paranoia and everything was cool. I didn’t feel that I had passed through some gates of perception though, I was just glad to have finally smoked pot!
Do you find that marijuana helps with your creative process or against? If so, in what ways?
There is an old writer’s adage that goes, “Write drunk, edit sober.” I don’t drink but I totally agree! I find that marijuana is very useful when I am drawing or just fucking around in my sketchbook, it helps me loosen up and have a good time so interesting and unexpected things appear. When I am working on a serious painting though I stay completely sober. I’ve ended up painting too many things shit brown instead of hot pink!
Do you think there is more of a stigma with the use of marijuana for a visual artist than that of a writer, actor, or musician? If so… Why?
Visual artists get a bad rap! People tend to think that painters lie around watching nude models and thinking convoluted thoughts about their next painting, occasionally getting up to make some brushstrokes then returning to the couch. This is probably because there’s not really that much motion involved in painting; in fact, I sit when I paint. Writers tend to get the same sort of treatment since they also sit on their asses most of the time. Actors and musicians move about so people expect them to be on meth or cocaine!
What is your favorite strain(s)? Do you prefer indicas or sativas?
I smoke indica to fall asleep and sativa to get busy!
You mentioned on your blog that art will never appeal to the masses until the elitist attitude no longer exists. Can you expand on this?
The elitist attitude found in so many contemporary art museums and galleries is the result of hyper-intellectual conceptual art that cannot be understood without some sort of explanation from the artists. This attitude assumes that the viewing audience doesn’t have the necessary intellect to figure it out on their own and must be spoon-fed clues to the work’s meaning. True populist art can be understood an appreciated by “the masses” with no background in art history or contemporary trends.
What would you say is one of your greater moments of your art career?
Painting the cover for the MGMT release “Congratulations”.
Do you have any regrets or any embarrassing moments that you would like to share?
Back in 1983 Andy Warhol had a show of his prints of Ingrid Bergman and I really wanted to go to the opening reception but it cost fifty bucks to get in. So I went to the gallery the afternoon of the show and tried to find a way to sneak in through a window or over a fence. Anyway, the gallery director came out and told me that I could get in free if I installed the show and hung the pieces on the wall. I knew what I was doing and did a good job, finished up, grabbed my gal and went to the opening. I was a pretty snotty punk at the time so I went up to Andy Warhol and said, “Hey Andy, I hung up all the paintings here and I wondered if you had seen any of them since your assistants do all your work for you.” He just shook my hand, looking completely past me and deadpanned, “Loved your movie.” He then turned to my girlfriend, took her by the arm and began to walk around the gallery with her, chatting nonstop. After about half an hour she came back and I asked her what they had talked about. “Goldfish” she said. I regret that I was an asshole when I spoke with Andy, it could have been me instead that talked with Warhol about goldfish!
Do you ever feel like you are going to go stark raving mad and run off into the night screaming?
Not so much anymore now that I smoke indica!
What inspired you to begin creating custom guitars?
Every now and again I want to paint on something other than another fucking stretched canvas. Guitars are cool items and I enjoy going to the stores and haggling for some cheap ass Fender copy. Then I get to walk down Hollywood Boulevard carrying an electric guitar and I just love to do that!
Do you have any cats? What are their names and personality(s) like?
Push Push is an ”odd eyed”, all white cat with blue and yellow eyes that is extremely cautious since there’s nothing around here to hide against. The other cat is called Bisquit and has already had an abortion. Finally there is (was) Lucy, an all black cat that hasn’t been seen in two weeks.
What do you like to do for fun?
I like to watch people do drugs that I never touch. Crackheads are interesting, especially when they start going through dogshit looking for that lost piece of rock, it makes me feel superior! I also write for fun and my novel The Sleep of Puss Titter will be out on K-Bomb Publishing in March 2011. I also like to head out to the desert that surrounds L.A. and look for ruins and old cars out in the middle of nowhere.
Do you find you are more attracted to art that is different than your own, or to art that is similar?
I prefer to look at art that is different than mine; I’ve been fucking around in the art world for so long that I’m sick of looking at the work of other artists in my genre. However, I do enjoy going to openings and spotting new talent. I’m mostly attracted to artwork that is unlike mine because it makes realize that everyone has different ways of thinking and behaving; it makes me more tolerant of other people’s madness.
In regards to your work, what is the greatest compliment you have ever received? What was the greatest insult?
The MGMT cover that I did received both complimentary and insulting responses. One chick wrote on a blog that the cover sucked and I’m “impotent from all the blow I did in the ‘80s”. Perez Hilton wrote that MGMT was on a “burn ride with Mush Mush” when they came up with the cover and “hopefully the artwork does not reflect the quality of their music!” Now that the album has been out for a while and the cover art is just part of the general reality, no one is crapping on it anymore. Fact is, I’m constantly getting emails and Facebook messages from people who absolutely love it. One kid even painted a huge mural of the cover on his bedroom wall, that’s about the biggest compliment I can think of!
Do you have any interesting stories about your early encounters with Ed Roth, Hot Rods, and Custom Car Culture you would like to share?
I bought my first Rat Fink out of a gumball machine when I was about six years old. Twenty years later, I met Roth at the “Great Western Exterminators” show at the Zero One Gallery and I told him that the first thing I ever bought was a Rat Fink, and I thought that was a pretty significant thing in a consumer society like America. He just looked at me and growled: Buy something now!”
Another time I was asked to paint flames on a junker car at a hot rod show. The car had been dropped off in the middle of a big field so the sun was beating down on it all day. I had been given water based paint to use and it actually steamed when I painted on the hot metal and dried in a couple of seconds. Ed Roth had set up his booth nearby in the shade and he had a constant stream of customers and people hanging out. I labored on the flames all day, watching as off in the distance I could see girls doing burlesque on stage and bands playing rockabilly. By the time I was through working on the car, the show was over and people were leaving. I was sitting there, basically hiding in the wheelwell from the sun, when Roth came over. He put his hand on my shoulder and told me that the flames were awesome and I was a great painter. That made it all worthwhile!
What do you think are some of the causes of artistic blocks, and what do you do to get through them?
Artistic blocks are basically constipation of the brain and a big spliff of sativa will get all that backed up shit moving!
Any upcoming shows? ( issue will be published March 1st, 2011 )
I will have a painting the “INLE” group show, curated by Greg “Craola” Simkins at Gallery 1988 on Melrose. The show opens March 12.
What got you started?
When I was young I had very bad teeth and was forced to wear an orthodontic headgear, a sort of strap that went around the back of my head and attached to a device that pushed my teeth toward the back of my mouth. I refused to go out in public wearing this medieval torture machine so I stayed in my room most of the time listening to Yes records and copying the artwork Roger Dean did for their covers.
What keeps you doing it?
Its far too late in the game for me to do anything else…
What’s your favorite thing to paint and why?
I’m sick of seeing people everywhere I go and the last thing I want to look at in a painting is more people. So I paint cats instead. I like to paint cats doing human stuff, like taking drugs, screwing and driving hot rods.
Who are some of the celebs who own your art (time for bragging rights here….)
Nicholas Cage owns several paintings, one of which he bought from Gisela Getty. She had been very happy with the painting until she was having a dinner party and a guest pointed out that I had painted several turds in the landscape. I once lived next door to Perry Farrell and I gave him a few drawings in trade for his personal toenail clippers. I did a small drawing on the ceiling of Timothy Leary’s bathroom while I was on LSD and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo bought a painting for fifty dollars. Long Gone John of Sympathy For The Record Industry owns one of my best paintings as does Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3. That particular painting is of one cat giving a blowjob to another cat and Sonic’s grandmother really liked it until she realized that the cats weren’t playing with balls of yarn but balls of a different sort. Andrew VanWyngarten and Ben Goldwasser of MGMT own a bunch of drawings that I did while we were all tripping on mushrooms in Malibu. I left most of my early work out on the sidewalk of Western Avenue in Los Angeles so I don’t know where most of that went, although I do occasionally see them show up on Ebay or someone contacts me who got an old painting at a yard sale or thrift shop.
Your music preferences?
I listen to bootleg recordings of Rolling Stones concerts but only the ones when Mick Taylor was with the band. I also listen to Heavy Dub and sixty cycle per second hums. I’ll listen to anything that’s good, I’m a bit of an audio slut and my ears will open up for just about anything… Speaking of which, I have a friend that postulates that humans once had ear lids, that’s why we have that little bit of cartilage in front of our ear holes.
Favorite sexual position
I like to have the spike of a stiletto high heel in my mouth and the gas pedal to the floor…
What’s on your bucket list ?
I don’t know what the fuck that means but I have a novel coming out in March 2011 on Kerosene Bomb Books (K-Bomb Publishing) and always have a bunch of art shows coming up. Can I go to the bathroom now?
Q: In life do you prefer to own cats or dogs?
I prefer to own cats since they use a litter box, unlike dogs that need to go out on “walks”, a process that should be more accurately termed “shits”! Nevertheless, I appreciate dogs and enjoy their idiotic enthusiasms.
Q: Being that you are a master of optical illusions what do you think of ours? What should we try for our next optical illusion? [check out our illusion (masthead) here: pressmagazine.tumblr.com]
That must be one hell of an illusion ‘cause I can’t see it! Is it an avatar that looks like a monkey! or a hot chick? I told you, I can’t see it! Moving optical illusions are the next frontier!
Q: Who is your favorite dub artist to listen to while you paint?
I mostly listen to different online stations so the mixes are always different. These days I have been listening to Sir Coxson Sound, Twilight Circus, BLOOD, Alien Dread, Yabby You, Sound Ministry, Mentor Kolectiv, Dublab, just a whole mess of weird stuff. There are a few strange stations that play “Ethnodub”, a hybrid dub from India and other off beat places featuring Jahtari Riddum Force, ah Seal, Zomby, Jah Batta & Bullwackies All Stars, Ustad Sultan Khan & Sunidhi Ch, Kid Gusto, Sanchez Dub and Phat Boy Singh.
Q: You use photoshop to manipulate your sketches before you paint them. Once you finish your process in photoshop how do you transfer that image onto your canvass? Are you working with Photoshop CS 5?
First off I just wanna say that I seldom try out color combinations on the computer, I prefer to work with “real” colors in “real” light. Anyway, I print out the line drawing then project it onto the canvas with a large opaque projector. I use Photoshop CS5 or CS2 depending on what computer I’m using.
Q: How do you get your paints to be so vibrantly colored? What company do you buy acrylic paints from the most?
I once worked as a color mixer and production painter for a company that made hand painted fabric for furniture. I had unlimited amounts of paint to use so I would often mix together all kinds of weird color combinations to see what would happen. I learned a lot about color and ways to make them appear really bright. One trick that I still use is to take the complimentary color of something in the foreground and mix it into the background. The human eye is much more color sensitive than people realize.
I use Nova Color acrylic paints; they are sold out of their factory here in Los Angeles. I like to use the “liquid” colors and not paint out of a tube. It’s much easier to blend paint if it’s already nice and smooth
Q: On your paintings you can never see the brushstrokes, how do you go about getting that super smooth look?
When I am modeling an object I generally mix up at least three values of its color so I have the light, medium and dark tones ready to go. I make sure that they are all the same consistency and then strain them through a window screen to get out any lumps. I lay the colors down by each other in the correct order and then blend them together using either a fan brush or a splayed, fucked up round; I never use flats.
Q: Generally artists have prints and originals available for sale on their website but you have a commemorative medal, please explain?
I feel that making a painting is like a mounting a military campaign and there are strategies that must be worked out in advance. Continuing with this analogy, I believe that the viewers of the painting also deserve an award for allowing my aesthetic to subvert their own. Plus, I collect WW2 German Iron Crosses and I just wanted to design my own medal; anyway, I like to have offbeat items for sale. Toys are all right but I think picture disk records are better because they actually have a use.
Q: What kept you motivated to get your pieces into galleries in the early years when it was a struggle to get galleries to consider you?
In the early 80s I was one of the few artists doing paintings that eschewed the human figure in favor of cartoon characters and I really felt I was doing something that would measurably improve the world if it were broadcast to a larger audience. Also, I was too young and dumb and full of cum to realize that the gallery directors thought that my work was garbage. One guy told me that he would give me a show in exchange for a blowjob; I never showed there!
Q: Do you actually do a vast amount of psychedelic drugs or is that all mythology?
I did “vast” quantities of psychedelics when I was young and still living in Texas; in all those miles and miles of Texas it was easy to find some beautiful spot where no one would disrupt the trip. The last time I took mushrooms was a year ago in Joshua Tree but I still like to regularly experience DMT and occasionally Ecstasy.
Q: Obviously art school is a debt-creating-machine that you luckily dropped out of and survived, but how did you teach yourself to paint to begin with? Is being a great painter something that you can learn?
I learned a lot of painting techniques when I worked as a fabric painter for an interior design company. Although the results were mostly for decorative effects, I eventually figured out ways to apply the methods to a representational end. Being a painter requires conceptual as well as technical expertise and I’m not sure that one can develop those disciplines in a vacuum. If one wants to foreswear the rigors of an academic environment the best replacement for that is having a group of friends that are willing to share information and mess around together. There are things that have to be learned and cannot appear from instinct alone.
Q: What book are you currently reading?
Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges, The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell and Underworld by Don Delillo
Q: Will you ever introduce a dog into one of your pieces to chase the cat away?
I did a painting of a friend’s dog for a “pet art” show. She brought the pooch to the opening reception and it took a crap on the floor right in front of my painting. The critic has spoken!
Kirsten Anderson states in the introduction to the book ‘Pop-Surrealism’: “I was going to originally call it ‘Lowbrow‘ but several key artists in the book didn’t want to be in a book called that”. Were you one of the artists who were uncomfortable with the term? What are your thoughts on its use with regards to your work and to others’? As a term which has risen from the Lowbrow movement, what is your take on ‘Pop-Surrealism’?
My only complaint with the term “Lowbrow” is that it defines the art in opposition to “Highbrow” art and I feel that any descriptive phrase for an art movement should be able to stand alone and not require a reference to any other art movement. So I obviously don’t approve 100% of the term “Pop Surrealism” for my work either. To me “Pop” refers to popular culture and I personally don’t make DIRECT references to it. “Surrealism” is okay with me but I hate art phrases that just add a qualifier like neo- or post- and pretend that there’s something new going on. The English language has enough words in it that an entirely new term can be reached.
There was quite a bit of warring going on during the early stages of this art movement as to what it should be called. Lowbrow was finally chosen but not after many other names had been refused. I mention this only to indicate that it was a long and drawn out process to reach the term “Lowbrow” and not a flippant choice.
What term (if any) would you use ideally to define your work?
Do you think terms for art are important?
Art terms are important because they are a sort of shorthand that get used to simplify discussion, otherwise one would have to describe the work repeatedly.
‘Lowbrow’ art has already evolved with the times; with the appropriation of newer and varying countercultural and pop-cultural aesthetics. Do you think the movement will continue to evolve, putting lowbrow on the fine art map? Where do you see ‘lowbrow’ art in the future?
Lowbrow Art was originally made up of may subgenres such as Graffiti and Surfer Art. Graffiti in particular is no longer a part of Lowbrow and has become its own freestanding “movement”. So in a sense I believe that true Lowbrow art is actually going to devolve as more of its constituent parts mature. Still, there will be artists who choose the Lowbrow aesthetic and the ranks will swell.
Unfortunately Lowbrow is an art movement that began before the rise of computer graphics and the internet so I am afraid that it will be seen in a more historical light and be noted more for what it led to than what it was.
What are your feelings about the predominance of abstract, conceptual and minimalist art over representational art in the higher echelons of the art world?
There are many things that are best experienced in the “real world” and not the watered down version one sees in art museums. I find a collection of say, lost dog posters on telephone poles far more interesting than the same things presented in a book or on the white walls of a gallery or museum. So I don’t blanket condemn the theories behind conceptual and minimalist art, I just condemn the art! Abstract art is a whole different thing, many ideas can be expressed with that aesthetic that cannot be said otherwise; I do however shit on decorative abstract art which is just so much wallpaper.
Could you list for me the materials you use to create your art?
Generally, I use acrylic paint on canvas stretched over a panel made of thin plywood nailed to the stretcher bars. This lets me really lean against the painting while working, or use violent techniques like throwing paint at it! If I am working on a car, surfboard or a “found canvas” from a thrift store I use sign painter’s enamel.
Do you have a routine when creating?
I don’t have a routine so much as a process. I paint pretty much the way reality is constructed, working on the furthest background first and making my way to the object in the foreground. I try to start work by 9 in the morning and go until 5 or 6 in the evening.
Please tell me about you, be descriptive…
I was born on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean in 1959 and washed up in Los Angeles California in 1980 and never left. I drive a 1957 Chevy and have five cats that tell me what to paint. I have been shot at twice and survived a near death experience after being hit by a car; these events have made me greatly appreciate being alive. I have a daughter named Lorraine who is not an artist!
What inspires you?
Objects and actions that are out of the ordinary; I find the beauty in both an abandoned rusty car in a field and a Rembrandt painting. I am often inspired by descriptive prose in literature or poetry and The Theatre of Cruelty.
Who inspires you?
I am in awe of people who have survived traumatic events and yet somehow maintained their equanimity. Animal behavior fascinates me, and I enjoy watching cats in the garden.
After High School I got through two years of art school then took employment as a production painter for a textile design company.
Heavy Dub and bird calls
If you had Oprah’s money, what would you do with it?
Give it back to Oprah!
Q: What are some of your favorite cartoons?
I’ve always enjoyed Warner Bros. cartoons since the animal characters have distinct human personalities and that is a major component of my own artwork. Fleischer Studios have mostly human characters but there is a very surreal edge to what’s going on and I’m all for that. Felix the Cat from Pat Sullivan’s Studios is my all time fave since the main character is a cat and there’s some pretty great cinematographic gags going on. Basically I like the way that the early cartoonists were exploring the absurdities of the medium before regular live action films. Buster Keaton did some pretty cartoony things but only Felix could really walk on air.
I like just about every show on Adult Swim on cartoon network; I’m glad that cartoons have reached the point where there’s no pretension that they’re for children. One can argue that The Simpsons and The Flintstones were made for adults, but only if they were watching the cartoons with their kids. Now of course, none of that matters.
Q: Violence (and, to a lesser extent, substance abuse) was an integral component of classic cartoons by Warner Bros. and a number of other studios. Do you think audiences today remember how outrageous those classic shorts really were?
Violence is universal and perpetual; everyone can relate to the pain of hitting one’s thumb with a hammer or the joy of hitting someone in the face who really deserves it. So depicting that kind of aggression is a way to get the viewers to feel that something “real” is going on. That sort of coercion was necessary when there were still audience members who had never seen motion pictures before. Now of course, the moving image is just another daily occurrence and nothing special.
Cartoon drug abuse gives those in the know a chance to smirk knowingly while the virgins get a chance to anticipate what it’s like. I wouldn’t say that the TV cartoon version of Alice in Wonderland made me smoke opium but it did sort of prepare me for what to expect!
Unless one looks at that sort of thing historically, it all seems quaint and vaguely embarrassing.
Q: A lot of your work brings a new layer of shock value to cartoon imagery. Since violence, potent drinks and smoking were already part of the classic cartoon landscape; the exploration of cartoon sexuality must have been an important frontier, right?
One doesn’t have to look very closely to realize that 99% of the animal cartoon characters don’t have any sort of genitalia at all. So, one has these characters with no sexual personae running around, occasionally getting in drag if the dramatic situation demands it, and even having girlfriends or boyfriends. But there’s no sex; where the babies and young come from is never explained.
I found that when I gave select character genitals (even if they were hidden to the viewer and were only seen by my mind’s eye) their sexuality became their main characteristic. The situation was very much like adolescence, as soon as the characters became aware of what that thing between their legs was really for, well using it became the motivation for just about everything.
So yes, giving these characters a sexual persona definitely busted through a major frontier. I can’t take any credit for that of course, R. Crumb had Fritz the Cat fucking and sucking years ago.
Q: Of all the classic cartoon characters, who do you, think is the most raunchy when the cameras stop rolling.
Porky Pig was given a pornstar name way before most people even knew what “porking” was. Now of course the double meaning of his name is part of his Pop Culture pedigree.
Q: What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve ever seen a cartoon character do?
Years ago I went to a screening of cartoons that featured Bugs Bunny getting in drag or just acting like a complete queen. That wasn’t particularly outrageous to me but a number of people got pissed off that Bugs had been outed by the curator.
There is a whole canon of pornographic cartoons that are really strange. I recall one that had a ship full of nude women fighting off an incoming horde of cat pirates; naturally they all ended up fucking. There are of course many pornographic anime cartoons with fully human characters but at that point one might as well watch live action porno. I think its weird that along with all the fetish, bukkake and S&M porno one can find anime porn where people dress up as cartoon characters, even to the point where they’re wearing masks with those big anime eyes. How anyone can maintain a hard-on while looking at that is a mystery to me…
Q: Can you discuss the challenges of presenting animation-style imagery as fine art?
In 1961 Warhol paid homage to the cartoon character Nancy in his piece “Nancy” and in the 1970s Joe Brainard made a series of pieces based the same character. Later on, Ronnie Cutrone threw Woody Woodpecker up against an American flag, so presenting cartoon characters as fine art has been acceptable for a while. What I did differently was present characters of my own design instead of patented characters that were already known to the viewers. This left people with no base of previous information and they had to take my unknown world in its entirety. It was quite difficult back in the 80s to get any of the galleries to take my work seriously; it was Post Pop Punk and exactly what they did not want to see. As Low Brow Art progressed more artists began using cartoon characters and imagery in their work so I wasn’t the lone voice anymore. And once Graffiti Art hit the galleries, cartoon characters became completely acceptable.
Q: Your characters feel both original and familiar. How did you go about visualizing your own cartoon world while keeping it familiar?
The basic form of my characters is somewhat archaic since I prefer to make reference to past culture more than contemporary trends. Stylistically though I want the image to be as “now and wow” as possible, so I have to couch these vaguely familiar figures in my own modern aesthetic vernacular.
Oh yeah, I draw stoned and paint sober…
Q: Lowbrow art has evolved quite a bit since the 1990s, and I know you’ve talked in other interviews about how the art scene has changed, but how has your own art changed over the past decade?
One of the basic characteristics of Low Brow Art is that there’s an obvious narrative of some sort going on, even if it isn’t always a logical story. In my early work I tried very diligently to make sure there was a plot unfolding that the viewer could read. Now I don’t really care that much about depicting an understandable event; I’m much more into the form of the characters.
The reason I feel this way is that I’ve experienced some very strong and wonderful hallucinations after smoking DMT. In my newest work I’m trying to replicate the overwhelming entirety of those peculiarly challenging visions. So there’s a psychedelic edge to the world I depict and the characters in it that wasn’t there a decade ago.
I’ve also been influenced by my correspondence with members of the newest generation of artists, not stylistically, but more in terms of my ability to keep up with the contemporary zeitgeist. Artists like Jason Atomic in the UK have kept me from stagnating in my own aesthetic cave.
Q: A ghost named Curly from a long-gone gallery came to me in my sleep and told me to ask how you’re doing. So… how are you doing?
Hi Curly. I’m doing alright! We never did find where you hid that 600 dollars… I hope that you’re one of the few that got to take it with you.
How did you get in touch with the boys from MGMT? Did Sonic Boom have anything to do with it?
I met the Ben and Andrew after Sonic Boom brought them over to my house before a Spectrum show at club here in LA. I have a collection of WW2 German gear as well as a bunch of Low Brow and Hot Rod stuff so they wandered around my house checking it all out. They’re much younger than me so their Pop Culture background is completely different than mine and they had plenty of questions about it all. Part of the reason that we got along so well is that even though they are musicians and I am an artist, we both want to give contemporary culture a good kick in the ass and wake it up.
I met the other band members Matt, James and Will when MGMT was recording “Congratulations” at a mansion in Malibu. We would sit around to listen to the day’s recordings and I would draw on scrap pieces of paper while they discussed the tunes. When I left to drive back to Hollywood I just left the drawings there so they would have something to look at. It was all very casual. Being in a situation where a band is recording entails a lot of time sitting around doing nothing; then there are moments of extreme activity and madness.
On one of my visits I took my friend Victor Balogh from the band The Charmkin Rebellion. He was particularly interested in MGMT’s recording setup since it was all going down in a house and not a studio. Instruments and equipment were strewn all over the house so it was like a battlefield in there!
Did the band give you carte blanche, or did they have some special requests?
I communicated mostly with Andrew and the art director from Sony, Josh Cheuse. As with most projects like this the original idea becomes a starting point, so after Andrew’s concept got a nice dose of my distortion, the image began to declare its own intentions. The initial idea was to have the cover look like a lottery ticket but after a few sketches that idea got shitcanned. The idea to make surfing the main narrative came about early on but it was a good three weeks before I got the preparatory drawings to the point that I could start on the actual painting. Paintings are not at all like computer files; once something is done it can’t be changed easily. I had to emphasize very strongly that I did not want to have to constantly rework the painting.
Did they play you some songs of the new album and if so, what do you think of it? Could you compare MGMT with another band?
The music that I heard up there in Malibu was mostly jams that they had recorded earlier that day; I never got to hear any complete songs. That may have just been their method, recording jams and then developing them into songs later. Anyway, the jams I heard were brilliant, really great stuff; it was obvious that they were having a good time and enjoying themselves. I never got the sense that it was drudgery for them.
I would compare “Congratulations” to Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd. But there’s really nothing quite like the MGMT sound and soft fury…
What is it in your work that attracts musicians, you think?
Ha! I’m actually more attracted to musicians than they are to me! I admire a great musician more than a great painter because I know what it takes to make a painting, but how a great song comes about is a mystery to me. Still, I’ve had more than one musician tell me that it must be great to be a painter because I get to work alone and don’t have to put up with the personality disorders of a bunch of other people to get anything done. Even graffiti crews seem to get along better than some bands!
Not all musicians want to be represented by an illustration, a lot of bands want a photograph of them to be the image that identifies them; it’s an ego trip, ya know? It’s actually a major compliment for me to be chosen by a group to make a painting that matches up to their “message” and identity. Until a CD gets put in the changer or a record makes it to a turntable the only thing that’s happening is the cover art. In a way the cover art of an album or CD is an overture to the music.
Does music inspire your drawings/paintings? Or what else inspires your work?
Music helps me keep working in the studio; there’s a lot of crazy thoughts going on in my head while I paint so its good to be able to drown them out with music. I listen to heavy Dub a lot since the repetitive nature of the music sort of suspends the passage of time. I also listen to bootleg recordings of The Rolling Stones from the time that Mick Taylor played with them, 1969-1975. After listening to a particular show repeatedly I get to know all the crowd noises and I can sort of anticipate certain shrieks and screams from the audience. Believe it or not, that helps pass the time; I can think “Okay here’s comes the chick yelling for Paint It Black… she yelled it… now its time for Keith Richards to nod out… there, he missed the intro…”
It’s impossible to say where inspiration comes from since it can just drop in unannounced! For example, while working on the cover for “Congratulations” Andrew, Josh and I were emailing like mad and working on ideas but that “click, its right” moment hadn’t occurred. I finally went out, had some coffee and walked the dog; when I came back to the studio I started a completely new idea and that’s the one that ended up pleasing everyone.
How do you feel about the term ‘Low brow’? What does it mean for you?
My only complaint about the term” Low Brow” is that it indicates the work as being in conscious opposition to “High Brow” art. I think that Low Brow Art would have happened whether or not the artists had an active dislike for Abstract Art, Opera or Still Life Painting.
Low Brow art uses sources of information that are not sanctioned by the Fine Art world. Surf, skate and Rock ‘n Roll culture are either actively despised by the Fine Art Mafia or they are diluted and ridiculed. Low Brow art accepts those subcultures and holds them to be as important as Classical Hellenic sculpture.
I have many Low Brow friends who want to storm the museums and burn all the abstract art. I enjoy seeing that kind of work; it doesn’t bother me that it exists.
You have a Dutch mother, do you still speak any Dutch or have any links with the Netherlands?
I have been travelling to Holland ever since I was a kid so I have a great fondness for that country. I’m also impressed with the tolerance that the Dutch have for vice and their willingness to make money from that.
I have shown at Galerie RudolfV in Amsterdam and my exhibition was very well received. The Dutch seem to have a genetic predisposition to cartoon art and there are some amazing Low Brow artists in the Netherlands like Peter Pontiac and Joost Swarte.
What the nicest thing anyone (famous) has ever said about your work?
The funniest thing anyone ever said came from Gisela Getty. She bought a painting that I did of a cat having a freak out in a parking lot. I had painted a big dog turd in the foreground of the painting and it seemed pretty obvious to me what it was. Well, about a week after Gisela took it home, she called me and said that she had a dinner party and about halfway through someone at the table mentioned the dog shit. Anyway, she was absolutely mortified so she called me and asked if I would paint it out; I said that I wouldn’t. She ended up selling the painting to Nic Cage who apparently didn’t care about that.
Lowbrow art-which embraces and celebrates hot rod, surf and cartoon iconography so uniquely Southern Californian-hit the public full force when Robert Williams’ pop Bosch painting Appetite for Destruction was slated to be the cover art for the eponymous Guns N’ Roses album. Hue and cries, strum und drang exploded from concerned feminists and parents over the artwork’s themes of sex, drugs and decadence. Condemned as corrupt art-shades of Weimar Republic-the painting became the inner sleeve lining.
The term “Lowbrow”-meant as a commentary on the more idealistic, romanticized Highbrow art movements–comes from the title of Williams’ first book The Lowbrow Art of Robert Williams. While Williams never meant for the term to define or crystallize a burgeoning movement, it stuck as a handy term to explain the emerging art of Koop, The Pizz, Raymond Pettibone, Shag, Mark Ryden, Anthony Ausgang and others.
Over the past decades Lowbrow has morphed-or split depending on the school of thought-into Pop Surrealism. Popular iconography transposes into multi-layered symbols which are at once easily accessible yet fraught with layers of meaning that hinge on the individual’s ability to respond, react and parse. Or not.
There a fascination with the underground river of America culture, dark obsessions and childhood pleasures, combining these with bold verve and at time ironic commentary. In a complex and sardonic twist Lowbrow art has become very collectible and is now considered high art, despite its “low” themes.
Anthony Ausgang, whose vibrant, playful cartoon cats inhabit a universe of warping walls, often facing impending disaster, surfs now to the top of mainstream recognition with his album cover art for the Grammy award winning, multi-platinum band MGMT’s sophomore release Congratulations. Featuring a two headed cartoony creature frantically escaping a wave that takes the form of giant, oddly melancholy fanged feline, the cover-perhaps a commentary on fame-caused some strong reactions from fans. (It was released exclusively to BoingBoing before music media got a look-a very populist statement). Sample comments for websites include:
“Fuck this half-ironic-80s/hipster/american apparel/adam ant bullsh*t. Let’s try a little sincerity for God’s sake.”
“I remember back in the day when it was cool to hate things that were popular. But then hating popular things became too popular to do that. So I hate it.”
“I’m not too impressed by this album cover, I have a feeling their new record is going to suck.”
“It probably grows on you like everything else MGMT makes. Unexpected, but that was just what I was expecting. I bet it fits the album or they probably drew it on an acid trip. They are the best new band. There new live songs that I’ve heard sound really good.”
Mapplethorpe photographed Patti Smith for Horses, Warhol famously created the Velvet Underground’s banana, so the crossover of art and music is nothing new. But that this cover is causing fans such complex distress, perhaps worrying them that their beloved musicians have changed direction shows the power of an image to affect perception. Which is should always be art’s end, and certainly what Lowbrow and Pop Surrealism have achieved over the past three decades.
In hipster history, the 1990s saw a resurgence in kitschy countercultural pastimes like swing dancing, tattoo culture, and tiki/retro lounge. At the same time, an underground art movement associated with those outre interests and born in Southern California was also catapulted into view. Fueled by the Internet, a worldwide audience emerged for art that could have otherwise stayed firmly ensconced in the murky shadows of the art world and underground culture. This new art scene was tongue-in-cheekily referred to as “Lowbrow,” and it championed a sense of working class ethics and the fetishizing of nostalgia and countercultural imagery in a cartoony, fun manner. Anthony Ausgang is celebrated as a pioneer of Lowbrow. His tripped-out, surrealistic narratives feature cartoon characters in exaggeratedly provocative situations. Today on Boing Boing, Ausgang debuts his newest painting, an album cover for psych-rock duo MGMT’s new record Congratulations, to be released on April 13 on Columbia. Ausgang’s next solo show is in November at Santa Monica’s CoproGallery. Last weekend, I spoke with Ausgang about Lowbrow, Pop Surrealism, and the MGMT connection.
Anderson: You are one of the original “Lowbrow” guys and have watched the whole arc of this movement. What are your thoughts on how the scene has evolved?
Ausgang: Lowbrow Art was originally based on a wide assortment of aesthetic insurgencies, like the surf and hotrod subculture. Many of those cultural influences are now outdated and have been replaced by more recent stimulations. For example, the major influence that Saturday morning cartoons had on Lowbrow has been replaced by the new youth culture’s video and computer games. There were also certain orphaned subcultures that were initially attracted to Lowbrow as a good place to enter the Fine Art world. As time passed some of these subcultures, like Graffiti, moved away from the Lowbrow and became their own art movements.
You were just in Rome for a big Pop Surrealist exhibition called “Apocalypse Wow.” What was your impression of the art scene there?
The Pop Surrealism art scene in Rome was firmly based on the Graffiti aesthetic and there was plenty of that in the streets. The cars of the subway trains were almost all completely bombed with huge pieces and even Roman ruins had been hit up. I asked one “aerosol artist” if he had a felt any hesitation the first time he wrote on a wall that was 2500 years old. He said that the ruins had been there over 2000 years and his spray paint would only be there for about 70 so he didn’t feel any remorse. But most interesting thing I heard was from BO 130 who said that most kids were sick of the adoration of ancient ruins and wanted to see new, contemporary art.
Are there any new artists or scene that’s currently inspiring you?
Lowbrow and Pop Surrealism are art movements firmly based on recognizable imagery and comprehendible narratives. I think that certain aspects of abstract art are going to begin influencing this dogma and there will be a new type of aesthetic brinksmanship as artists skirt the edge between abstract and representational art.
How did you get hooked up with MGMT?
I met Andrew and Ben from MGMT through the experimental musician Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3 and Spectrum, for whom I had done album cover art in the past. MGMT was recording “Congratulations” at a mansion in Malibu so I went there a couple of times to hang out and watch the process unfold. Not being a musician, I was occasionally left to my own devices so I would sit around and draw on pieces of paper then leave them there when I went home. I got along well with the band and gave them copies of my book, Vacation from Reality. Later, Josh Cheuse, the art director from Sony, contacted me once the recording was finished. The most important thing was that MGMT wanted the “look” of my style of painting and gave me only a few points that I had to hit. Naturally the process took some time, but they were always cool with the criticisms. A lot of people who commission a painting only know what they don’t want; fortunately, MGMT knew what they wanted and let me do it my way.
I have read that you met MGMT when they recorded with your friend Sonic Boom. What did you think about the music? Had you heard it before and what came to your mind while listening to it? Any obvious influences, you think? Do have any fun story to tell from when you met them there in Malibu?
When I was in Malibu we would listen to what the band had recorded that day or night. The music that I heard was mostly recordings of the band jamming and fucking around, I got the impression that was how they “found’ their songs, just having a good time together. I didn’t get the impression that they were sitting down and working on individual songs at that time, I’m sure that came later. What I heard up in Malibu was entirely different than Oracular Spectacular. The obvious influences were that they were under the influence…
What, do you think, lies behind that MGMT have become so huge as they are today? Do you have any theory more than that they are writing great pop tunes?
A lot of contemporary pop music is more about beats than melody. MGMT is writing songs with melodies and lots of changes. People are becoming more interested in good songwriting and meaningful lyrics than just rhyming raps over bonus beats. Their lyrics reflect their youth and their audience relates to that very strongly.
You are often considered to be a lowbrow artist. What are you thoughts on that? Isn’t it a bit irritating to always seem like that or don’t you care?
I have always painted whatever I wanted to, I never tried to fit in with any crew or movement. At a certain point though there were enough of us doing similar work that the art critics and art dealers had to figure out how to legitimize and market our work. At that point the term “Low Brow” came into being and I didn’t have any problems with it. I think that an artist who is just starting out now might not appreciate being called Low Brow because it is the art movement of a previous generation.
Do you think that MGMT got in touch with you because they see themselves and their music as lowbrow music? That they are deadly serious about what they do but that it is deadly serious FUN. Do you feel like there are any similarities between you and them?
MGMT didn’t give a shit about my being Low Brow or No Brow or any of that; they just liked my imagery and the way I paint. Sometimes a band will choose an already existing painting of mine but in this case I had to start with their idea. Andrew already had a pretty good idea about what he wanted by the time they contacted me to do the cover. I basically get paid to subvert my wishes and follow orders from the band and their art director at Sony, Josh Cheuse. I think that I was chosen to do the cover because MGMT, Sonic Boom and myself all got along with no psychotic ego problems!
If the cover artwork on an album or CD is anything other than a photo of the band, it should represent the band in some oblique way. I think that MGMT felt that my psychedelic take on the world was similar to theirs.
How come that you’ve been so into cartoons? Is there any story behind it?
My family moved to the USA from Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean and American culture was pretty different to what we were used to. Television cartoons were part of that culture shock and they made a big impression on me. Later on I began to look at single panel cartoons in magazines and I realized that a single independent cartoon image could get a lot of information across. At least more than a painting, most of which seemed to be pretty vague bout what was being expressed. Hardly anyone was doing cartoon-based artwork at the time but now; well it’s all over the place.
Have you felt like that a lot of people now after the MGMT cover art are discovering your other art? How does it work in the art business? Will this give you a higher value, you think, or is it more like the opposite though there might not be that much value in pop culture? I’m just curious.
A lot of people are going to see my work now that ordinarily wouldn’t have had it cross their radar. Some percentage of those people will dig deeper and visit my website to find out about my previous work but most of them will be content with that one MGMT cover image; it’s all about MGMT after all, and not me. The Fine Art world tends to look down on Commercial Art so I don’t think that this is going to help me with any galleries. That’s okay with me; I’d rather do a CD or album cover than show in a gallery anyway!
Your art is really distinctive… how do you describe it? I’ve seen the term ‘Lowbrow’ bandied about… sounds a little insulting, but do you consider yourself a part of that movement?
I’m one of the original lords of lowbrow so that term doesn’t bother me. My paintings are surreal on the psychedelic side, slightly abstract. I’m exploring the gray area between representational and abstract art and it’s a fertile minefield. I try to make my cartoon cat characters look like they are undergoing several processes at once. The age of a single image depicting a single act is over. I’m taking advantage of that with low down cats and trashy animals.
Is there anything digital about your art or is it all hand drawn?
I start with a pencil drawing then I scan it in to the computer and manipulate it with Adobe Photoshop. There are certain ways of altering an image that can only be done after careful psychic evaluations, like a sumi-e painting where there is a lot of consideration before an artistic act. With computers the ghost in the machine starts fucking with the image; the abstractions are unimaginable and can only come from the computer.
Are you influenced by any music-related imagery, whether album sleeves, posters etc? (The MGMT sleeve reminds me a bit of Flamin’ Groovies Supersnazz sleeve)
I was definitely influenced by the posters Rick Griffin and Stanley Mouse made for different San Francisco bands and shows in the ‘60s. When I was a teenager I really liked the artwork that Roger Dean did for the Prog-Rock band Yes; it was good and spacey. I later discarded that aesthetic in favor of punk rock and the collage work of Jamie Reid and his work for the Sex Pistols. Then I sorta got mixed in the Low Brow stew with poster artists like Frank Kozik and Coop. I always admired both of them and their ability to constantly come up with psychotic images that somehow fit the bands they were promoting.
You’ve done a Spectrum album cover before. Is that how you hooked up with MGMT? Are you good friends with Sonic Boom?
Yeah, Sonic and I are good friends and he owns several of my paintings. He owns one of a cat giving another cat a blowjob and he used to have it in his dining room. One day an ancient relative of his came over for tea and she remarked on how much fun the cats were having, playing with each other. About halfway through the tea she realized what was really going on and she kept gasping out loud periodically until tea was over.
Have you done any other album covers beyond Spectrum and MGMT?
My artwork was used by the Warlocks, Froxel, Satan’s Cheerleaders, Buckshot LeFonque, David Lee Roth, and Apollo 440 amongst others. Ukawa Naohiro remixed some of my paintings for a series of Boredoms releases; it was interesting to see how another artist transformed my images.
Were you familiar with MGMT’s work before you met them? What did you think of it?
After I met them I bought Oracular Spectacular then drove out to Joshua Tree, ate a bunch of mushrooms and let it be the soundtrack to my life for a while.
I read that you spent time with them in the studio. What was that like? Can you describe the scene? Did they take an interest in your art at the time? Did you get on well with them?
Andrew, Ben and Sonic came over to my house in Hollywood before a Spectrum show at The Echo; everyone felt good and I was invited to visit them in Malibu. They were recording in a mansion there and all the gear was strewn throughout the place so it was definitely a scene of controlled chaos. While we were hanging out I drew on various piece of paper and just left them scattered around. Later on I gave them copies of my book Vacation from Reality.
What do you make of the album? Is there anything in particular about its sound that inspired the sleeve image?
I started on the cover without hearing any of the new songs so I had to guide myself by my impressions of the band as people.
What other (non-musical) influences fed into the image? Hot rod culture? Saturday morning cartoons?
Surf Culture and it’s gremmies, hodads and betties, Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, Escapist Culture, exploding marmalade, 24 hour cartoons, bukkake, dead man’s art and heavy, heavy dub.
What was the brief the band gave you? Did the surfing theme come from Andrew’s new obsession with the sport? Was it something he suggested? What changes, if any, did the band request?
The original idea was that the cover would be based on a lottery ticket since part of the cover is printed on “scratch off” material. I was using sections of paintings I had already done and since Andrew has a good graphic sense, he promoted various ideas that directed the elements and their composition. Although the first version looked good, it just wasn’t hitting it. After several versions I shitcanned everything and started with the catwave. I naturally had to take art direction from Andrew and Ben but that was no problem since we had a good dialogue. The cover became a good fusion of their vision and my ability to pin that down.
Would you like to do more album covers in the future? If so, which band or artist would you most like to work with?
For the last half of the 20th century Low Brow Art was ancillary to Rock and Roll and, since no galleries would touch illustrative work, Low Brow was dependent on album covers for its exposure. I am always willing to consider doing album covers because more people are going to see that then are gonna go to an art gallery.
I feel that the years Mick Taylor was the lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones (1969-1975) were their best years. I’d love to do a cover for anything he releases. I would also love to work with Genesis P-Orridge but she’s a “one man” show so I doubt that will happen. I can’t really say I’m dying to work with anyone in particular; its better when they’re dying to work with me!
Are you excited about your artwork finding its way into homes around the world? Are you surprised by the buzz around the sleeve?
Oh yeah, fully stoked on that! It’s a great feeling to know that I’ve managed to subvert my way into so many retinas. I am VERY surprised by the buzz on the sleeve; my life is made up of a series of these images so I take my “vision” for granted. Its really gratifying to be the subject of so much “controversy” since it means that people are looking at the art and not just flipping by it.
You have been connected to both so-called high art as well as always being true to the Low Brow movement. In which environment do you feel most comfortable?
Neither, I prefer the company of musicians to visual artists. For me there is still a mystery in how a group of people can create an organized sound that is able to transfix a crowd. I don’t feel that sort of wonder at visual art anymore, I’ve seen and learned too much. There is a lot of meaningless visual art out there that somehow gets touted as being important contributions to contemporary culture; in reality it’s just weak masturbation.
The most amazing thing about Low Brow Art is that it has gotten contemporary youth culture to include painting in its list of things that are crucial and worth exploring. Jamie Reid’s artwork for the Sex Pistols was pretty radical but it didn’t make kids want to become artists, they still wanted to form bands!
In the ”autobiopsy” on your website it says you are ”able to see the beauty in both a Rembrandt and a rat rod”. In which do you find the most inspiration? And what/who else inspires you?
I am inspired equally by high and low art; the fact that an object is in a museum doesn’t make me consider it any differently than a weird thing in a street gutter. A lot of people need a sanctioned arena in which to look at non-utilitarian items, that way they can feel okay about contemplating a single-color canvas or empty picture frame.
There are a lot of people who let artists do their exploring for them; its much easier for them to let someone go out and haul a weird object back to the art gallery than go out and find it for themselves. I find my inspiration in the street.
Do you play a lot of computer games? And have a weird thing for cats? Or does it just seem that way?
I quit playing computer games after I got all the way through Sonic the Hedgehog 3. At that point I realized I would never get anything concrete done in the real world if I gave in to the virtual one touted by computer games. But I still go down to the local arcade and watch kids play the games there; that way I can see what happens without putting in all the time to do it myself!
Other than calling their pet’s name and a few commands, most humans have lifelong non-verbal relationships with their pets; even so, people tend to consider their pets only slightly less than human. In my paintings I prefer to use animals for this reason; also, I’m tired of the use of the human figure in art. I chose cats because their history has paralleled that of human race for thousands of years; they have suffered alongside of us and also because of us. So cats make pretty good replacements for humans in figurative art. Dogs are cool but will eat their own shit and vomit and that is fucked up.
Why do you think MGMT chose you to do the cover art for their new album?
I was initially introduced to Andrew and Ben by Sonic Boom who produced and recorded “Congratulations”. Sonic owns a couple of my paintings and used them as cover art on several E.A.R releases. They came over to my house and I showed them some paintings and gave them my book Vacation from Reality.
Andrew likes cats so right there I was doing something he understood! But more important was the fact that I got along with the band and didn’t put on any pressure to get something out of them; at their level of fame I think it’s not easy for them to find people who can just chill out and act naturally around them. I went up a few times to the mansion in Malibu where they were recording and did drawings on some pieces of paper and pizza boxes that were just scattered around. I forgot about them completely until Josh Cheuse, the art director at Sony, sent me scans of them and said that he wanted some similar things. I guess the fact that I had hung out with MGMT in Malibu sort of involved me in a very tiny way in the whole process that led to “Congratulations”.
Do you have any favourite tracks from ”Congratulations”?
I like them all but my fave is Song for Dan Treacy because it made me find out more about him. Not many songs send me to Wikipedia to study up a subject.
What other music do you listen to?
I listen to all sorts of music but when I work in my studio its mostly heavy dub and ambient. Those kinds of music make time disappear which is very helpful because I start to go mad after five or six hours painting. Sometimes I psychotically listen to the same CD over and over again until the music vanishes, and weird sounds begin to come out of the speakers. I collect bootleg recordings of the Rolling Stones from 1969 to 1975 and sometimes the low fidelity of the analogue recordings is quite beautiful, almost as good as perfect digital sound.
Any plans of exhibiting in Europe soon, if yes, where?
I will have new paintings on display at two different shows in Italy in September. First is the Urban Superstar Festival at the MADRE Contemporary Art Museum in Naples and then the Antonio Colombo Gallery in Milan.
What do you think is in the future for the Low Brow movement – is it going to become more included in the world of fine art, you think? And – is this important at all for the artists?
Low Brow Art goes completely against the Conceptual Art favored by the fine art world and for that reason is excluded from most museums. Still, there are a few artists like Robert Williams and Robert Crumb that have managed to get official recognition from the art power brokers. As with most art movements, there will be a few artists who get museum shows but most Low Brow artists will continue to sell to collectors who like the work for what it is and don’t buy it as an investment.
The origins of Low Brow Art are in the 1960s and 70s youth culture movements like Kustom Kulture, surfing and skate boarding. The young “New Brow” artists of today have entirely different influences; video and computer games and graffiti are their starting point. I have always tried to keep up with contemporary culture; that is why the audience has mostly approved the cover art I did for “Congratulations”.
After Sony “leaked” the cover art through websites and blogs, a lot of kids initially criticized the cover because it looked like a video game from the 90s. I find that an interesting complaint because it is very similar to the hatred that I had to deal with in the early days of Low Brow. The museums and galleries hated Low Brow because of its roots in “common” culture; it’s weird that kids now are equally elitist.
Which projects are you currently working on?
Getting the paintings done for the shows in Italy and building custom electric guitars.
Where can we find you in 10 years time?
Sleeping with my girlfriend on the beach of my own private island with about five thousand cats…
Raised in the L.A. arts community of the 1980’s, Anthony Ausgang broke through the bland abstract decorative art scene of the time to become one of the first originators of “Low Brow” art. His ambition and tireless drive to get his work seen elevated his work to being viewed by millions as he nabbed the cover art job of MGMT’s ‘Congratulations’ LP. Even with various celebrity endorsements, his DIY esthetics remains intact, and Ausgang still understands that visibility is the key to success.
“I wish I had gotten an art degree because as an artist I think it’s important to teach and inform younger artists.” After moving from Texas to LA in the early 80’s, Otis College Art & Design became his school of choice until he realized he’d owe an incredible amount of money once he graduated. He found the arts community in LA at the time to be ‘very small’ and ‘everyone knew each other’.
He hung his artwork anywhere and everywhere he could “It’s hard breaking into this business and I’m glad I had no illusion that I would get into some big name gallery right off the bat.” Before he began showing with the 01 Gallery he hung his paintings in coffee houses and wherever else he could find a space for them. He claims to be influenced by Surrealists like Dali, but was inspired by the work of Robert Williams. Ausgang first became aware of Williams work in the 60’s underground comic book “Zap”. An LA gallery showcased paintings by Williams, which hooked the bud- ding young artist. “He had everything going on in one painting, a story, scene, a mystery, and it was going deeper than the sh*tty, decorative art of the 80’s.”
Williams work was considered “Low Brow” by the arts community and largely overlooked for decades. This art style became respected by the community when it gained the celebrity stamp of approval being purchased by Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Anthony Kiedis. Ausgang knew immediately it was a style he could develop and grow within his own artistic realm.
Throughout the years, Ausgang has built up his own celebrity collectors such as Nicolas Cage, David Arquette, and Perry Ferrell. Timothy Leary was said to collect his work also, but the pieces he had are likely still with the current home owner. “I used to go into people’s houses and draw on their walls or refrigerator’s, then say I had work in their collections.” He smiles charmingly as his eyes dance with delight. His introduction into the music world began by doing flyers and band covers for Long Gone John who owned the Indie record label Sympathy for the Record Industry. “He was the first person to put out a release by The White Stripes, and he was respected in the community for always having his ear to the ground.” He worked with John for free CDs at first, because “it’s professional suicide to try to start selling your art at unreasonable prices.” Ausgang knew it was important to get his work seen by as many people as possible.
Sonic Boom, MGMT’s producer introduced Ausgang and the group. The band went to the artists home and hung out with him on a “personal level”. They were recording up in Malibu and invited him up to ‘hang out’. When he arrived the band was busy and so, in true artistic fashion, he just began sketching on paper on the floor. The guys saw his work and had Sony call him later to inform him they wanted his work for the cover of their sophomore release ‘Congratulations’.
“Andrew is the big brain of MGMT, Ben too, but mostly Andrew chooses the aesthetic of the band” so with the guys’ direction, Ausgang created an original painting. “I got the work done a month before the release date and what I didn’t know was that Sony leaked the photo to the press via Boing Boing, so thousands of people had seen the work before the music came out.”
Critics and fans bashed his work and taking it in stride, he posted their writings on his web site. With 75% of the fans “hating” his work, the artist felt sure the band would scrap his work. “Much to their credit, the guys didn’t pull my artwork, they stood behind [their choice].” Once the music was released no one had anything to snicker about anymore and the focus shifted back onto the band. Sony offered a brilliant packaging idea to sell the record. There was a collector’s edition coin that allowed the owner to scratch off Ausgang’s checkerboard background revealing the band underneath. The artist went out to MGMT concerts and asked fans how they owned the release and most of them answered digital. He hadn’t anticipated the 60” piece would be downsized to a 1”x1” size for people’s iPods, but the fact his art is out in the world is his main focus.
Ausgang has built up his Facebook fanbase with requests from young MGMT fans from all over the map. “I ask them to send me their version of my art, so I get all these cover art versions I post on [Facebook].” His favorite piece was a wall mural that a kid did in his room and another version was on a girl’s pair of Keds. “It’s nice to see that image go out into the world and watch people want to do something with it. At the end of the day, the money’s gone, you can’t take it with you, and it means more to me that my art is out in the world.”
You were exposed to both high and low art at an early age from attending both Kustom car shows and fine art museums. What particular artists did you first get drawn to?
The maternal side of my family was Dutch, and I was really fascinated by the 16th century genre paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder; I just loved his depictions of villages and peasant life. I also really enjoyed the fantastic paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Nothing I had ever been told or shown prepared me for the complete strangeness of their work. When I became a teenager and was able to choose my own cultural influences, I became very fond of the work of Roger Dean, who did album cover artwork for Yes. Later, of course, I disowned him entirely; as a punk rocker I had no use for Prog Rock or spacey Sci-Fi art.
Were you interested in any of the West Coast art movements that were more mainstream? Like Baldessari and the West Coast conceptualism….What about the West Coast Pop Artists?
I rejected John “Bald and Sorry” Baldessari the first time I saw his altered photographs and limp wrested attempts to add conceptual meaning to artworks that didn’t need his ridiculous aesthetic intrusions; at least Bruce Naumann didn’t take himself so seriously. Ed Ruscha’s West Coast Pop was a successful counterpart to Warhol’s East Coast Pop and I found most of Ruscha’s ‘60s work to be a refreshing commentary on California’s sun-bleached vapidity.
Ed Roth and Andy Warhol both had created a new aesthetic for mass-produced images and similarly had their own studios. What was the Roth Studios like? Was it a place for happenings like Warhol in the East Coast? Did Roth have complete artistic control over the work that was coming out of his studio? What did he let the young artists get away with?
Roth Studios was a gathering point for all sorts of malcontents and cultural criminals, just like Warhol’s Factory. The major distinction between the two was that Warhol’s crew could deliver on their pretensions to grandeur whereas Roth’s clan was “dick in the dirt” and proud to stay that way. The difference was due to the nature of the core element: Roth was about masculine mechanics and Warhol was concerned with effete aesthetics. Roth would come up with graphic concepts, do the rough sketches, and then leave his artists to put them in final visual form; a lot of graphics that were credited to Roth were actually drawn by Robert Williams and others in Roth’s stable. Roth encouraged his artists to go over the top with their drawings and designs; after all, he traded in outrageousness. Roth’s line of “surfer accessories” was based on Nazi uniforms and regalia; his “surfer helmet” was just a plastic WW2 German helmet and, in Time Magazine” Roth would claim that “that Hitler did a helluva public relations job for me.”
What did they actually teach at Otis? Was is more of a technical drafting school or a traditional conceptual based art establishment?
Good question, I don’t have much knowledge of the curriculum back then since I only went for three semesters! I paid for two and continued going to classes anyway for the third until someone realized that my tuition hadn’t been paid and I was kicked out. Gary Panter was teaching there at the time and he let me continue to attend his class anyway. Back in 1981 the school was mostly about Fine Art with a few fashion classes but the emphasis was mostly on getting serious art ready for the galleries and museums.
Where there any students at the time who you hung out with at school?
I hung out with Sandow Birk, who later would become famous for his series of paintings about the fictional war between San Francisco and Los Angeles. A few other students went on to make it in the gallery scene but most of the people have vanished into the world of non-art. I tended to hang out with the teachers like Gary Panter, Jeffrey Vallance and Carole Caroompas since they were active in the gallery scene and that’s where I wanted to be.
Who else was in the shows with you and Robert Williams?
The early Low Brow Art shows were sordid affairs; most of the art was shit since there really weren’t that many good artists working in the style. Hot Rod Art and Kustom Kulture were the first Low Brow styles to break in to the galleries but that meant there were a bunch of pin stripers doing cruddy paintings of tikis and chicks with big tits. If there was a decent curator putting together a show however, the talent roster would include artists of better caliber.
What artists were being shown by 01? And how do you feel the gallery has progressed through time?
In the beginning the 01 Gallery had some very good Low Brow artists like Raymond Pettibone and Robert Williams but most of them left after getting ripped off by the dealer there. Eventually John Pochna managed to get a good roster of artists that would consistently show at the 01 but finally everyone abandoned ship. At that point Pochna began looking for a new crew of artists and collectors to steal from so he turned to Graffiti Art. At this point the 01 still emphasizes Graf but Pochna has very little to do with the gallery.
What was it like working with the Boredoms (one of the greatest bands ever)? Is there a particular type of music that influences your work? Do you paint to music?
I was originally approached by Naohiro Ukawa, a graphic artist from Japan who was creating the artwork for a series of Boredoms remixes. He is a big fan of my work so he decided to remix ten of my paintings to match the remixed Boredoms tracks. Warner Music Japan bought the one-use rights to the paintings and Naohiro mixed them together.
I listen to Rolling Stones bootleg recordings from the 70s that feature the guitarist Mick Taylor and online stations that play dub. There are stations that have ten-hour play lists, and the songs are all mixed together, so it’s basically one long track. It’s the same thing that I like about the live Stones bootlegs: it’s a live concert and there’s no space between the songs, and in fact, the recording becomes one big song, that’s an hour and a half long. Some of the online stations that I listen to go for ten hours and there’s never any gap except the station I.D. I like that because it puts me in a weird space where, at least when I’m listening to the mixes, time is passing without any markers.
Do you feel that this lowbrow style has a responsibility for social awareness? Should it?
I don’t think that any art “has a responsibility for social awareness”; if it does, it becomes propaganda. One of the effects of Low Brow Art is that it has increased straight people’s knowledge of alternative cultures while lending a certain amount of legitimacy to those cultures through their association with Fine Art and high culture.
Is there a certain celebrity status that West Coast artists have achieved? Based around Hollywood are art openings ever like red carpet events?
Some artists have achieved celebrity status but none of them have gotten a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame yet! Mark Ryden and Gary Baseman are probably the most recent famous art celebrities but they are still unknowns to most people. There are art openings here that are restricted and have red carpets and paparazzi but that’s usually for art by established celebrities’ art like Ron Wood’s paintings or Farrah Fawcett’s sculptures…
Are there a lot of celebrities who are collectors of this kind of art? Why do you think that is? And how does that affect the market?
There are movie and rock stars that use their collections of Low Brow Art to prove how badass and alternative they are. Anthony Kiedes of The Red Hot Chili Peppers was an early collector of Robert Williams’ paintings and as a result, one of Robert’s paintings was a must-have item for quite a while.
What is the commercial market like for Lowbrow and contemporary West Coast artists?
Some Left Coast artists are making millions while others are eating shit; the art market here is like any other. What is remarkable is that the collector base for West Coast Low Brow Art is international; I have sold paintings to people all over the world.
What is your process for creating a painting? What made you choose acrylic over oil paint?
I start with a pencil line drawing of a cartoon character then flatbed it into my computer with a scanner. After I have the image digitized I start to morph it around in Photoshop, tweaking it a bit here, drastically abstracting it there. Once I have a final image of the character I begin to consider what sort of environment I want to throw it into. After all this is determined I try to come up with a narrative and figure out just what the fuck is going on! I chose to use acrylic paint because I worked as a fabric painter and I would kipe the unused paint rather than pour it down the drain.
Question 1: Do you class yourself as a ‘Pop Surrealist’ artist? Or do you have another term you prefer?
Since I am included in the book Pop Surrealism I guess that as far as critical terminology goes, I am a Pop Surrealist. I think however that the term itself refers toAndy Warhol’s commercial pop culture model and, since I don’t directly refer to that sort of popular culture in my work, I don’t feel that the term Pop Surrealism captures the essence of my work. I have always preferred the term Cartoon Realism since I am attempting to make the cartoon style rise to a level of Realism that successfully demonstrates reality to the incognescenti, those who aren’t hip to art rhetoric.
Question 2: How would you personally define ‘Pop Surrealism’?
Pop Surrealism is based more on the definition of pop culture art that Andy Warhol put forth than classic Surrealism a la Dali. I believe that Pop Surrealist Art expresses contemporary pop culture in a sort of post modernist way, the cultural icons are not deliberately depicted but are referred to in an oblique way. Each artist’s take on pop culture is the starting point, not the end. Still Pop Surrealism is an appropriate name for this movement for most of the people who don’t worry about such ridiculously fine lines of terminology.
Question 3: Do you think Pop Surrealism would be referred to as a modern art movement?
The exact time frame of “modern art” is endlessly debated; after all, the academic definition of Modernism refers to the 19th century break between the avant-garde and traditional salon art. In that sense, Pop Surrealism is a modern art movement because part of its purpose is to expand the definition of what is acceptable as art. If “modern art” is work that just happens to have been made in the last 50 years then Pop Surrealism is full on modern art, even if some of the artists use classical techniques.
Question 4: What subjects are the main influences for your artwork?
One of the outstanding elements of Pop Surrealism is that the works tend to demonstrate a narrative. I make a great effort to reveal part of a story in my paintings and then leave the preface and conclusion to the mind of the viewer. That said, I have to cite literature as being the main influence of my visual expressions.
Question 5: Are there any other artists who you would compare your style of work to?
The contemporary artist that I feel closest to is Peter Saul since he explores the grey area between representational and abstract cartoon art.
Question 6: Which other collective or group do you feel you may belong to?
I was first referred to as a Kustom Kulture artist since I depicted hot rods and monsters in my paintings. I have also been called a Weirdo Deluxe artist since I am included in the book by the same name. Naturally I am classified as a Low Brow artist, an “umbrella” art category with Pop Surrealism one of its subcategories.
What are you working on right now?
I am painting a couple of new pieces for a show at the Contemporary Art Museum in Rome, Italy that will take place in November of this year. America is a phantom limb on the global corpse so I’m trying to establish a new audience and find some collectors that pay with euros.
Have you ever gone back to your hometown?
Yes, I go back every few years. I grew up in Spring Branch, Texas, which back then was a little farm town outside of Houston. Now it’s considered “in the city” and almost every trace of its pioneer beginnings has been erased. In a small churchyard there is a mass grave from a yellow fever epidemic in 1854; I go there to smoke a spliff in memory of the dead.
Art school: your thoughts?
Art school is a debt production machine that hinders as many people as it helps. I was at a bar once and some dude bought me a beer, so we began to talk. Turned out he was a data entry dweeb at some company, but he had gone to the same art school that I had. The difference between us was that I dropped out once I sussed that I was going to owe 50K when I got out and he didn’t. I became a debt-free artist and he had to take a shit job to pay off his art education. The only good reason to go to art school is to get a degree so that teaching is an option.
Where’s the best place to grab a bite to eat?
I have been told that cannibals generally start with the back of the thigh; the meat there is apparently quite flavorful.
Is there a particular artist you are really digging right now?
Whenever I get burned out on the official art world, I go visit a nearby mental institution where there is a gallery of art by the inmate/patients. There are some absolutely amazing paintings to be seen there.
What is the most influential music group in your option?
The master musicians of Jajouka in Morrocco.
Can art change the world?
When the aim of art is to change the world, it becomes propaganda; art itself is a useless weapon.
Could a giant squid defeat a great white shark?
Only with love.
Stallone, Over the Top or Cobra?
I met Stallone once and we didn’t get along well because I’m about twice as tall as he is. In front of the Philadelphia art museum there are some brass footprints set there because in the movie “Rocky” he stood in that spot. I’m supposed to give a shit?
Sandwich or Burrito?
I have gotten the shits from both; the sandwich had rotten spinach in it and the burrito contained bad brains. I would choose a sandwich over a burrito because you can deconstruct it and stick it on the ceiling whereas a burrito deconstructs into scraps.
Pre-Exisiting Conditions, The Light Gallery, Costa Mesa, CA
Diabetes has become a worldwide epidemic. In 2008, the United States housed about twenty-four million Americans with Diabetes. In Orange County alone, we have approximately two hundred thousand diabetics. I can guarantee you that at least one member of your family or friends live with it. But what can you do about it? The Light Gallery in Costa Mesa recently hosted an exhibition to help raise awareness and money towards the research and the eventual eradication of diabetes. Thirty one different artists from LA and Orange County came together to host a group art exhibition from their perspective of Type One Diabetes. The show was entitled Pre-Existing Conditions. Each of the artists is effected by Diabetes in some way. Whether they are Diabetic, or have a close friend or family member who is, each one of these artists share in the hope that one day, Diabetes will no longer effect anyone. It was a noble cause and an amazing night of art.
The gallery was jam-packed; we were sandwiched in like sardines. This ‘one-night stand’ art show had so many powerful pieces that the walls were completely littered with different works. Mixed media installations, acrylics, photography and even digital art were all on display. Each piece had a different take on what Diabetes meant to each artist and you could really feel the honesty and earnestness in all the works displayed. It was as if no one was holding back. It was really nice to let each piece entice you and speak directly to your core. One of my favorite canvases of the night was by Anthony Ausgang, whose modified canvas was entitled “What my father saw”. It really spoke to me. Anthony used a canvas he had found and modified to represent the loss of eyesight that his father had been stricken with after living with Diabetes. It was one of those pieces that really jump right off the white walls of the gallery. Since most of his canvas had been painted black, it immediately stood out and continued to draw large crowds throughout the night. It was such a simple execution, yet it was a very deep, inspired piece of art.
Just a few canvases down, Scott Aicher’s “Evening Drift” was painted on a panel of wood. It was a vibrant acrylic piece that had a reminiscent, sci-fi, nineteen fifties feel to it. It reminded me of Ed Roth’s work, yet a little more other-worldly. It was vibrant in color and so infectious. It was begging you to get lost in all the minor details. This was also another favorite of the evening. Scott’s father and uncle were Diabetics.
Last, but certainly not least, Zoey Stevens (who is Diabetic) had a few works to show. Both of his art pieces were acrylic on canvas, yet it was hard to tell because his work is so lifelike. He really understands how to capture characters in his paintings. Something that struck me was how he captures the eyes in all of his paintings. Since they say that the eyes are the windows to the soul, he really uses the eyes of his characters to give his paintings the soul that makes them seem so lifelike. He really has a unique style and his painting entitled “The Man in Black” was such a great take on that famous photo of Johnny Cash. This one catches the same amount of attitude from Johnny, with a pricked finger in place of the ‘bird.’ Without a doubt, this painting had everyone talking and seemed to be the feature piece of the show.
Pre-Existing Conditions will be traveling to other locations in six other cities. It will stop in various cities like the Brett Wesley Gallery in Las Vegas, PRAVUS Gallery in Phoenix, Terra SF in San Francisco and eventually will end up at it’s final stop in Los Angeles. As the show travels it will pick up new artists and art pieces along the way. So if you get a chance to see it, I highly recommend it. All the proceeds from sales will be donated to the JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund).
Do you agree the whole “lowbrow,” genre has proliferated to the extent where it is now outselling more traditional genres?
If “traditional” means standard high brow art like single color canvas paintings, the Fine Art Mafia will never willingly allow “lowbrow” art to outsell the conceptual non-art currently clogging up the galleries and museum since the competition for collector’s money and corporate funds is too fierce. For “lowbrow” art to take the lead in the sales price of individual pieces of art there must be a major crossover star; a situation similar to Andy Warhol and his Pop Art banishing the Abstract Expressionists from meaningful contemporary art collections. Shepard Fairey seems to be doing this but whether or not he is “lowbrow” is debatable.
If the phrase “traditional” means genre art like landscapes and portraits, I don’t think that the art uneducated masses consider “lowbrow” viable interior decoration. There is a cultural threat inherent in “lowbrow” that will never be acceptable to them.
Do you agree that there a greater sense of fraternity between these galleries that cater for the genre that acts as a common platform or forum for exchange of ideas and artists when compared to regular galleries who are more competitive?
There is a fraternity in the “lowbrow” art world but it exists among the artists and not the galleries. From my experience there was initially such camaraderie between dealers but it evaporated as the number of galleries increased.
Is it good or bad for the art world in general if self-taught people dominate the scene?
A self-taught artist is generally someone who developed their technique without instruction from academia. This distance from theory has the consequence that “lowbrow” art evidences many distinct individual technical styles but not a lot of conceptual differences. I believe that this lack of schooling has resulted in a limited number of themes in “lowbrow” art.
Tell us about your working practice, media, hours, technical stuff. What happens when you walk into your studio, do you listen to music, have a TV tuned to cartoon network turned on in the background etc?
Usually I spend between eight and ten hours a day in my studio but sometimes real life takes over! I try to work a minimum of four hours a day actually working on whatever piece of art I’m involved with at the time and spend as much of the other time as possible taking care of the shit like emails and interviews. I generally start a new piece by pencil drawing a character on a regular size sheet of paper then scanning it into the computer where I can morph it in various Photoshop filters and tools. After that, I start trying to build a narrative around the character by drawing an environment and situation. Once that’s done, I determine the size of the canvas and build the stretcher bars and put the canvas over it. I think its very important for painters to build their own canvases because it creates a definite starting point for the creation of this strange object called a painting. At this point I either coat the canvas with gesso or I leave the canvas raw so that I can get an effect similar to watercolor bleeds. A major painting can take between two to six weeks; the longest I have ever worked on a single painting is two months! The most difficult situation is when I’ve spent a long time on a particular passage of the painting and it turns out to be wrong in the end. It’s hell but sometimes I have to paint out sections that may be technically perfect but graphically wrong. Getting too precious about the painting before its finished can be fatal. When I start work each day I put on an internet station and listen to whatever sounds good at the time. Heavy Dub is my favorite but sometimes I need to pick up the pace somewhat so I’ll put on some Drum and Bass or Thrash Core. I know some painters who have TV going but keep it pretty simple and may stop work every now and again to check out some YouTube clips or, better yet, porno. I find that looking at porno takes my mind completely away from making art; after I’ve scoped it for a bit, I can go back to work. Porn is a good, cheap chemical free stimulant!
What is your connection with animation, the inbetweening type images used together to create a fluid, surreal/futurist type narrative within the painting.
Back when I was a kid, my father and I used to watch cartoons together in amazement; I was young and he was an immigrant so neither of us had ever seen anything like then before. If I screwed up during the week I was denied the Saturday morning cartoon session so I learned the value of these bizarre skits early on! Years later in art school I was taught how to take photographs off of the TV and capture several sequential frames of whatever was being broadcast; it seemed natural for me to start by photographing cartoons. The photos I ended up with had captured multiple inbetweening drawings so all of a sudden I had these freaked out, morphed up cartoon characters to work from. The motion capture was particularly interesting to me because at the time I was taking various hallucinogenic substances and ‘witnessing” these same distortions while tripping. Later I began to draw my own characters in separate motion sketches and then layer them over each other to get an effect similar to the photographs. Paintings and cartoons are cousins but they are tense relatives; the history of Western painting revolves around the depiction of the most crucial moment in a major event while cartoons are able to show all the events surrounding a critical point. My use of multiple inbetweening drawings is an attempt to expand the narrative beyond the telling of a single event. But, as you point out, I’m hardly the first to try, the Futurist artists of the early 1900s were taking a similar approach in their Dynamist works.
The philosophy behind your use of cartoon animals instead of humans, it seems almost religious and removes the problems of human figurative representations which present distracting race/gender related issues (i.e the “Italian hippy Jesus”)
I believe that the human figure has been used in art for so long that the only true avant garde approach is to eliminate it. That vacuum is easily filled with anthropomorphic cartoon characters, We have been programmed to accept them ever since the invention of cinematic animation. If not human, those ur-cartoon characters were often domesticated animals who were acting like humans anyway. One of the reasons for the success of the new global art revolution is that the art audience is ready for this pictorial switch. Furries and anthropomorphic manga characters are perfect examples; Furry fandom is all about those characters’ fans denying their own humanity and attempting a species bend. I guess that all of this is religious in that it requires an act of faith to refute the tenet of Art that decrees Figurative Art must always be of the human figure. The irony is that great art addresses human issues so the characters may not have to be human but the narrative has to reflect the human condition. As you mention, race and gender characteristics are irrelevant since those issues don’t apply to unisexual non-human cartoon characters. But even so, I included a black cat in one of my paintings and a lot of people took that character to represent a black person and got uptight about what was going on in the painting.
Can you also discuss a little the found painting improvements, it seems to me that you see every painting as a window onto the same 2D universe. When I imagine that your characters seem like invaders into that world & I start to imagine them lurking around behind things in every painting I see, Is that how you feel?
With an “improved” painting, I am basically co-opting another artist’s work and asserting my dominion over it by invading their pictorial space with my aesthetic. This is essentially a violent act, similar to the aggressiveness of throwing up a graffiti piece on someone’s wall. The reason that I do this kind of work is because in junk stores I find paintings that are excellent depictions of scenes but have no narrative quotient at all. I don’t understand how some one can paint a decent painting of say, Niagara or Victoria Falls and not want to include someone going over them in a barrel; that’s why I step in and finish the paintings! The paintings that are entirely my own are virtual windows through which one can stick one’s head and scope around the depicted universe but I’m not sure if the characters I insert in the found paintings are ambassadors of my Aesthetic Imperialism as you suggest! My own work has a continuity and similarity from painting to painting but each of the Improved Art paintings exists independently of the others.
What kind of collectors buy your paintings?
I had no idea what I was getting into when I had my first show, I didn’t expect the large number of lunatics, thieves and drifters that would suddenly become my crew. One asshole came up to me at the opening reception and told me he would only buy my work if I could guarantee that its price would double in five years. Of course, I assured him, with people like you buying my work, its nowhere but up; he then asked for 500 dollars off the price. Another collector bought a painting that had a dog turd in the foreground of the landscape; two months after taking it home they called me and wanted me to paint out the shit. I told him that it was no go; it’s like buying a car, check it out before you buy it! But the capper was when a collector called me to see if I would buy back one of the paintings he had bought two years before… at twice the price he had paid! Ridiculous shit!
Where was your first show?
My first solo show was at a gallery called the 01 Gallery in Hollywood but don’t let that fool you; it was also a place to score drugs and drink booze after hours. For a while it was also used as a place where call girls could meet their clients and other nights as a rave checkpoint! Somehow the art dealer, John Pochna, managed to get all kinds of big name art mavens to come to his shows, they loved the weird crowd of junkies, famous actors, movie stars and art heroes that filled up the place. One night some guy from the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. was going to show up so I decided to stick around and meet him; I guess he’d been warned about the crowd because he showed up late. Anyway, we went in the back room with him and we all stood around talking to this rather uptight museum director when there was the sound of a toilet flushing in the apartment upstairs. About ten seconds later this stream of shit cascades from a busted pipe in the ceiling and splatters right in front of the Smithsonian dude, going all over his shoes and pants. He just turned and left the fucking gallery! I showed there for years.
I see that you have work in the collections of Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, the estate of Timothy Leary and Nicholas Cage, did they get your work from the 01?
Cage bought some of my pieces there, he was just driving by the opening, saw my work through the window and came in to buy a few. Pochna had a credit card machine but no slips for it so he ran and got some from the restaurant next door, unbelievable. Anyway, I used to party over at Leary’s with Gisela Getty and I was always trying to get Leary to buy something but I could never pin him down, he always had some crazy thing to say that would change the topic completely. I finally made a drawing on the ceiling of his bathroom and stuck another one on his fridge next to the shopping list. Perry lived next door to me for a while and I would sit around his place and make drawings of a rooster he had parading around. That’s how I found out that roosters don’t just crow in the morning, they crow all fucking day! Perry used to feed it fried chicken.
Know any scandalous limericks or poems?
There once was a man from Nantucket…
What’s the most ridiculous thing anyone has said about your work?
At one art opening for a group show some hot chick was really into a painting by some other artist. I was fucked up at the time, so I went over and told her that it was mine, giving her all sorts of bullshit about its meaning, how it was done, etc. She nodded in agreement at everything I told her, and she then went over to MY painting and began to just shred it, saying it sucked and how much better the other piece was. At that point the dealer came over to introduce me to someone else, so my cover was completely blown in the middle of her tirade. We just looked at each other and began to laugh our asses off. She ended up buying my painting; we fucked a few times too.
Why cats? And why no apes?
I paint cats because their history has paralleled that of humans for thousands of years; the Sphinx is a massive sculpture of a cat so there has to be some connection, the ancient Egyptians didn’t bullshit around! When I was growing up we lived in backcountry Texas and people dumped animals in front of our house all the time. A psychiatrist told me once that I painted cats to make up for all the cats my parents took to the vet to be put down; it always starts with your mother, right? One art dealer told a collector that I paint cats because I love pussy; unfortunately the collector was gay and didn’t respond positively to the information. Cats clean themselves; apes are smelly, fucked up non-achievers, very much like human beings. However, one of my favorite books is The Apes of God by Wyndham Lewis so that should redeem me somewhat.
Are you a white person?
I am a Caucasian, born in Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean to a Welsh and Dutch family.
Are you an artist?
I began to draw at an early age and was greatly encouraged by my parents. I was taken on trips throughout the world and spent a lot of time visiting local museums and meeting artists.
In your manifesto you end with, “Art is meant to address the fundamental injustices of life, not the manufactured inequities.” What is a “fundamental injustice of life?” Can you give an example?
We are all born into situations that are not of our choosing; as a result we can suffer financial and racial discrimination that is based on who we appear to be, and not who we are. A major “fundamental injustices of life” is the misery that people experience from these bogus attitudes.
What is a “manufactured inequity?” Can you give an example?
“Society” is based on abstract concepts that have been forced on human populations to categorize and divide. The idea that different social groups like celebrities or office workers cannot relate to artists or ditch diggers is a manufactured inequity.
Why should Art address the “fundamental injustices of life” and NOT address the “manufactured inequalities?”
At the time I wrote that statement I was felt that art had a responsibility to take on issues that have concerned people since art was first used as an instrument to broadcast information, themes that have moved people for thousands of years. In retrospect, I think that art can concern any issues that the artist cares to address.
Would it be correct to say that the statement, “Art is meant to address the fundamental injustices of life” is similarly saying that Art is meant to be used to make people aware of the ‘fundamental injustices of life’? Once the people are aware, then what? Is there a specific action that people will engage in once they are aware of the ‘fundamental injustices of life?
All art is propaganda; a work of art is created to make the viewing public aware of issues that concern the artist; beyond that the artist has no control. Leon Golub’s paintings of torture certainly make people aware of the horrors going on in other countries but only a small percentage of those people are going to do anything about it. The noble approach is to continue making art in the face of that rejection.
Can you say anything about your EXPERIENCE as a Caucasian in a world where Racism exists, as it pertains to producing propaganda for the public?
As a “white” person I am born guilty of crimes I never perpetrated, just like the first post WW2 generation of Germans who had to cope with their assumed guilt for the Holocaust. Once I made a painting of a black cat picking up cigarette butts at a hot rod car show and more than one person seemed to think it was a “black” person that I was depicting. Apparently, sensitivity to racial issues transcends species!
Are any of your efforts to help establish an Art movement? If so, movement to get what accomplished? OR movement as a continuation to previous movements? In your opinion, to what point and/or state have previous Art movements brought people to and to what point and/or state should Art movements take people to?
I have been making art seriously for over 25 years. When I started doing my cartoon based paintings I had no idea that later I would be considered one of the originators of a style of art known as Low Brow. I did not set out to establish an art movement but eventually I realized that many other artists shared the visual vocabulary I was using.
Art movements are created by a number of artists sharing a common aesthetic. The critical establishment can ignore a single artist, but a group of artists cannot be neglected; there is power in numbers. Art movements may eventually wear themselves out but, in effect, successfully create their own replacement. Art movements provide a safe base for artists to explore a new aesthetic; the irony is that by subscribing to a particular movement, artists effectively make themselves obsolete in the future.
When I say Underground LA Culture, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
The only true underground cultural activities left in LA are those that result in either death or jail sentences. All other cultural movements have been, or will soon be, co-opted by the corporate retro-active pillagers of aesthetics. To remain underground a culture has to be universally morally offensive, mortally dangerous, and have nothing to do with art.
Do you think we have a viable underground culture here these days?
If the description of “underground culture” includes such low brow activities as bull riding or deep-sea fishing, there is a viable underground culture in Los Angeles.
If so, where’s it at? If not, what killed it?
Look for it in the dumpsters behind the museums and galleries of Lost Angeles. Underground culture is killed daily by art bureaucrats who can only lionize the rebellions of the past and shy away from any contemporary cultural revolution.
What’s the most “underground” experience you had, in LA, or if you like, elsewhere by way of comparison.
My most adult “underground” experience was riding a skateboard with a crew of teenagers through a series of underground tunnels in the La Cienega oil fields . Some of them would occasionally stop and throw up graffiti tags on the walls of the dark tunnels; it was like witnessing the painting of the cave walls in Lascaux. For all I know, those tags may be the only “art” left in the LA area in a thousand years; and these kids weren’t doing it with any grant money or archival intent.
Do you consider what you’re doing now to be underground—and while we’re at it, is being so considered even desirable?
No and no.
DA: What theme are you exploring for your new works?
AA: The unleashed energy inherent in any work of true Art.
DA: What medium are you working in? What types of works will you exhibit (paintings, etc.)
AA: I will exhibit new acrylic paintings on stretched canvas.
DA: Are you experimenting with new mediums or processes?
AA: Yes. For the past few years I have been painting in a very rigid, almost formalist, style where much of my effort was spent trying to hide any evidence of brushstrokes. Although I still utilize that style, I am combining it with much freer, loose techniques.
DA: What is your process for creating your works? Do you create sketches?
AA: I make a pencil drawing on a standard 8 ½ x 11 inch piece of paper, scan it in to the computer then manipulate the image using Adobe Photoshop.
DA: Is your color scheme reflective / symbolic of your theme or narrative and subject matter?
AA: Yes. There is a certain psychedelic construction to the appearance of my characters and my colors reflect the amped up visuals one experiences while under the influence of psychedelic drugs.
DA: What is your inspiration for this new body of works?
AA I have always appreciated Buckminster Fuller’s description of our planet as “Spaceship Earth” and I feel that many people have lost sight of the fact that we are living in a bubble that is hurtling through space. My new paintings are an attempt to remind people that our environment is incredibly limited. I’m not telling people how to act with this knowledge, I’m just bringing up the subject.
DA: Are you moving in a new direction?
AA: Most definitely.
DA: Is your palette becoming increasingly more complex/intricate?
AA: My palette has always been complex in that I take a great deal of time mixing up unusual colors; that is one of my favorite stages of the painting game. I believe that in the new work I have expanded on the relationships between colors and the shapes that contain them.
DA: What is the meaning behind the visual doubles you create in your anthropomorphic works?
AA: Low Brow painting is the poor cousin of cartoon-based animation and the painters are forced to narrow down narrative structure to a single image. I use visual doubles to reference the actions that come before and after “the crucial moment” depicted in the painting.
DA: There is an element of distortion in your work, a surrealist quality, often conveying a representation of a being at odds with itself – what are you communicating with these modes of manipulation?
AA: There is an element of Deconstruction to my work in that I take an image and disassemble it to its constructive parts. I then have the option of reassembling it back to its original state or putting all the parts together out of sequence and arriving at an image that is utterly different.
DA: What attracted you to underground comics and animation?
AA: The underground comics that influenced me were from the first wave of “alternative” comics that came out in the 1960s. I was attracted to story lines involving real life situations and not fantastic superheroes. Also, my parents weren’t going to explain a hippy to me so I had to find an alternate source of information.
DA: Do you see your work as having graffiti and post-graffiti influences?
AA: Yes, particularly Imagist Graf. I believe that the O.G. of graffiti characters was the underground cartoonist Vaugh Bode and, although his style has been modernized, I believe that he still exerts an influence. New Imagist Graf no longer directly references Bode but, in typical Post Modern fashion, it refers to prior references to him. More to the point, I am inspired by the graphic language of graffiti, the color schemes and the overall energy.
DA: Do you have a specific artist statement you would like to include for this show? Or comments about your work you would like to include?
AA: Abstract Expressionism has always been the painting style most hated by Low Brow artists; they cannot imagine that a loose technique can properly express their issues. I am not trying to destroy the Low Brow allegiance to imagery, but I am trying to introduce some new elements to the mix so that we can launch from the platform of illustration.
Skylaire Alfvegren: Okay…so, why cats?
Ausgang: Well, I don’t really know exactly, I don’t really know why cats; it’s one of the most momentous decisions I’ve ever made and I made it off the cuff, ya know?
S: But you’ve really stuck with it over the years… I mean, I know that’s not all you paint…
A: I started getting known for painting generic animal cartoon characters that were mimicking human behavior and people kept wanting the paintings with cats in them, so I was sort of financially forced into doing more of them.
S: Have you ever gotten any requests? Portraits?
A: Yeah, but I won’t do those. There’s people who do that and even people who actually airbrush their cats to look like dolphins or dogs!
S: What if it’s a cat that’s taken a lot of acid?
A: (laughs) You mean I’m supposed to do a portrait of one that’s done a lot of acid?
S: Yeah, like it was in its water… I’m just kidding.
A: I went to a shrink for a while, and one of the questions he asked was “Why cats?” And I couldn’t answer it, so he began asking questions about my mom. They always start with your mother, right? And I said, well, my mom was Nordic. Dutch. And she believed in the power of the fist, and survival of the fittest and all that. And we’d get these cats–they’d come to our door–and my mom would feed them, and at the same time she’d be planning to take ’em to the vet to have them put down.
S: That’s … kind of sick!
A: Well, she was doing the best that she could. She thought she was doing them a favor.
S: Prolonging their stay of execution.
A: Yeah, I don’t know exactly what… but the shrink said, well, maybe you’re trying to give all these cats that your mother put to sleep, maybe you’re trying to give them a life. So… I thought that’s a good reason. Then again, one art dealer said that I paint cats because I like pussy!, Even so, they do seem to echo the human figure better than any other animal.
S: What about the meerkat?
A: The meerkat, yeah; just another Dutch cat.
S: So… Mick Taylor, and Rolling Stones live bootleg albums. Did your love of the Rolling Stones precede your painting career?
A: Well, not really, no. I always liked alternative stuff, so I thought the Rolling Stones were bullshit, because they were successful, therefore there had to be something wrong with them. (laughs) And I always liked something that was just weirder than that, you know? Like some off band like Silverhead. Weird cut-out bin bands. But once I found out about Mick Taylor, I got interested in him, because his story is like a Greek tragedy.
S: I don’t know the story.
A: Well, he became the lead guitarist for the Stones after Brian Jones died, so he was with the Stones for what were probably–what I think–were their best years from 1969 to ’75.
A: And then he left the band.
S: Of his own volition?
A: Of his own volition. So it’s almost a Greek tragedy that this guy had it all, and then through a misinformed decision of his own, he left the biggest act in show business and now he’s nothing.
S: Does he still play at all?
A: He still plays mostly Guitar hero-type blues concerts in northern Europe.
S: That’s really sad. I wonder what prompted his decision…
A: Drugs, just drugged out. Heroin. They were all heroin and coke freaks.
S: Do you find that painting to different music affects your output?
A: Oh, yeah, definitely.
S: Do you ever paint to aggressive music, for instance?
A: Yeah, sure.
S: What do you tend to get out of that?
A: It just keeps me amped up and painting fast. But other times I listen to ambient music, or just dub. And that’s a whole different thing. I paint slower and I’m more relaxed.
S: More fluid…
A: Yeah. When I put on something that’s gnarly, like gangster rap, or hip hop, I tend to paint faster and frantically.
S: What would you say are your five top albums right now that you paint to or just listen to?
A: Well, I like the Chemical Brothers “Surrender” since it reminds me of some great X experiences I had while it was playing; the music just brings it all back.
S: “The Private Psychedelic Reel”…
A: Yeah. Yeah, they’re great, they’re really fun.
S: I saw ‘em in NY with Thirlwell And I saw ’em on acid like ten years ago, Glenn Danzig was there, and he’s shorter than I am, with the giant blonde Amazon. And I saw Glenn Danzig’s face turning into a kaleidoscope, you know…
A: That’s a nice vision! But usually I listen to online stations. There are stations that have, like, ten hour play lists, and the songs are all mixed together, so it’s basically one long track. It’s the same thing that I like about the live Stones bootlegs: it’s a live concert and there’s no space between the songs, and in fact, the recording becomes one big fucking song, that’s just an hour and a half long. And some of these online stations that I listen to go for ten hours and there’s never any gap except the station I.D. I like that because it puts me in a weird space where, at least when I’m listening to the mixes, time is passing, but without any markers.
S: Right. All of a sudden an hour’s gone by. I like that, that’s a good one. Well, time is all existing at once, like, once William Burroughs was asked what he thought happened after we die, and he answered, ‘how do we know we’re not dead already?’ Like, who defines reality, and maybe we’re just the dream of some sick god, or something.
A: Yeah, right?
S: What’s new that you’re listening to?
A: Well, one thing that I do like, one of the reasons I like listening to the Stones bootlegs, is that there is this moment in time, that’s been recorded. Like a show in Australia, in 1973, and all of a sudden, you have this section of time; an event. So it’s kind of like taking this hour and a half from the seventies, and bringing it up to the new Millennium, and being able to listen to it. So I like that; it’s a Post Modern parlor trick, you know?
S: Exit Stage Left, over and over and over…
A: But it’s also… I get a familiarity with it. Completely, like I know every scream, I can hear the chick, now the chick’s gonna yell…
S: And you can picture her…
A: Yeah, yeah.
S: Also, too, there’s usually a lot more energy to live albums than studio albums because they’re usually more spontaneous, you get that energy of the show, in addition to the music… that may be enough. Do you want to throw out any particular album titles? I have to admit, what you said about the Stones being too popular, I totally understand, I totally thought of the Doors like that, I still haven’t heard a Doors album in its entirety… Hey, what were you on when you painted this?
S: (The painting) It’s all unifying, and like, one of those Chinese finger torture devices.
A: Well, the process of sitting and painting is tortuous, really.
S: Is it?
A: Yeah. Because I have to sit in one spot for ten hours a day, and for months on end. And it gets really… freaky.
S: Do you find yourself getting into funny head spaces?
A: Oh, Yeah. Really weird. They’re times when I go web surfing porno, just to totally get my mind onto something else completely. When I’m lookin’ at a bunch of naked chicks, or something I’m not thinking about the painting, obviously! So it goes for a while and then I get bored, or I go, this is too fuckin’ weird, I shouldn’t be doing this… so I go back to the painting.
S: Any particular weird fetish that gets you back in the right space to paint? This is my personal curiosity; it’s off the record.
A: Ahhh… no.
S: No bukakke for you?
A: No. (laughs) Some things can’t be spoken!
S: Right. Are there any bands you enjoy listening to besides the Rolling Stones, or things that you can listen to on a regular basis, pull out, music that you know is going to put you in that place, where you can keep on working?
A: I’m a rotten consumer because I don’t buy CDs or pay for downloads. I use a program called Audio Hijack to download streaming audio from internet stations.
A: So I just record stuff off the Internet since the choices are infinite. For example, there’s all kinds of Dub now, its become a worldwide genre; I check in to a station called “Ethnotechno,” which plays, say, mixes of Asian Techno and Spanish Dub; its really fuckin’ freaky shit that I seldom hear out in the so called real world.
S: That’s fun stuff.
A: But you know, what happens is that I record an one hour-long chunk of the dub station, and then I’ll listen to it, like, fucking six times in a row! And it gets to a point where I no longer hear it, you know? In a way, because I’ve heard it so many times, it just kind of disappears, but at the same time, it’s there filing up the audio space in the studio.
S: Kind of echoing out from inside your head?
A: Yeah! Exactly.
S: That’s a fun place to be… (referring to the painting) Is that a phallic symbol?
A: Yeah, that’s the male and that’s the female. People say, ‘are you gonna tie the knot?’ Get married? So I decided to research all these different weird kinds of knots. And the ultimate knot is this one, it’s called the Monkey’s Fist.
S: That’s crazy. Does it have any practical application? It looks like those Chinese decorations with the red knots that hang down…
A: The practical applications are for tying a knot at the end of a rope that will not, under any circumstances unravel.
S: Do you know the artist that did that hour-long bit that you like? Basically, you just put it on as a little backdrop, maybe. So, if you want to throw out any names of artists, I dunno, it’d be cool, if you can think of anybody else… or records.
A: That mix includes Jah Seal, Zomby, Jah Batta & Bullwackies All Stars, Ustad Sultan Khan & Sunidhi Ch, DJ DimmSummer, Duel, Kid Gusto, Sanchez Dub and Phat Boy Singh. But what’s funny is the whole relationship between music and work. I talked to one friend about it and he asked me if I listen to music when I paint so I said, yeah, I listen to all kinds of music. Well, he lust rolled his eyes, “Oh, boy…” This guy can only paint in complete silence. Because he really does feel, that music has a big influence on what gets painted; just what you were asking about earlier.
S: So he wants to be untainted?
A: Yeah, so the artistic process will be untainted by outside influence.
S: That’s funny. It’s funny how you said that painting is really tortuous… This guy asked this writer, if he enjoys writing, and he said he enjoys having written. It’s kind of similar, perhaps.
A: That’s nice!
S: So, how many paintings do you do a year? Do you do commissions ever?
A: No, not anymore. At this point I would rather have less money in the bank account and less hassles; there’s always some fuckin’ hassle that comes up with commissions. See, people will lay out what they want from a painting but then somewhere between their expression about they want and the delivery of the goods, something else has gotten in their heads, and they want it in there. So it’s much easier for me to do the paintings the way I want and then sell them to people who like them as they are.
S: How many would you say you paint a year?
A: It depends, I’d say at least 25 or 30.
S: Wow, that’s great. (I answer phone; turn off recorder. Obviously, I ask about Ausgang’s artistic inspirations…)
A: You know the whole history of art provides different motivations for me. There are certain artists, like German expressionists, with whom I have nothing in common, technically, but I love what they did because they were completely free. So what I try to do is emulate the freedom that they had. But I want to evidence it in a more precise way.
S: Do you ever sit and wonder, gee, I wonder what he was listening to when he painted that? Wagner…
A: (Laughs-sort of) Yeah, Wagner.
S: “The Ring Cycle,” over and over and over. 90 days and I wonder what’d be produced!
A: I love listening to music while I paint because otherwise the silence can lead to mental claustrophobia. Restricting the audio environment while staring at the painting is like the video feedback you get if you point a camera at the monitor, Don Bolles loves that shit. I feel that some monster is gonna appear if I don’t have something else going on in the studio besides my staring at a painting for hours on end. Music and Painting have completely different ways to get into your mind so, after a while, it’s kind of nice having information coming in from here (points to ear).
S: Right. Unless you’re a victim of synestesia.
A: Then you… taste it.
S: Keith Richards tastes like Freon.
Please tell us about yourself.
I have been living and painting in Los Angeles since 1980. I am considered one of the originators of Low Brow art and in 1993 my work was included in the seminal exhibition Kustom Kulture which investigated hot rod and custom car culture and its influence on contemporary artists. I no longer use hot rods as my starting point and my work now has a much more psychedelic influence.
Where do you currently live and work?
I live in Los Angeles and work out of my studio which is a converted two car garage. Studio garages are a pretty common situation in LA since artists’ loft rents are really high.
What mediums do you work with?
My paintings are acrylic paint on stretched canvas. When I build my stretched bars I put a panel of 1/8 inch plywood under the canvas so I can really lean on it when I’m painting and bash it around when things don’t work out the way I planned
Describe your working process when creating a new work.
I start with a line drawing, nothing special, just a drawing with a #2 pencil on a sheet of paper. I then scan the drawing into my computer and manipulate it with different Photoshop tools and filters. I usually begin with a drawing of a character and later I figure out what background to use and what narrative I want to tell. I don’t have any real concrete idea about the subject of the painting before I do it.
What kind of things do you do when you get blocked or find it hard to create something?
Drugs can be used in a variety of ways but most people use them for recreational purposes. I find that smoking some good chronic before sitting down to draw can bring out some very interesting images. For me, the beginning stages of a painting are the places that I can get loose and afford to make mistakes; the closer I get to the end of as painting, the fewer mistakes I can afford to make. Draw stoned, paint sober.
Where are you currently finding your inspiration?
The realm of the psychedelic has always been attractive to me and the most interesting visuals of that sort that I have “seen” are the utter deconstructions of reality that the drug DMT provides. I can only approximate those grand manifestations but I’m having a good time trying to utilize the DMT distortions in my paintings.
Where has your work been seen?
America, Canada, Holland, Germany and Italy, I have shown mostly at galleries but at a few museums. Of course showing in LA and NYC is the best way to go but I like to do shows in smaller towns; people are much more appreciative and hospitable in out of the way places.
Where will it be seen next?
My next show is here in LA at the L’Imagerie gallery; the show is in conjunction with the publication of the book Carnivora: The Dark Art of the Automobile. After that I’m in a three person show with Naoto Hattori and another artist at the Limited Addiction Gallery in Denver in September.
What is your dream art assignment?
To be given a functioning WW2 vintage German Tiger tank, two young female assistants, 20 thousand dollars budget for materials alone and an all bills paid trip to the Whitney Biennial show in NYC where the fucking tank is on display with my artwork completely covering it. Yeah.
What is your favorite color?
Who is your favorite artist? And Why?
I have no favorite artist. I do have strong opinions on the artist Marcel DuChamp who was the guy most people know as the artist who put a urinal in an art gallery. He did that in 1917, which was incredibly radical for the time but the fallout since then has been that a lot of artists today feel they can still do that kind of thing. And the new “readymade” pieces just don’t pass as successful works of contemporary art. The concept is bankrupt and these assholes have no idea that a negation of that idea has occurred. So I like DuChamp’s idea but I despise what has been done in the name of his idea.
What book/magazine are you reading this week?
I am currently reading the book The Surrender by Toni Bentley which is about her giving up the virginity of her asshole to some master fucker named A Man; it’s basically the “sexual memoir” of her asshole. I wouldn’t be reading it unless I knew her…
Ever do a self portrait? Where is it now?
All of my paintings are self portraits. Fact is, even landscape paintings are self portraits. Some paintings, of course, are recognizable as being self portraits but the likeness of the artist is obscured in most. My most obvious self portrait was last seen hanging in a hallway at NYC’s Rivington Arms Hotel, a piece of shit hotel where had to provide my own padlock for my door but the cost of the room was only 25 dollars a night at the time.
Where is your favorite place to hang out?
I like to go into these “hooka clubs” they have out here where one can smoke flavored tobacco at a big water pipe set at a low table with pillows around it. Only thing is, I don’t smoke tobacco so I go with my friends who do and I just smoke kush while they get a jangly on nicotine.
Any final words of advice?
Always have a good clean suit ready to put on at a moment’s notice; plus, a suitcase containing supplies for three days.
What is your opinion on the term “Lowbrow Art”?
I believe that “Lowbrow Art” was a correct description in the beginning stages of this art movement since many of the subcultures that influenced the art were indeed lowbrow. I no longer believe “Lowbrow Art” to be accurate since there are many new artists that have little or nothing to do with those cultures. For example, Kustom Kulture was once a very important source of lowbrow imagery and attitude but Street Art (Graffiti) and “Nintendocore” (video games) are far more influential now. I consider the new subcultures to be “alternative” and not “lowbrow.”
Do you think that there is a real frontier between the high art world and the lowbrow art world, knowing that some of the artists called lowbrow are exhibited in very recognized places? (for instance, in Paris, France, where I live, there was a show last year at “Le Palais de Tokyo” with Joe Coleman…)
There is no question that Post Modernism has thrown Highbrow culture into a massive freefall and there are fewer and fewer boundaries between high and low culture. Viewing Lowbrow Art is a sort of “aesthetic slumming” for highbrow viewers who would rather see a graffiti smeared vandalized car in a gallery than in front of their house. Lowbrow Art brought the street into the gallery and took the gallery out to the street. Naturally there are some art forms that have yet to be infected with Lowbrow; there is no Lowbrow opera or theater… yet.
Do you consider Lowbrow Art and Pop Surrealism as the same movement or as two distinct movements; and if so, what’s the difference between the two?
Lowbrow Art is a general problem solving approach to certain aesthetic situations. If an artistic statement is to be made, Lowbrow defines the ways that it can be made. If a landscape is to be painted, the Swiss Alps are not Lowbrow but a mountain of junked cars is. Pop Surrealism uses this lexicon of alternative imagery but is a distinct category of Lowbrow that concentrates on commercial popular culture and finds ways to subvert, deny or change it.
Do you think that the word “Pop Surrealism” fits your art?
My paintings are included in the seminal book Pop Surrealism by Kirsten Anderson so I would say my work is representative of that art movement. My work is Pop in that it references contemporary culture and Surrealist because those allusions to reality are rendered to appear fantastic and unreal.
If you had to invent a new term to qualify the Lowbrow art movement, what would it be?
ANTHONY AUSGANG Copro Nason Gallery
Imagine an amusement park gone mad and you’ve entered the world of artist Anthony Ausgang. His latest show in conjuction with the release and signing of his book, Vacation from Reality: The Art of Anthony Ausgang (Last Gasp, 2007) showed off his recent work. Confronted by a series of wildly distorted and wisecracking cats, there was no mistaking that the man sitting in the foyer had unleashed a dizzying color mirage of cats on a wicked “aspirin” trip.
Recalling something of the golden age of 1930s and ’40s animation, Ausgang’s exaggerated forms (elongated limbs and facial features) and clever dialogue are reminiscent of Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett. However, the flamboyant coloring and bizarre images are wholly the mischief of Ausgang — a style perhaps best described as surrealist cartoon. The cartoon cat is Ausgang’s metaphor for human evolution, since, as he writes in his Manifesto, “cats such as Felix began to openly explore the possibilities of the cartoon universe” by standing on two feet and to really enjoy tomfoolery in animation, i.e. falling off cliffs, getting pancaked by pianos, and running into walls.
His current cats are more exaggerated than ever. The extremity of this new work reflects his technical approach to art, which utilize both traditional and new mediums by manipulating his drawings on what he calls “the most important tool since oil paints” (better known as Photoshop) before painting them on canvas.
Ausgang’s work is rooted in his love of cartoons and hotrods (a love nurtured as a young boy watching Saturday cartoons and attending demolition derbies with his father). Associated with the Lowbrow art movement which began along the sandy sun-drenched beaches and greased-up car garages of LA in the ’70s, Ausgang is frequently labeled as a Lowbrow artist. (Beware: the term Lowbrow is deemed problematic. Among art snobs, use with caution.) Its influences are part of everyday West Coast subcultures, such as hot rods, comix, punk rock, science fiction, Tiki art, surf, skate and bike culture.
In the painting, Cat’s Cradle, two cats pull away from each other, elongating their form and shape, like a molecular cell dividing or a blob giving birth. Ausgang explains, “My use of cartoon characters is an attempt to explain the human condition, the unheralded heroics of just staying alive,” as he says in his Manifesto, “without resorting to the overt, hammer on the head use of we, the people.” Such sentiments are apparent in The End, where Ausgang renders a metaphor for death through a cat awkwardly balancing above another cat in a shallow grave. In all these pieces, Ausgang’s cats and their morphology enjoy the impossible reality of something visually similar to Disneyland’s Roger Rabbit ride with its effects of bright colors, wild contortions, and visual confusion. Yes, it is just like an “aspirin” trip.
Ill Morphology: Anthony Ausgang, Thomas Han, and Joe Ledbetter. Copronason Gallery, Bergamot Station, 9 June 2007
Two rooms and half a passageway of cartoon art. I went first to the back room, which featured a more burlesque crowd and four walls of well-received artwork. I realized quickly that over half of Joe Ledbetter’s cartoon animals, adorned with hairdryers, chainsaws, gossamer wings and magic wands, had in fact sold. In an even shorter amount of time two men approached me; one inquiring as to whether I was an artist or an art critic and the other seeking permission to read my palm. The former didn’t hang around long. The latter, by contrast, launched a lengthy analysis of his perceived baggage surrounding my sex life and offered a few nuggets of unsolicited dime-paperback advice. I averted my eyes frequently, but Ledbetter’s painting Revenge of the War Pigs seemed only to mock me.
I extracted myself as quickly as possible and progressed to the main room, which housed the work of Anthony Ausgang as well as the one couple who had arrived in costume. The room stayed relatively empty until the goth-jazz fusion band struck up for a second round, at which point the goth kids- corsets on the ladies, skinny ties on the men, and eyeliner on both- began to filter back in. The music grew increasingly eerie: a quality well suited to the work’s wink-of-the-eye surrealism. Ausgang himself was in attendance, dressed head to toe in distorted camouflage: perhaps a subtle reference to the work? He explained that the elimination of the human form, the most hackneyed element found in visual expression, was a way to advance the history of art.
“We’ve been depicting the human form since we began etching pictures on the walls of caves, he said. Don’t you think it’s time to shitcan what’s been done since the beginning of history and move on?”
He was quick to reject Abstract Expressionism as too simple an option for achieving this end. Anyone can throw paint on a canvas, he said. Thus, we see his more hybrid approach: a meticulously executed neon-colored cat, reclining and holding a cigarette, juxtaposed against an abstract background. Its abstraction set against total control, he expounded.
And what is your reaction to the labeling of your work as “low brow?” I asked. But, before he could reply, an Asian man politely interrupted, anxious for a brief word with the artist.
-Have you ever seen a computer simulation of the universe? he asked in a heavy accent.
-Really? You have never seen an astronomical computer simulation? Like of the stars and the galaxies?
-But you know that the backgrounds of your paintings look very much like the distribution of stars throughout the universe…You may believe that it’s random, but there are very complex mathematical equations that allow us to determine that distribution…
Ausgang looked uncomfortable. He was finally able to shake his inquisitor and turn back to answer my question: By the way, I hate the term “low brow.” It’s unacceptably pejorative.
We agreed. The academics are mocking themselves.
On my way out, I stopped to more closely inspect one of his large paintings whose caption was marked with a red dot. I scanned the room guessing at its buyer. A nouveau Johnny Depp wallflower and Ausgang’s Asian fan were each contemplating the piece with quiet, contented smiles.
Can you speak to us about your beginnings and your artistic life?
I was born in 1959 on the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago to a Dutch mother and Welsh father. My family moved to Houston, Texas where I lived until I went to art school in Los Angeles, California in 1981. I dropped out of school because I didn’t want to owe thousands of dollars when I graduated. For about five years I had a studio in a dangerous, really fucked up neighborhood but worked in Beverly Hills moving and hanging rich people’s paintings and sculptures. After a while it made me sick to be around that scene so I quit and began working in my studio all night; then I would spend all day going to galleries and trying to get in shows. It eventually paid off and I had my first one person show in 1990 at a gallery called the Zero One. The show was a big success and I began to sell paintings regularly; at the same time I was doing graffiti for movies like Terminator 2 and designing record covers for Sympathy For The Record Industry. I’ve been living and showing my paintings in Los Angeles ever since.
My Dad was really into the weirder aspects of America; he liked Frank Zappa, drag races, Zap Comix, just about anything that wasn’t mainstream culture. He turned me on to a lot of stuff I would probably have missed. As I got older I began to take drugs and just hang out in my bedroom drawing since I couldn’t find anyone else around who liked making or looking at art. It wasn’t until I got to art school in LA that I realized that there were other people like me out there, so I got in a band called called J. Edgar And The Hoovers and we would actually get on stage and play vacuum cleaners. It was really a great thing for me to move to LA and meet other artists and musicians.
Which are your references / influences in order to create your artwork?
I want it to be immediately obvious to anyone who looks at my paintings that they were done around the year 2000; my references have to be ultra modern to reflect that. And it’s not just having say, a 2007 Fiat in a painting and not a 1980 Alfa; it’s also about the way images get fragmented and messages become meaningless in a society where we’re bombarded with images all the time. I try to take apart my images and reassemble them in a way that’s slightly wrong. Or right, depending on what drugs you’re on! There are certain optical illusions you get while tripping on LSD, I don’t see any reason why not to try and get those visual effects across in a painting that has nothing to do with that drug. I feel that part of an artists job is to see thing differently and make sure that other people get a chance to see it that way too.
We’d all be fucked if scientists kept their discoveries secret and I feel that way about artists too. We have to get our idea across, for some people it’s an immediate thing like graffiti, for other artists it may take a year to finish a canvas. My references are the other artists working in my time.
I have many influences, most television cartoons and comic books but also high art and literature. My Dad and I would watch cartoons on TV, since he was an immigrant and I was a kid neither of us had seen them before. It was really great to share my astonishment with him. Hot Rod car culture was a big thing back in the 1960s and I was really into the custom car designer Ed Roth and his little character the Rat Fink. So my original influences were this sort of white trashy low American culture of the 1960s. Meanwhile my Mom was taking me to look at Van Gogh paintings and that kind of stuff so I was getting both high brow and low brow culture. The first art book I ever bought was by Roger Dean who did all the album covers for the band Yes and later I got into Andy Warhol and the artist Adami. Anyway, once I got to LA I began to hang around with Robert Williams and his crew. One night in 1985 I met Andy Warhol with Jean Michel Basquiat and for years after that I tried to be like both of them, sort of junky punk but also distantly cool! But what has been the biggest influence on my work is being aware that there are other artists out there who think like I do and want to get a similar idea across. one gets a great strength when one realizes that one isn’t alone.
Speak to us about your works process production, digital and manual technology mix
I make a drawing on a piece of paper then scan it in to the computer. After that I put it through different filters and just warp it any way I can. Once I have that done I’ll go through the same process with another drawing. So eventually I have a bunch of drawing that have different distortions and I’ll try to put them all together to make the painting say something or do something. Sometimes the distortion of the filters is enough, the psychedelia is all I need; other times I’ll have a weird image and i have to figure out how to build a narrative around it. Computers have freed up visual images more than written text. You can take a line drawing and put it through so many filters that it becomes something else; if you do that with words you’ll just get nonsense. Anyway, after I design the painting on the computer I project the drawing onto canvas and begin painting. i don’t try out different color schemes on the computer, I figure the colors out while I’m working. They say that the sounds of electric guitar effects pedals were originally meant to copy what Jimi Hendrix was doing. Likewise I think that the original filters that you got with Adobe Photoshop were meant to duplicate the optical illusions of LSD. How else could the engineers and programmers figure out what to go for? There has to be some actual event in nature that the computer or instrument is trying to duplicate. I think future generations will say that Adobe Photoshop was as important an innovation in the arts as the invention of oil paint was back in the 15th century.
The cartoons, for what these aesthetics? In what you are interested of these drawings as to turn them into your principal form of expression?
Cartoons didn’t exist until shortly after the invention of movie and since then, the history of cartoons has been linked to the history of film. Almost any technical innovation used in film has been used in cartoons. In a sense, Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) is just a glorified cartoon. So for me the aesthetics of cartoons are ultra modern. And the fictional premise of cartoons is a very liberating idea. Only in cartoons can you have cats that talk, dogs that drive cars and things that fall up instead of down. A free imagination means free thinking and what could be freer than a universe that subscribes to none of the laws of reality?And, since the human figure has been used in art since the cave paintings of Lascaux, France, I see no reason to continue to do so. When I get home after a long day of dealing with crowds and dumb asses, the last thing I want to see when I get home is more people. Replacing the human figure in art with cartoon animals is an extremely radical move; almost more radical even than the invention of Abstract Art. After all, those artists took the easy way out; it’s way harder to draw a cat driving a hot rod and puking up beer than it is to paint a blue triangle or make some 30 meter long brushstroke.
You use different supports / formats / ideas: speak to us about some of them: custom car, toys, hotrod paintings, improved art (cartoons & traditional style mix) and round paintings.
I was always into old cars, not so much because of their style but because of the way they look when they’ve been neglected for a few years. I would rather spend an hour looking at an old rusty car in a field than at some perfectly restored one. Most people think that when a car doesn’t run any more it’s trash; at that point it stops being a car to me and becomes a sculpture. I have a friend who owns a junk yard for 1968 and older cars only and he lets me pick out old cars I want to paint on. I like to try and make the cars look a little like old WW2 airplanes with nose cone art and make them a little frightening looking. I not only paint the actual cars but I like to put them in my paintings too. Cars are important parts of everyones’ lives so it makes sense to include them in any painting that is referencing reality. Hotrods are about as anti-high culture as you can get using them helps redefine what a painting actually is. I prefer to think of the toys that I have designed as small sculptures rather than playthings. But most people aren’t ready for art in their lives so the things have to be called toys because they’re not going to buy sculptures. The problem is that most people don’t give a shit about art so they’re not going to go out of their way to find it. If you make it as art but call it something else then you can trap them! The improved art that I do is just a way to fix up some of the shitty paintings that I find in junk stores. It’s actually a sort of Post Modern trick because I’m improving something that’s already there and not making something new. I find these really great landscape paintings with no action or characters and I figure I might as well make something happen in them. The round paintings are more challenging to do. The graphic equations that ones uses in constructing a square or rectangular painting don’t work with a round canvas. The picture plane is completely different and the eye of the viewer travels around it in an unusual way. People aren’t used to round paintings so they tend to look at them longer than another square one.
The figures in your paintings: there appear cats, wolves, rabbits, ducks … does each one represent a different character?
No, they all represent humans, and not specific types of people either. The way I see it is that all types of people like to drink, fuck, do drugs and read so why not make all the different animals able to do all those things too? Sure, the fox is sly and the wolf is cunning but literature and painting have used those characters to symbolize those characteristics for centuries. Why do it any more? In my world a cat is as likely to steal a TV as a dog or duck.
The magazine topic is “U.S.A”. Are they the representative cartoons of the culture of The United States?
Yes, the cartoons do represent the culture of the USA; it’s the culture that I live in so I end up making reference to it. But I try to show off the meaner, sadder aspects of American culture: stolen cars, fighting couples, drug use, the cruelty of the meat industry or general stupidity and laziness. I’m an American so I make American art. But American popular culture is world culture so what goes down here eventually goes down in other places. Even though the USA is ending its time as a political power its not anywhere near losing its cultural power. Other countries will always try to copy American culture but probably not American politics. In a few years the only thing that America will have left to export is its culture. This issue of Belio is proof of that.
What values, images, scenes … do you believe that you transmit with your works?
I am trying to make people realize that there’s a lot more going on out there than they suspect. I believe in conspiracies and plots as well as the lone assassin.
I have always felt that a successful painting is like a window through which you can stick your head and have a look all around that world. My paintings are that window, and I want the viewer to see my patch of the cartoon universe and then try to figure out what else could be going on there. The value of my work is that it shows the limits of my imagination while expanding the imagination of the viewer.
What do you think of the “American way of life”? Your thoughts about it are reflected in your artwork?
I have travelled all over the world and I have seen a lot of different “ways of life”; some are successful and some are failures. I think that the “American way of life” is a bullshit fantasy that needs to be rubbed out. This country is a vast Capitalist porno jack off and is a frightening blend of ignorance and brute force. We live under the dictatorship of an idiot and our Democracy is a farce. What is most frightening about the USA is the sense of entitlement that people have; they really believe that they have a God given right to a fantasy world of endless credit and a hassle free existence. Reality is a nuisance to most Americans. My work reflects none of this. The problems of America are too great to be solved through anything other than a bloody revolution. Art is a useless weapon and can do nothing to stop the greedhead death’s heads in power. All I’m trying to do with my work is make people re-ignite their own imaginations and remind them to think for themselves.
We inhabit a visually compromised world, navigating an image glut in which pictures have proliferated beyond super-saturated satiation to physically subsume our senses. In a realm of growing redundancy and manifest manufacture, it seems inevitable that among this great slew of contemporary artists and ever-expanding art history some sort of radical recycling solution would ultimately have to be devised. And for the many already familiar with the wryly subversive humor of Anthony Ausgang’s paintings, or even his penchant for collecting and recontextualizing the culturally reviled and socially expurgated past ephemera of the incessant American pop machine, it might be equally evident that Ausgang was the one to rescue and reanimate the inane inventory of bad paintings cluttering our attics, thrift stores and flea markets. Call it the aesthetic ecology for the twenty-first century, call it the pictorial economics for the new depression, but Ausgang’s revisionist interpretations of the second hand and second rate perform a daring salvage and provocative sacrilege on the bloated corpse of amateur art-making, kitsch reproductions and cliched representations that is nothing less than utterly fantastic.
Laugh or leer as you most certainly will when it comes to looking at Ausgang’s thrift store transgressions, but know too that what makes these purloined and mediated pictures work so well is that they’re all about love. What we might otherwise have to term post-modern about Anthony Ausgang’s visual strategies here- the appropriation of pre-existing imagery, the problematic questions regarding authorship and originality, and the systematic inversion of hierarchical value systems- is almost beside the point. Whereas the cultural critique endemic to much of late 20th Century art historical deconstruction was engendered by a rather mean-spirited sense of irony and a widespread polemics of intellectual intolerance, Ausgang approaches each canvas with a highly democratic, inclusive appreciation and relative equivalence. With his delirious comic interventions, Ausgang evinces an open heart and free imagination that bears no condescension. He has no need, nor desire, to demean the imperfect efforts of weekend painters, the over-circulated repros of fine art classics or the forsaken expressions of passé` style. Anthony proves that even the most debased of renderings contain an inherent capacity for artistic elevation, and that we can enjoy the ridiculous without ridiculing it.
Even when he must know that the canvas before him is truly beneath the consideration and efforts of a painter with his talents, Ausgang mines the most mediocre material for what it offers- the affordable, available, and most significantly, expansive possibilities for discursive dialogue. Entering into these already established compositions, Ausgang’s trespass of thrift store topographies is a sneaky kind of voyeuristic intrusion where, no matter how outrageous his visual prank may be, his own hand must remain true to that of the original, the trace of his touch subtle and seamless. Each incursion is less an invasion than an investigation, and though he may violate its former intentions he maintains its integrity. In trying to change the message while maintaining the essence of the medium, each painting presents this artist with a complex compositional puzzle. On the one hand Ausgang must contend with the same formal issues regarding representation that go into any painting- and problem solving, after all, is at the heart of any creative process. On the other hand however, he must now also address these concerns within a preexisting pictorial narrative.
Ausgang doesn’t paint over so much as paint within. He’s not simply looking for canvases to cover, but rather those spaces inside a picture that can allow him to insert his ulterior visual information. “If you want to get it right,” Ausgang admits, “graphically you have to be a slave to what others have done before you.” Just as his most radical juxtapositions have to work conceptually, and his most jarring alterations must conform stylistically, so too is an abiding sense of scale essential to sustaining the perspectival logic by which we can enter, and believe, this flat fiction. Working within such constraints, while he continues to paint with the same stunningly bizarre imagination evident in all his work, this act of invention is now rather a kind of solution. How do you deface a Van Gogh without defaming its genius, or perpetrate a perversity upon the quaint Americana of a Norman Rockwell while preserving its innocence? For that matter, what can be done to make a bad painting better, or a cheap sentiment valuable, in such a way that the forgery doesn’t forfeit any of the original idiosyncrasy? Anthony does it by holding the compositional integrity of any picture as paramount, and honoring the past with the same intensity that he haunts it. In terms of technical skill and artistic vision alike, these hybrid conflation’s of antiquated ideals and contemporary iconoclasm’s are like lessons on the problems and poetics of painting itself.
Perfecting the prank, Ausgang’s altered artifacts follow through on Duchamp’s mustached Mona Lisa with the same abiding affection for the inherent beauty of the found object as motivated R. Mutt’s urinal. And if the collection and exhibition of thrift store paintings by fellow Los Angeles artist Jim Shaw belongs to the purer forms of l’objet trouve tradition, Ausgang’s vulgarized vandalism’s are far more overt in the ambition and Duchampian conceit of their co-option and conquest. Ausgang himself will describe it as a kind of pictorial colonialism. Here, like a visual equivalent for our adaptable and continuously morphing relationship to the environment and authority of history, Ausgang hits the landscape with the vigor and fearlessness of a graffiti writer or a skateboarder’s reappropriation of urban architecture. With humor to deflect the sheer force and audacity of his genre-tweaking mayhem, Ausgang brings an explicit and graphic vernacular to the polite converse of the sublime, divine, exotic, idyllic and pastoral in painting. And as landscapes are the easiest and most common subject matter for the hobby artist, Ausgang takes particular pleasure in pissing on the pastoral, riffing on these sedate settings with pornographic flourishes, toxic pollutants and a populace of oblivious vacationers, fornicating felines, automotive atrocities, and beer guzzling hunters. Sincerity and irony flip, inversions strung between picture planes, as the original painting is made background to Ausgang’s deranged dramas.
Ausgang’s signature cat is the most frequent star to bum rush the bucolic, crashing scenery in center stage antics of public indecency, drunken stupor and slothful leisure. Brunt of the litter spawned by all those Krazy cats from Felix to Fritz, Ausgang’s animal is a florescent stewpot of our basest desires unleashed, exaggerated with the radical distortions of Tex Avery cartoons and animated by his surrealist disjunction against the placid picturesque. Whether projectile vomiting across scenic vistas or using the lay of the land to commit suicide, this carnal cat is mere metaphor for our greater disease before nature. Mountains, woods, streams, meadows, ocean fronts and villages, where-ever Ausgang finds them all, we too will see the desperate dramas, the marching soldiers, lurking assassins, missiles, airplanes, jet skis, hot rods and myriad other pleasure craft. And as long as humanity continues to paint its gardens, Anthony Ausgang will retrieve and revamp them- not to return to Eden or any other arcadia, but to recycle them through the forgotten composts and abandoned outposts of our perpetual recreation.
In the documentary POPaganda, on view at the Station Museum as part of the “Power Pathos” group exhibition, artist Ron English says billboard liberators are modern-day superheroes. These alterers of advertisements move among us, their lives fairly normal on the surface, but they have secret identities, secret hideouts and a secret agenda to subvert the visual noise thrown in our faces every day, the repetitive ballyhooing of everything from electric razors to Christianity.
English knows what he’s talking about. Right around the time he was in town to paint a larger-than-life-size interpretation of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, a couple of billboards appeared around town bearing his distinctive mark. One, at the corner of Montrose and Fairview, was a picture of Jesus piloting a spaceship. The other, right down the street from the Station, had the Lord and Savior holding a Budweiser with the caption “King of Jews. King of Beers.” We’re not saying English had any part in these culture jams —hey, he’ll come forward if he wants to — but anyone familiar with his work has seen images like these before.
And anyone who wasn’t raised on a fundamentalist compound will have seen some of the imagery in “Power Pathos,” a group show featuring five artists whose work mines the memes of advertising, cartoons, comics, carnivals, graffiti, tattoos, surfing and other bits of pop-culture detritus. These artists, all of whom have Texas ties, can be lumped together under the term “lowbrow,” although the curators of the show prefer “pop surreal-ism,” a nod to the direct line between the works in the show and those of the Surrealists. These contemporary artists play with the subconscious, although theirs is the collective subconscious of the media age.
Anthony Ausgang offers up several paintings of his signature cats, brightly colored and drawn in the cartoony style of Tom or Sylvester — that is, if Jerry and Tweety were looking at them after dropping a couple of hits of acid. Eat or Be Eaten (2006) has four connected mouths and three connected cat heads that turn in on one another, making for a bizarre feline ouroboros. These images are highly stylized and hint at computer manipulation, signaling a development toward further abstraction in Ausgang’s style. It’s as if the artist has become tired of drawing the same cats over and over again and has decided to mix it up.
Nobody does repetitive drawing like man-child Daniel Johnston, whose work seems to be rediscovered and lauded every few years, this time around by the Whitney Biennial and Infernal Bridegroom Productions, which produced a rock opera based on his life. Over a hundred of Johnston’s drawings (1970 to 2005) are on display at the Station, giving us the opportunity to see multiple variations of the artist’s stock characters (Captain America, Joe Boxer, that frog with tentacle eyes) and his recurring themes (good vs. evil, unrequited love, mental illness). Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like a Peeping Tom when staring at these creations — the artist, by most accounts, is a few colors short of a full palette — but you can’t deny the sense of humor he brings to his demons. In one drawing, a pipe-smoking husband tells his wife, “The boy is insane,” to which she replies, “He’s just being funny.” In another, a self-portrait, we see Johnston, missing the top of his head, tinkling with piano keys while thinking, “I dream of superstardoom.”
Gibby Haynes’s drawings (1995 to 2006) look just like what you’d expect from the lead singer of the Butthole Surfers. In other words, they’re weird. With pen and paper, he creates doodles resembling the illustrations of Shel Silverstein, and his gouache works, full of bright colors and expressive figures, seem even more tailor-made for children (although most parents wouldn’t let their kids go near the guy). Many of the drawings are accentuated with cursive scribbles, slightly illegible poems of sorts that add sub-tle formal touches. I tried scanning the words for familiar lyrics to Butthole Surfers songs, but then I realized I have no idea what Haynes is singing most of the time. Also on display is Burning Poppies (2006), an installation of 150 cereal boxes created specifically for the show. The boxes have been sliced up and woven together like a mat, and even though there are some nice touches — a green swirl of Apple Jacks here, a yellow swath of Cheerios and Kix there — the installation ultimately seems slapdash and derivative. Perhaps Haynes, realizing his works didn’t have near as many cultural references as the other artists’, decided at the last minute to add some pop to his tart.
Clark Fox is an artist who clearly didn’t have that problem. Mr. Peanut, Big Chief, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy — these iconic gents permeate his paintings. The JFK series (1998 to 2002) features 48 paintings of the president lined up in rows, each slightly different from the rest, but the repetition of the icon is what’s key. A large mural, Two American Revolutionaries Hugo Chavez and George Washington (2006), covers an entire wall and depicts the titular figures as well as Mr. Peanut and an airplane bomber, the same type of craft used by the Nazi war machine when flattening the small Basque village of Guernica in 1937.
Sixteen hundred civilians were wounded or killed during that raid, and the village burned for three days, prompting Picasso to create his Guernica for the Paris Exhibition. That masterpiece has provided Ron English with endless inspiration, and three of the works in “Power Pathos” riff upon it, but none so largely as Kiddy Guernica, a 2006 work created on site at the Station. The famous horse is still there, his head twisting in anguish, but this time he’s part of a merry-go-round. In the center of the work English has situated a boy, decked out in leather hat and goggles, manning a small fighter plane with a cold look in his eyes. By depicting both bombed and bomber as children, English emphasizes the number of civilian casualties in war while illuminating the killer inside all of us, inside all of our children, suckled on a steady diet of propaganda and toy guns. It’s quintessential pop surrealism, a mixing of high and low, young and old, a simultaneous celebration and denigration of postmodern life, all topped off with a heaping dose of the carnivalesque.
What is your background, including training and key aesthetic influences?
My family immigrated to this country in the early 1960s. My father did his best to figure out American culture by starting from the bottom up, taking my brother and me to hot rod shows, demolition derbies and rodeos. Meanwhile, my Mom took us to the operas, symphonies and museums. As a teenager I was dragged all over the world during summer vacations and in 1976 I spent three months in Bali, Indonesia where I was profoundly affected by the way art and life were integrated in that society. I decide that I wanted to become an artist and I attended several art schools before finally dropping out. I got a job as a fabric painter and learned an enormous number of different painting techniques. I always felt closest to cultural underdogs like Underground comics and Punk Rock so I was naturally inclined to make art that was completely different than what I was seeing in galleries and museums.
Do you believe there is a cohesive art movement currently at play, which has been called Low-Brow, Pop Surrealism, and many other names? If not, what do you believe is happening in art today?
Yes, there is currently a major revolution going on in the art world and this “art movement that dare not speak its name” is engaged in a culture war from which it will emerge as the legitimate heir to Pop Art.
What are the characteristics of this movement, including name, key aesthetic elements, influences, artists and supporters?
This is a group of artists that take cartoon representations of humans, animals and objects as a starting point for a new type of art. These artists are not bound to an accurate depiction of a collective reality; instead, they are engaged in the representation of individual realities. In the past, an artist’s style is what made the final work uniquely theirs. Now, each of the artists in Low-Brow has created their own universe with it’s particular characteristics. The distinct universes of each artist are combined together to create a “multiverse” and therefore, an art movement.
How do you think the movement has coalesced, and how do you see it evolving?
The movement began with strong roots in the “alternative” cultures of the 1960s and 1970s like Underground Comics, carnival and schlock art. Cartoon based art entered the cultural arena with the invention of Pop Art in the early 1960s but the rudeness of the message was diluted by the narrative “coolness” that was required by the Fine Art establishment of that era. As Pop Art recedes into the historical past I think this type of art will become much more engaged and wild. This art movement will not tone down its message or approach, it will require the Fine Art Establishment to loosen up and get naked with the new freak crew.
What is its place in the larger art landscape?
It’s place is the ultimate democratization of art; street art in the galleries and gallery art in the street.
Is populist art credible? What are the barriers to high-end acceptance?
The credibility of this art movement is absolute; populist art is proud of its mean roots. Unfortunately, that “Nascar Mentality” will stand in the way of high-end acceptance. The high enders have spent a lot of time and money educating themselves and are not about to let the servants in to the party.
What is the end-game scenario? Will elements/artists be absorbed into art establishment (Twist/Banksy) Has the art market permanently expanded and thus may indefinitely support a second tier?
Very interesting question! I think that the art market can handle a two-tier value system and will let Populist Art grab some of the loot. Meanwhile, elements of Populist Art will be absorbed into the art establishment and some artists will be financially rewarded for their low brow ways. Ultimately it will be a cultural detente.
1) YOU IN 1-2-3… IN HOW MANY WORDS YOU WANT…
I have been living in Los Angeles, California since 1980. When I first arrived, I began doing collage for ads and flyers for punk rock bands but eventually concentrated on painting. There weren’t very many galleries in LA at the time that would show the kind of art I was doing so I showed at clubs and artist run galleries. After the artist Robert Williams hit the scene in the late ’80s, rock stars and famous actors began to buy “alternative” art so a lot of galleries showing “Low Brow” and “Pop Surrealism” opened up. I consider myself to be among the first wave of Low Brow artists along with Pizz, Coop, Williams, and Georganne Deen. It was a pretty wild and wide-open time with lots of collectors and not too many artists. Later though a second wave of artists began to crowd things up and there were a lot of people painting hotrods, monsters, girls with big tits and stuff like that. The competition made me change my work and I began to explore more psychedelic imagery. At this point I’m trying to work in the area between representational and abstract painting.
2) DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST DRAWING YOU MADE?
My parents were pretty cool about letting me mess the house up with my drawings and weird constructions. They encouraged me to make art and I went to art classes and visited different museums. The first drawing I remember doing was a little guy in a flying saucer yelling for help. The weird thing is that I always drew a horizon line so that the characters I drew were firmly set in physical space. I couldn’t stand to have them just floating around on the piece of paper.
3) WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE THING TO DRAW AND WHY?
Almost all the characters in my paintings are cats. I like to paint cartoon style animals because I’m tired of always seeing people; wherever I go it’s always people, people, people so the last thing I want to see in art is more people. My paintings have been called “a vacation from reality” and that pretty much sums up where I’m trying to take the viewer of my art. I paint cats because I like them as pets and fellow passengers on this spaceship we call Earth. Plus, cats are self-cleaning mechanisms and that makes them easy to live with.
4) OTHER ARTISTS DO YOU LIKE…?
There are a lot of very good artists in Los Angeles right now; the current art scene is the strongest I’ve ever seen. Local heroes include Thomas Han, Luke Chueh and Lola but there are so many talented young painters that even with a list of 100 there would be some good ones I’d have to leave out! The older painters that I like include Robert Williams and Mark Ryden but again, there are so many it’s hard to list. Historically speaking I like Surrealist Art and a lot of the Italian illustrators from the 1960’s.
5) WHO AND/OR …WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR INFLUENCES?
The most important concept that I was ever introduced to was Punk Rock. The “alternative” music and art scene back in the late 1970s and early ’80s was all about the D.I.Y. ethic: Do It Yourself. See, the art scene was so fucking dead in the water with shit like Nagel and Warhol’s cruddy late work that it was impossible to get a show anywhere…except in artist run galleries, nightclubs and weird one-night events. This kind of freedom from the mainstream was a very important influence for me. I was on my way to becoming a fucking idiot until I discovered Punk Rock and Punk Art.
6) WHAT ARE YOUR CURRENT PROJECTS…
I have a show in 2006 in Houston, Texas with Gibby from The Butthole Surfers, Ron English and Clark. The dealer wants really big paintings so I’m looking forward to working on a big scale. I’ll be doing a CD cover for the ambient/soundscape collective Froxel. There’s always something about to happen that’s making me freak…
7) WHAT KIND OF MUSIC DO YOU LIKE AND YOU LISTEN…AND IS THE MUSIC IMPORTANT FOR YOUR ART…?
I like Heavy Dub music the most but I really enjoy Asian Massive, Rai, Bhangra, Pre-electric American Blues, Boogie; I just go from one internet station to the other checking out what’s going on all over the world. It’s amazing how Techno has blended with traditional ethnic music in so many cultures. These days I listen to standup comedy when I paint; the constant jokes and punch lines keep me awake and aware.
8) WHAT IS CREATIVITY FOR YOU?
Creativity is the most important practice/emotion there is. Without creativity a person is a lousy lover, a lame mechanic and generally dull asshole. Creativity means taking all the things you know and by them, learning something new.
9) FAVOURITE BOOKS?
I like the books of William Burroughs because he describes a world full of mean-spirited fools who eventually get busted by the few smart people on the planet. The most important book I ever read is Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Classical Greek literature is a must.
10) WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE MEDIUM TO WORK ON?
I work mostly with acrylic paints on canvas.
11) WHAT ELSE ARE YOU INTERESTED IN BESIDES VISUAL ARTS?
Literature, movies, theatre, just about everything gets my interest for a while.
12) GOT ANY PROJECTS PLANNED…?
Quit smoking cigarettes!
13) HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR ART TO SOMEONE WHO COULD NOT SEE IT?
I believe that a painting is a window into which one can stick ones head, look all around and see parts of the painting that aren’t there. A successful painting is a brief glimpse into a parallel universe.
14) WHAT DO YOU FEAR MOST?
Severe physical torture.
15) WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST AMBITION?
After death I want to move on to the next plane. I sure don’t want to come back to this world.
16) HOW IMPORTANT IS SELF-PROMOTION FOR AN ARTIST NOWDAYS?
Self promotion is the second most important skill that an artist can learn. The most important skill is to learn how to make great meaningful art, of course. Self promotion without the core of sincere art is vapid empty shit.
17) A MESSAGE FOR THE READERS FROM YOUR HEART…
Look at my art and decide for yourself what it’s worth.
One Kool Kat
Anthony Ausgang was born in Point-a-Pierre, Trinidad and Tobago to Welsh and Dutch parents. After a miserable plane flight, he arrived in Texas, just in time to catch the birth of Ed Roth’s Ratfink and Kennedy’s assassination (a connection noted by many conspiracy buffs). What was lousy about the flight was that the family had left a tropical paradise and moved to Houston.
Witnessing hot rod culture in the cow pastures of Spring Branch, Ausgang vowed to someday travel faster than his mother’s Euro ragtop Vespa and bust a move to California. The aforementioned car died a rapid death and ended up with a hippie named Peanut. The little farming community is now a suburb with few traces at all of its past.
After years of imprisonment in Texas, Anthony was slapped in the face by punk rock and thus knocked in a westerly direction. Ignoring the lure of Hollywood, he took up residence in the dangerous East L.A. He maintained his composure with painting and target practice as smack dealers sold their wares 24/7 on his doorstep.
One day at the beach, Ausgang found some Zap Comix that a bored surfer had left in the port-a-potty. Proud to say that he had “discovered the art of Robert Williams in a toilet,” Ausgang hunted down a show of Williams’ Zap Comix work at Zomo Art Space and introduced himself. That was in 1982. Realizing the vast difference between his curriculum at Otis Art Institute and the graphics of Lowbrow Art Culture, Ausgang dropped out of school to acquire practical knowledge of the budding craft.
Armed with portfolio and bad attitude, he harassed L.A.’s Zero One Gallery for a show and was eventually included in a group exhibit. His painting sold at the opening reception and both Ausgang and his new dealer were instantly struck blind by visions of giant dollar signs. Since then, collectors have tasted the Ausgang bait and bitten hard on the hook.
Anthony draws influence from as many “outside” channels as possible, preferring the toy contents of grocery store gumball machines to the latest exhibit at the Getty. He is most inspired by bomber nose art, weird cartoon characters, dead-lines, young talent, and people who will wait in line at an art show for an hour and a half, then pay $7 to get in. Badass hotrods and art helped him survive a near death accident when he was run over by a car while riding his bicycle.
Fueled by intelligence, informed opinion, Stanley Mouse, Salvador Dali, Skip Williamson, Robert Crumb, and Boris Artzibasheff (a mid-century illustrator), he is able to see the beauty in both Rembrandt and last year’s rusty primer. His variety of interests leads him to design his artwork on the computer but complete it on the easel with acrylic paints, a perfect combination of new technology and traditional media.
Outstanding examples of his wares include vintage autos used as canvas, his “Car Show Barbie,” and his signature cat motif. When asked why cats, he replied, “I paint cartoon characters because every-where I go I see people, people, people. So, the last thing I want to see when I look at art is more people. One writer described my art as ‘a vacation from reality.’ I paint cats because they seem to work well graphically and I love the fact that they’re self-cleaning machines; never met a dog that cleaned itself properly. I consider myself to be in the tradition of cat artists who have worked for thousands of years. Don’t forget that the Sphinx in Egypt is a cat and that’s one of the world’s great sculptures.”
Furthermore, he explains his love of hot rod culture: “Hot rod culture is an amazing sub-genre of American culture overall. The pioneer spirit lives in the bodies of the men and women who are willing to jam unwilling parts together to try and make something beautiful, fast and slightly dangerous. If parts are unavailable these lunatics will machine the part themselves; what could be more hardcore than that? In the art world you can have some fool with a single-color canvas and he’ll have a book to explain what it means. In hot rod culture you can’t write a manifesto about how your car should go 150 mph; it has to go 150 mph. I appreciate the lack of the ridiculous.”
“I have always been interested in the art painted on airplanes during WW1 and WW2; more the violent and weird cartoon characters than the pinup girls. Although early hot rodders painted flames on their vehicles, I think that the first real popular usage of painted flames was on fighter planes. So, I saw a connection between art applied on cars and military airplanes. I was also getting tired of painting on canvas and a beat-up old car appealed to me. No one else was painting on old cars and trying to pass them off as ‘fine art’ so I got a lot of offers of thrashed old cars to paint on.
At one of the Blessing of The Cars events, I was given an early 1950s Plymouth 4-door to paint. It was set up next to Ed Roth’s merchandise booth and I labored furiously in the direct sun all day while watching him rake in the dough. Every now and again his customers would wander over and silently watch me sweat-ng and cursing as I painted on hot metal with water-based paints. The paint dried immediately and was impossible to work with. At the end of the day I finished the car, everyone was leaving and Roth walked over. I was hunched over in the shade of the wheel well and he just looked at me and said “Those are pretty nice flames, believe it or not” then split. I had a lot of respect for Roth, he actually took some time out at one of the early Rat Fink reunions to teach me how to pinstripe.”
Ausgang himself drives a low-key, cream and white 1957 Chevy panel truck that’s basically original except for the 350 powerplant, dual exhaust and lowered beam front axle. Upon acquisition it was a mess and was towed home to a very unamused girlfriend. She split but the truck stayed.
Occasionally, Anthony can still be spotted at The Blessing of The Cars seeking redemption from his auto-artistic sins. As a mainstay in the lowbrow art scene, he will continue to entertain viewers with his comical cultural car commentaries, and like the Sphinx, forever remain one kool kat.
Paintings from L.A.-based artist Anthony Ausgang are featured as part of the “Double Trouble” exhibition at the CoproNason Publishing Gallery, in Culver City, California. A part of the ‘lowbrow art’ scene since the early 1980s, Ausgang’s 25 paintings feature all of his trademark cats trapped in their warped 1930s Surrealism-meets-1960s Fillmore rock poster settings. The cats, inspired by the archetypes of early color animation, seem to live in a similarly cruel, perpetual state of futility. However, Ausgang never falls into the trap of recreating nostalgia for its own sake. While his clean, hard-edged craftsmanship recalls another era, this is hardly Walt Disney territory. The skewed perspectives, along with subtle and not so subtle palette shifts, pull his cats into an alternate world of contradictory existences; things are static as well as fluid, terrifying as well as humorous. Many of the cats’ bodies are ambiguous and don’t seem to have a beginning or an end. As shown here in “Unity of Opposites,” colors are pushed slightly beyond the viewer’s comfort level. ‘Matta meets the Roadrunner Hour on acid’ is about the easiest way I can describe it. Ausgangs’ work is refreshing in that it doesn’t rely on punch lines, over-sexualized imagery, or shock value to elicit a response. Rather, Ausgang achieves emotion through his handling of paint. You can find images of Ausgang’s work at ausgangart.com – David Hartwell
Describe your art in two sentences:
I paint in a “Cartoon Realist” style; that is, I attempt to make the cartoon universe of anthropomorphic animals and their environment appear real and believable. Of course, making this convincing depends on the viewer’s willingness to suspend their disbelief so I set up an interesting narrative that keeps the spectator involved.
How did you get started?
As a child I was encouraged by my parents to draw and paint and they allowed me to make as much of a mess as I deemed necessary. Naturally I was expected to turn to a more lucrative career when I went to college, but I lied about my classes and enrolled in the Art Department at the University of Texas. I left soon after to attend the Otis Art Institute in Los Angles from which I dropped out after 3 semesters. I continued to attended classes (Gary Panter actually encouraged me to stick around his class anyway) until I was finally booted out. I kept painting in my studio and began hitting up all the galleries for shows. I eventually got a show, the painting sold and that was either the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end, I still haven’t decided!
Who are your own art heroes?
My art heroes have changed over the years. Early on I like the paintings of Franz Marc, a German painter who was killed in WW1, his brief life made his paintings tragically appealing. As a student I liked Duchamp, his philosophy of “readymades” was a great theory for putting off completing assignments until I was on the way to class! I admired Warhol because he involved “cool” in his art but when I finally met him he was so deadpan and remote that I began to favor his sidekick at the time, Jean Michel Basquiat. During this time I was reading 60s-70s underground cartoons and eventually my art heroes became artists like R. Crumb and Robert Williams. Currently I have no favorite artists, only favorite works of art.
Why do you paint what you paint?
The necessity of using the human figure in art that purports to represent the “human condition” is one of art’s basic assumptions. I challenge this coda by using animals in a cartoon world to represent us, the people. There’s an entire genre of art dedicated to the depiction of humans and its called “Figurative Art”, how holier-than-thou can you get? Every time I leave my house I’m bombarded by the spectacle of humans going about their business and the last thing I want to look at when I return is more images of people. I alleviate this visual suffering by painting cartoon animals.
Do you have a favorite piece?
I always think that the painting I’m working on is the best, most kickass painting I’ve ever done. It’s a lie I tell myself to keep going!
What are your favorite mediums?
I use water based acrylic paint on primed canvas that has been stretched over either plywood or luan on top of stretcher bars. I like the stiff surface because I can rest my hand or entire arm against the surface and not dent the canvas. I use Nova Color premixed acrylic paint, it’s a nice smooth consistency that’s impossible to get from tube paint. I use mostly “rounds” and sometimes flat brushes; for blending large areas I use fan brushes.
Bragging rights time…who owns your art?
Fuck it, I don’t wanna write about who owns my art. I’d rather tell a story about my low beginnings. When I first started out showing my artwork around, I made an appointment to meet John Pochna, the dealer at the Zero One Gallery in L.A. When I got to the gallery at the appointed time, he wasn’t around so I sat down on a filthy couch to wait for him. This black girl, Tequila Mockingbird, comes in and sits next to me on this raggedy ass sofa and pulls out a big joint. We smoke it and she’s leaning into me with her hands grabbing my dick and her lipstick is crumbling and I’m wigging out. So suddenly I have to take a shit, badly, and I go around to the bathroom which is basically a toilet with no seat in a closet with no door. I look into the shitter and there’s a long, thick skid mark in it and right there is a huge cockroach just chowing down on this tarry fucking shit scrape. I push down the handle to flush the toilet and nothing happens; I look in the tank and it’s bone dry. Needless to say there’s no toilet paper so I pull out my prick and try to piss this thing down, drown it, something. But the roach holds on and the skid mark isn’t washing away, nothing. My guts are splitting and I’m about to shit my pants, so I have to stick my boot in, flatten the roach into the shit and smash the whole aggregate against the porcelain. I finish my business and go back out into the “gallery” and the dealer’s finally there, but he won’t look at my slides, won’t talk to me about my art, nothing; all he does is try and get me to give him a ride somewhere. He ended up being my art dealer for a couple of years!
What do you do in your spare time?
I have a 1968 Cougar and 1957 Chevy panel truck that I bravely attempt to keep roadworthy. I favor classic literature and conspiracy theory but read contemporary pop trash to keep on top of what’s trendy. I’m a news junkie and I’m as fascinated and disturbed by the daily body count coming from Iraq now as I was by the numbers coming from Vietnam when I was young. I attend war protests but cover my ass with regular target practice.
Maybe it’s because he borrows ideas from what the snobs at your local art museum pass by every-day, or because his work is hard to define, but Anthony Ausgang is one of those artists thrown into the “lowbrow” category of the underground art world. But the definition of “lowbrow” means unsophisticated or nonintellectual, and to that term, I object. I did my research, I dug up secrets, and I found Ausgang to be as complex as the artistic process itself. Sitting in his studio, in front of a massive body of work, I was befuddled.
Ausgang himself didn’t want to try to make too much sense of the paintings. He leaves that portion of the work to the viewer, and tough work it is. Staring at the canvases, I didn’t know what I was seeing. Cartoon cats are brought to life on Dali-esque landscapes, yet some of those landscapes aren’t even his own. Ausgang will some-times search thrift stores for paintings to improve upon, painting his cats as trespassers in new worlds. But why, Anthony? Why cats? And why do these cats act the way they do? “The funny thing to say is ‘I’m into pussy. That’s why cats. I like women. I like pussy,” he says half-jokingly. “The other way to explain it is that it just works.” However, these cats don’t merely exist as shapes in paint on a canvas. They illustrate humanity. “I paint cats because I think they’re the most anthropomorphic of all cartoon characters.” They live in another dimension that most of us can’t grasp. “A painting has to be a complete illusion, like a window that you can stick your head into and look all around … not just the image that’s painted. The creation of a painting is about creating a believable ‘universe’ in which all things make sense, even if the world depicted makes no sense by our world’s standards.”
And if none of that grabs you… he even has a few paintings of cats sucking each other off. Learn more at www.ausgangart.com
Open Space at High Velocity
Though he is long regarded as one of the finest confectioners of irresistibly opulent eye candy, something very strange has happened to the ocular taste buds of Anthony Ausgang. By most any measurement, his paintings are still just as delectable, but they convey an entirely different sense of the savory. Bent and misshapen beyond nature, as if melted by some psychic sun, Ausgang’s been painting a metaphysical toffee that bears no regard for the anatomy of our material world. His is a decadence of form that speaks to some terminal decay within our cultural sweet (wisdom) tooth. Different from most any other streak of madness let loose in the artist’s studio, Ausgang’s art bespeaks a pathological morphology that is pure digital dementia.
“Computers have had a lot to do with it,” Ausgang confesses of a practice still grounded in those arcane labors of applying paint to canvas. The new hallucinatory dreamscape Ausgang’s work now inhabits comes as a direct result of the fact that this old Luddite, and early radical voice of art’s lowbrow vernacular, has finally come to terms with technology’s capacity to act as a malleable creative tool, rather than representing merely a bogus history of visually homogenizing gimmicks. Describing the way artists are so easily entranced by the medium as “chrome people on checkerboard planets,” Ausgang marks the mid to late ’90s as the turning point in his resistance to such predictable tropes, when “I finally realized how I can harness Adobe Photoshop to work for me.” And with the zeal of any convert, Ausgang not only waxes rhapsodic about how the modest and carefully directed use of new technologies has changed his art but has also proselytized its value to the other venerable heads among his old-school peers. Recently sitting down for a session with that most obsessive of draftsmen, The Pizz, Ausgang wanted to show not simply how the computer can allow for a facility of means that doesn’t compromise the creative process, but also how “we all need to get over the purist attitudes.” For a painter who has dedicated decades to the fine art of warping reality, Ausgang’s more recent fascination with Photoshop’s purveyance of pictorial pleasure is simply a deeper embrace of the computer’s capacity to corrupt images. “In reworking my pictures on the computer, I was looking for a way to accept more distortion,” Ausgang explains, “to see how strange morphing and tweaking images could simulate psychedelic drug experiences.” Significantly, however, Ausgang’s referencing of psychedelia is far removed from any citing of its bastard lineage as a nostalgia-laden mannerism of ’60s design. Rather, it is based upon an equivalence in music, where the distortions available to early electric amplification, from feedback to the Wah-Wah pedal, put sound into a more liquid and less evidently linear form. If you can still conjure such a soundtrack, this is how Ausgang’s mind-manifesting topography bends and flows. Offering an alternate form of textuality, Anthony Ausgang gladly sacrifices much of what has been consistently apparent in his work. Using the myriad filters of his desktop laboratory to shatter, the authority of one singular reality, Ausgang reminds us of the multiple, convergent, and contradictory readings readily available to an expanded consciousness. Just as essential, however, is his insistence on the narrative form. They may be hard to read at times, but these pictures are nonetheless meant to be read. “It’s not really absolute abstraction,” Ausgang maintains. “They’re based on an altered reality that has to have some familiarity to work. I want that gray area between the literal image and its abstraction.” As such, Ausgang’s hyperbolic figuration discerns most directly from the radical distortions of cartoonists like Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. “I like the exaggeration you get with extreme movement in their work,” he tells us, “but for me, that moment of action is just the starting point. I want it stripped of its context. If the character is already exploded, take that as point zero, and then go further.” For all his efforts to contain the volatility of his exploding pictures, there is always the terrifying edge of complete psychic meltdown here: a sense that any space could at any time rupture in such a way, as Ausgang’s Elegy to a Yorkshire Landscape, in which even his signature every-man cat is subsumed in unruly dissolve.
As much as Anthony Ausgang confers an impossible con-fluence of terms, a simultaneous implosion of form and exteriorization of space, what saves him (and spares us) from the absurdist doodles that are the proclivity of so many others in such supererogatory submission to surrealism is that his concern for the derangement of meaning is fully grounded in his dedication to its hypothetical actuality. Describing a kind of pictorial anchor for his maelstrom of modifications, Ausgang contends that “there has to be some point to latch on to; it’s sort of like being on a stormy sea: you still have some sense of the horizon.” Th s, then, is the method to his madness, a fallible construct of faith: that there is the proverbial ghost in the machine that will, fully unfettered, create its own conciousness as a mere matter of technological evolution. More simply, it is a matter of the intrinsically regionalist nature of Ausgang’s vision. Ausgang may argue that digital technology intuitively suggests the biological, offering its own simulation of mutant cellular division in these paintings, but his ambitions remain rooted to the environs of his career-spanning tenure in Southern California. His stormy sea is the miasma not of a Joseph Mallard or William Turner, but of those mannerisms of perception as American as Thomas Hart Benton. “LA is not the canyonesque architecture of New York. It’s spread out so as to always offer a constant vista,” he explains. “Ringed by desert, my experience here is one of constant escape.” And still trip-ping out to the desert on a consistent basis, Anthony Ausgang looks at his paintings as a visual expression for “how my eye registers 20 miles of open space at high velocity.”
SM: I believe that Lowbrow has enormous commercial potential! People go crazy about it, but “experts” just don’t! Some of European critics still dismiss it as “too American”, “illustrative” and so on. Situation in Europe is rather strange: power is what matters even beyond money. And everything is dictated by New York (Soho Art Trust) and London (Saatchi & Serota). You & your colleagues did great marketing job with artist sites. Now, that’s a revolution! What is the institutional response towards new underground art in USA? You’ve exhibited in “Kustom Kulture” show? Are museums slowly opening for this kind of art?
AA: The “enormous commercial potential” lies in the utility of Low Brow Art: since it’s illustration based it’s perfect for media reproduction, like CD covers or advertisements. Low Brow art also appeals to an audience in the lowest levels of consumer participation: when was the last time you saw a tattoo of an abstract or Minimalist color field painting? In Low Brow Art very little is left to the viewer’s imagination since the narrative is set up and the images and characters clearly defined. The message is obvious and frequently resorts to influences outside of the artworld. This can make it “too American” in that it’s cultural references are often specifically American television shows, fads and trends.
I’m amazed how the word “illustrative” is used as an insult since the museums of Europe are filled with accurate renderings of landscapes and people. The New York and London “art mafia” are nothing new, collectors and critics have always dictated which artists and styles are good or bad. The lucky thing is that they have this stranglehold only in the top levels of the artworld; down below, the Low Brow artists are still able to find collectors. This is where the internet becomes very useful because it’s a sophisticated and efficient way for art to be seen by a worldwide audience.
The “Kustom Kulture” show was remarkable in that it was a museum show. It was not remarkable that in order for that to happen a lot of political deals had to be made in the offices of the museum organizing the show. Museums are “slowly opening for this kind of art” but they are quickly becoming more receptive to highly talented individual Low Brow artists.
SM: I’ve read that sometimes You make sketches for your paintings on computer. Some figurative deformations You apply do remind me of digital distortion commands (like Corel’s “Swirl” etc.) However, end result (easel painting) is much more thrilling than current digital animation which is still somehow too static. I really must ask You this: what is the main cause for faceless expression of new cartoons? Commercial reasons, rigid logic of technology or…? I mean, objects in “3D Studio Max” or “3D Viz”, for example, have to be in logical perspective…and that’s a drag because painting was always based on anti-perspective as higher expression (Byzantine frescoes, Gothic or “Fall from grace” by A.A.)
AA: The artists who use new animation technology concentrate on making easily recognized imagery so it can be understood by visually unsophisticated audiences. The psychedelic potential is ignored so that crowd can marvel at the animation’s closeness to a perfect “cartoon reality”. However, cartoon animation, no matter how believable it is in terms of light and space, is never expected to duplicate our normal visual reality; we have live actors and film for that. Cartoon animation is striving towards an unspecified perfection. “The faceless expression of new cartoons” is because it’s all about technology designed to amaze people visually, not impress them with new narrative and stylistic freedoms. Painting is a very primitive form and consists of a single image therefore it can utilize these new technologies in an entirely different way than animation. The surface of a painting is completely different than a monitor or movie screen and lend itself more to that immediacy of “contact”.
SM: Can You tell me about your 100 $ paintings project. I saw that ad in Juxtapoz and couldn’t believe it!!! Is it still going on? If so, how can people from Yugoslavia buy your stuff? We don’t have Pay Pal, only Western Union Transfer. What do You want to achieve with 100 $ works? Create brand new art audience? Dump overpriced “high art” dinosaurs or…?
AA: I sell 100$ black and white paintings for two reasons. Artistically it gives me an opportunity to “remix” images in a manner very similar to the way music is remixed to make a different version of a particular song. I can use a single image as many times as I want to, putting a character in different situations and throwing together the drawings from several paintings. I don’t like to use the same drawings in separate “major” paintings but I love to use the same drawings when I make these “minor” works. I also do these 100 dollar works to make original paintings affordable to people who normally can’t buy art. Ownership of an original painting should not be restricted to people who can afford to spend lots of money. I’m not trying to “dump overpriced high art dinosaurs”, just make art that’s affordable to all. I sell work for 100$ and 3000$, and all prices in between.
SM: I see that you insist on monumental approach: crystal clear composition, reduced palette (in certain sense)…opposing “maximalism” of Your peers. However, I could never make out how many figures are out there on your paintings? One mouth – two tongues! One body – three legs! It’s as if futurist Marinetti was Warner Brothers art director? Are You taking a laugh out of 20’s avant-gardes or reminding us that we completely forgot how to deal with problem of movement in plastic arts?
AA: In the high art world the kind of distortion you’re talking about is called “Cubism”; in the low art word it’s called “psychedelic”. I won’t deny that a lot of my inspiration for this distortion is drugs like LSD and DMT since they’ve provided me with stunning visuals. The difficulty of course is how to transfer that from the mind’s eye to the canvas. The best way for me is through the “monumental approach”: analyzing the experienced visual and then professionally constructing an image that shows it off. The major problem is how to boil sequential images down to a single panel; my way of achieving this is to make references to action before and after the most important moment. There’s really no advanced theory behind it, it just looks good.
SM: If it’s not top secret, would You describe how the work process goes? Do You work with assistants? My guess is yes! Your production is gigantic to me! Still, quality never declines! Will You pump things up like Disney? I guess You could. People fall in instant love with your images.
AA: I first make a pencil drawing of a character on a piece of paper and scan it into the computer. I then use Adobe Photoshop filters to change the drawing around. Once I have a suitable character with some sort of action to it I begin to decide the environment in which all the action is going to take place. At that point I have the basic painting layout but not necessarily the story. I then print out the black and white line drawing and project it onto a stretched canvas. I very seldom try out color combinations in advance on the computer. Sometimes I’ll have the narrative decided in advance, other times it comes to me as I paint. I’ve spent as long as a month and a half on one painting but there’s no telling how much time it’s going to take to finish. After it’s done I put the goddamn thing away and only the passage of time will tell whether its a good one of a piece of shit.
The quality is always in doubt, I’m always surprised when the paintings look good. I still break brushes and smash my canvases when things don’t go quite right. I’ve been painting for a good 20 years now and there’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears involved in making these paintings. Not to mention ruined relationships, painting is a solitary pursuit; God help the spouse of an artist!
I don’t have an assistant, if I did I sure wouldn’t let them paint, that’s the fun part. I’d make them go food shopping or clean my house, the shit I really don’t want to do!
SM: Are You actually doing sequential art? I think not.
AA: I’ve done a few animated cartoons but they’re really just loops of psychedelic cat heads morphing into indescribable graphic chaos and back again. No story.
SM: How would You describe basic differences between east & west coast underground art scenes? By the way, do you know what’s Rick Prol doing now?
AA: The East Coast scene is more graffiti oriented; the kids are coming from that type of graphic background and are also much more “rave” inspired. The art has a more conceptual edge and requires some intellectual discourse to be explained It’s a much younger crew. The West Coast is more about painting and using slightly older pop culture references. Basically I’d say West Coast is derived from “Kustom Kulture” and the east Coast from Graffiti.
Chris Musto: Obvious question out of the way first. Who are some of your influences & favorite working artists?
Anthony Ausgang: My thematic influences started in my high school library, where there was an entire run of Life magazines from the ’30s to the ’60s. I used to ignore my homework assignments and sit and look through the issues, tripping on all the old advertisements and articles. After I moved to LA I began finding tons of old magazines in junk stores and I began making collage work from stuff I would cut out. I eventually got bored with just pasting images together and began to do paintings of the collages. I was always attracted to images of company mascots, shit like tractors with tails and paws. Finally I just abandoned the magazine source material altogether and began painting from my drawings. I had learned the basic idea of what constitutes a cartoon character from watching TV cartoons and collecting little animal figurines so I’d just draw whatever fucked up anatomically impossible animal would pop into my head. I was influenced a lot at this point by the artists in the magazines I had all over my studio, people like Hannes Bok, Virgil Finlay and various anonymous cover artists. The colors were lurid, the monsters completely bizarre and the women were sex exemplified. I was also inspired by the stories I would read in these old Sci-Fi pulps and paperbacks. My parents brought me up to be a great reader so I learned as a child how to visualize the characters and setting that I was reading about. I still believe that the most important exercise for a visual artist is reading. It’s easy to put into visual terms what’s floating around in one’s head but far more difficult to build a character or scene from someone else’s description. It works out the visual muscle, which is sadly flaccid in the majority of artists I encounter.
My technical influences come from my parents dragging me kicking and screaming to the finest museums that Europe had to offer. I was bored by most of it, but the paintings cut through the shit and really “spoke” to me. I was engaged most by Flemish paintings from the 14th and 15th centuries, works that chronicled life in Medieval Europe. Years later I took psychedelics and went the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, looking very closely at Bosch and Breugel paintings for hours on end. I’ve never painted with oils but I managed to learn a lot of technical shortcuts by looking at “old masters” art. The art of the Russian Constructivists gave me an entirely new sense of graphic arrangement; Pop Art and Surrealism taught me that anything is possible and Abstract Expressionism showed me that anything is acceptable.
I have no favorite working artists, only favorite individual WORKS of art. Most of Robert William’s work is good but some are slightly off the mark (that may sound blasphemous to some but it’s a painful truth, for all artists). And that goes for me, for every really successful painting there’s a slew of shitty ones. I had a long discussion with Sonic Boom about if an artist can create only great works and we couldn’t come up with ONE artist (or musician) that hadn’t done a few clunkers.
CM: What’s the first thing you can remember drawing?
AA: My hamster in his cage. It won a blue ribbon at some “art faire” and the goddamn thing hung on a wall at my parent’s house for years.
CM: When did you decide you wanted to be an artist/ was your family & friends supportive?
AA: I came of “artistic age” in the late 70’s, early 80’s when Punk Rock was happening and I was completely blown away by all the artistic freedom I witnessed going down. I changed my style and demeanor to match, and the only crew at the campus of The University of Texas that shared my new sensibilities was gathered in the Fine Art building. I saw those cute gals and stylish guys and just wanted to be there with ’em. My parents were supportive in their lack of antagonism: they never actually approved but they were savvy enough to appreciate the fact I wasn’t a junkie.
CM: Where did your fascination with hot rods come from?
AA: In 60’s America there was a strong hotrod and custom car culture. Years later I was to meet the masterminds behind the hyping of the craze, people like Jim Brucker in Santa Paula for example. Anyway, my Dad took me to the shows that would hit Houston, Texas and we would go see the latest Ed Roth and Tom Daniels creations. Making car models was a rite of passage for American male youth at the time and I built many of them on the kitchen table. One day I bought a “hot knife” that enabled me customize my own rides from the standard kits and I fancied myself a Roth in training. The hot rod thus became a powerful icon in my lexicon of images and I incorporated it in my early paintings without even considering its appropriateness.
CM: What was it like at the Otis Art institute in LA? Were they accepting of the cartoon/hot rod influence or did you get a hard time for it?
AA: I was pretty much your standard issue American college kid, out from the parent’s house for the first time so I spent most of my energy getting fucked up and trying to get passing grades. The Otis Art Institute was a different story: I was up against talented young artists and I had to get my shit together if I was going to develop in any meaningful direction. I accepted the self-discipline and worked my ass off. It was incredibly necessary for me to have an authority figure that I respected hanging over me. The teachers at the time were wildly open to whatever the students presented, as long as it satisfied the assignment so I had no problems with my choice of imagery. Remember, there WAS no Kustom Kulture at the time so the use of hotrods and monsters was essentially neutral and reactionary to nothing. The only kid I saw get a hard time for his art was drawing superhero comic book style and he got dissed badly.
CM: What would your dream project be?
AA: My dream project WAS to design little Hot Wheels size cars with my designs on them and goddamn if I didn’t get a deal with Playing Mantis, the company that makes Johnny Lightning toy cars. Well, they liked my designs and I knocked out two bitchen hot rods for them. At that point they decided to visit my website and they were so freaked out by what they considered my anti-establishment stance that they called me a “cultural renegade” and cancelled the deal. Why they felt it was okay to produce Playboy magazine cars and not mine is beyond me, after all Playboy is all about masturbation, which seems pretty lame to me. I’m still trying to find a company to produce them. My current dream project would be to go to Egypt and make some huge stone sculptures of my characters to rival the ancient stuff. Then bury them.
CM: If you could do a collaborative project with any artist living or dead, who would it be & why?
AA: I’d like to work with Dali so I could learn his classy tricks of self promotion!
CM: Here’s a 2-part question I’m swiping from Wizard magazine… What was your favorite toy as a kid & what’s your favorite toy as an adult?
AA: As a kid I favored these little plastic figurines I picked up in Holland in the late 60’s that were made as giveaways with certain products, like sodas or motor oil. They were incredibly detailed and most of them weren’t related to any show or product so kids could just make up any personality they wanted for them. The best one was a wolf in a smock and beret splattered with paint, holding a brush and looking slightly perplexed. My favorite toy now is a pair of spike heeled shoes on a beautiful woman.
CM: What kind of music & movies are you into?
AA: I’ll listen to anything, from archaic pre-electric recordings of Delta Blues to the Chemical Brothers. As long as it’s done well, I’ll check it out. I tend to listen to heavy Dub or “Ambient music” while painting because it just plods along like the whole painting process. I consider “Apocalypse Now” to be one of the finest movies made but once again, I’ll check out anything. Except bad porno, they should institute the death penalty for boring porn that uses ugly actors and actresses.
CM: And to top things off, what would you like to be best remembered for?
AA: Having studied Art History, I’m aware that it takes a GROUP of artists to create a movement but only a few select individuals will get credit. As Post Modernism progresses and art critics seek more ways to analyse the past, those “forgotten” artists get some crumbs of recognition. I have no illusions about my place in Art history and I’ll most likely never get included in any updates of Gardner’s Art Encyclopedia, tough shit. But I do hope I get remembered for having helped legitimize the use of cartoon characters in fine art.
1) Can you tell us something about you? How started your working, what brought you to paint?
My parents took me to some of the finest museums in Europe and I always liked the paintings the most. I’ve been drawing since I was a small child and when I went to Art School I began to fill in my black and white drawings with color. Once I started using color it was only natural that I would begin to model and use the paint for more than just filling in flat areas. I liked paint because I could get very messy with it, cover my clothes with splatters and drips and my parents didn’t care. If I came in covered with mud though I¹d be in trouble!
2) Your paintings are full of cats and cars: how come this? And why are missing human beings?
Cats are independent, the quality I admire most in people. I grew up watching cartoons on TV and like the cat characters the best. They seemed the closest to humans of all the animals. I use cars because while I was growing up in the 1960s there was a big hotrod culture going on. Not just drag racers but also bizarre designs and colors (like Ed Roth). I think that the human figure has been used in the visual arts for so long (ever since cave paintings) that its time to “abstract” things by removing it from paintings. It¹s more of a challenge to get my ideas about the human condition across using anthropomorphic cartoon animals. By using animals I can avoid the interpretations one gets by using the human figure. A fight between a cat and a dog is just that: an animal fight. A painting showing a fight between a black man and a white man becomes a painting about racism.
3) Your paintings are also very famous for their “erotic feelings” Why this presence so massive of eroticism? You are also known like a erotic painter, better said, sometime seems only like an erotic painter, but your art is not just made of this theme: do you think that is restrictive? And what do you think about this definition?
The “human condition¹ is about many things, sex is just one of them. I try to show my characters engaged in all aspects of being alive and I¹ll depict sex just as much as eating or taking drugs. Some people know me as an erotic painter, others call me a hotrod artist. Sex is such a difficult subject for some people that if there¹s even the slightest trace of it in a painting they consider that to be the dominant subject. It¹s their problem, not mine.
4) Which is the universe of Ausgang, I mean in your room, how many separate realities exist together?
Since making a painting is about creating an illusion (as Magritte showed in his painting “The Treachery Of Images”), a painter needs as much freedom from reality as possible. Therefore I pledge allegiance to the cartoon universe in which anything is possible: cartoon characters can walk on air or fall hundreds of feet and not get a scratch. The universe of Ausgang is all about ignoring reality and promoting illusion. A vast number of separate realities exist in me: Italian Opera and Rap, Photorealist painting and abstract expressionism. I need to have access to as many realities as possible so that I can make more choices when I paint.
5) In your Manifesto you say that you don’t believe in “tortured artist”, is just a trip of Catholic guilt bring down. Can you explain us this point of view? (personally I do agree with what you said, the problem is that just few say it)
The “Pleasure Principle” says that if one doesn’t take pleasure in doing something, one is unlikely to do it. If making art tortures an artist, then why would they continue to do so? Ever since Van Gogh artists have subscribed to the role of an artist as a madman and I consider this counter-productive. Artists are not insane, they may have a different definition of sanity than most people, but they aren’t lunatics. As far as the “Catholic guilt bring down” goes, it’s all about the guilt one that the church drops on people who want to live their lives without the guidelines of religion. That is, if I¹m doing something outside of a religious observance that makes me feel good, it must be a sin. The church has traditionally withheld approval of the arts since artists stopped painting icons and scenes from the bible
6) In your Manifesto and in your Bio you refer to JFK. When USA lost their innocence with that death, have found a true innocence in your paintings?
The USA has never been innocent, this country began with a bloody revolution and the violence has never stopped. The JFK assassination made people lose their naïveté and finally see this country for what it is: a violent imperialist arrogant culture that won¹t hesitate to kill its own citizens and leaders to ensure high profits. My paintings have nothing to do with innocence, I¹m a conspirator to alter contemporary culture.
7) Your paintings are something special no just for the subjects and the situations, but for the colors too. Can you tell where they come from, and if when you were a little scientist and color mixer helped to find such amazing colors?
My color choices start with the basic vibrant colors of the cartoon world. I make my colors brighter and more alarming so that my images will stand out in this world where we are bombarded with visual information all day, every day. Part of my personality is that I don¹t like to use consumer goods unless I can “customize” them somehow, so I mix up my own colors. That way the only way people can see my colors is in my paintings. If you want that nice purple/magenta/blue, you have to go to an Ausgang painting.
8) Zero One gallery was your first showroom, with rock stars and drug dealers, “normal museum” don’t accept this category of people? Or a drug dealer is a better critic of the official one? (you sold your first painting to a drug dealer, right?)
An artist will starve to death on good reviews, the highest praise still doesn’t put food on the table. The highest compliment I can get is to sell a painting. Art collectors are critics with money: if they like it, they buy it. I don’t care who buys my work, I’m not interested on “collector pedigree”. Museums have to be interested in that celebrity, its better for them to have a painting on loan from Leonardo De Caprio then someone in the Medellin drug cartel.
9) You, with great sincerity, talk about the relation of money, art, rich people, and owning a truck. Can you talk about this?
There are times that artists are the court jesters of the modern world. We are expected to play the role of madman and liven up boring parties. Our paintings are used by ugly people to entice good looking girls back to their houses. An expensive painting proves that the owner has money to spare, as much as a racehorse or Ferrari. And in the midst of all these riches, the artist still has to have a truck to carry around supplies and take care of other people shitwork.
10) Where you want to arrive with your paintings? What you want to give to the people? Which is the ethics behind? (if it does exist)
The ultimate Ausgang painting will combine all my knowledge of color and narrative theory. I want to make a painting that can be understood by people of any culture, language and race on Earth; that transcends language and can even be understood by an Alien from outer space. The Buddha says “Take nothing that is not offered” and my ethic is to get people to see my work because they want to, not because they are told to by some media machine. I believe in karma and if people get joy from looking at my paintings, I get happiness from their pleasure.
11) The combination between new technology and art.
I use the computer and the paintbrush. I make my drawings by hand, scan them into a computer and arrange all the graphic equations with the help of Adobe Photoshop. There are filters in that program that allow one to abstract and morph an image in ways that are impossible humans to do. Within the computer one finds “the ghost in the machine” and the chaos factor. Painting is about taking advantage of the unexpected and some computer processes accelerate that. I print out my final “drawing” and then paint on canvas from that. I seldom try out color combinations first, those schemes exist only in my mind.
12) In a way your art is a homage to Zap Comix, to the art of Robert Williams and Crumb. Those comics gave and give a good vibe to the culture in USA and more was an ironic slap to the official culture and normal value, making free the mind of a lot of people, with a laugh. Do you think that you art is a slap to the official culture, always with a laugh?
Yes, my paintings are a slap in the face of official culture but after that slap I run like hell! I was raised on Zap Comix and always loved and appreciated the humor. I found it refreshing that I could open a comic book and relate to the characters inside. I mean, I have more to do with Mr. Natural than Superman. Since my paintings often depict scandal and counter cultural behavior I guess my work is a comment on some aspects of “official culture” but I don¹t consider my paintings to be propaganda for “our side”.
13) In an interview you said how much is important to read books. Which author had more influence on you and who are your favorite writers? And from music and painting? Between your links I found Col. Jirayr Hamparzoom Zorthian. Is he an influence for you?
There are books that I read as a child that I still think about whereas there are stories I read last week I’ve already forgotten. Children’s stories are often the most surreal literature around and I like to read new books for kids. My favorite authors right now are David Foster Wallace and Don Delillo. I utilize music as a soundtrack to painting: ambient or dub for difficult passages, rock or rap for big easy spots! Zorthian is an inspiring character to me because he is an old man who just keeps on making art and will most likely die with an unfinished painting on his easel.
14) You wanted to be a journalist. What do you think about media? Have you seen what happened in Genova for the G8, what do you think about. And about all the story of Global System?
It is very difficult to write a news story without mixing in some of one’s own prejudice. I prefer strict reporting of facts which allows me to reach my own conclusion about the rightness or wrongness of whatever is going down. I like independent media such as online news websites and NPR (National Public Radio). As far as G8 went, I¹m sorry for the kid that died but I’ve been in a few riots myself and I know that bad things can happen, especially if one is protesting against the side with weapons. If people aren’t prepared to die for a cause then how serious are they about that cause? Power struggles are always going to result in death. And about “Global System”: Its weird that Bob Marley sang about “One World” and people agreed but unifying the world under one economic system is such a terrible idea to the same people. I don¹t see how any major change in world economics is going to take place without some fuckup. The Euro is a great idea but its going to take some time to work out the practical problems. When East and West Germany united a lot of people talked about the difficulties and how bad it was. It’s taken some time but its working out okay. I think activists on both the conservative and liberal agendas need to understand that it takes time to change things and with some issues it may take a long time.
15) Can you tell me the story of – Hangover 999 – Acrylic on found canvas – The city is Napoli. How come? ( I do live close to Napoli and it was a surprise that paint)
That painting is done on a “found canvas”, some one else¹s painting I bought in a junk store. I bought it because I liked the scene of a balcony overlooking the bay. It was a perfect spot to paint a hungover drunk in a classy location after too much good liquor. I had no idea it was Napoli until a few years ago when another Italian told me.
16) Next projects and will a show of your paintings in Italy?
Hopefully a show at Mondo Bizzarro next year!
‘Second Childhood’: The Mechanics of ‘Low Brow’
The neo-Pop fare proffered by artists these days is so full of child-hood staples—cartoons, comics and dolls—you’re more likely to find Hasbro in the gallery than in the aisles of Toy Town.
The artist with the highest mass-culture friendly profile right now is probably Takashi Murakami. Just 39, he has spear headed Japan’s “Superflat” movement and curated a touring show of the same name, the title of which refers to the two-dimensional illustrational style contemporary Japanese artists borrow from popular— and often saucy—cartoons and comics. “Superflat” has also become a buzzword for these artists’ perceived leveling of the high-culture tower, as they merge painting with ‘ lowly illustration.
This is nothing new. Stateside, artists have proved more than happy to borrow from everyday sources, thank you—remember Roy Lichtenstein’s appropriation of newspapers’ Benday dot? These days though, the epicenter of the American brand of mass-culture painting is Southern California. There, an artistic enclave descended from the anti-establishment shenanigans of three Los Angeles artists who painted custom cars—and later canvases—has taken hold. Called “Low Brow”, their work is full up with emblems of the unrefined: babes, fireballs and burgers.
“Low Brow shows that the line between fine and commercial art and tattoo and comics is an artificial one,” says Chip Sommer, curator of ‘Second Childhood,” a show at Rockville Arts Place featuring four artists with affinities to Low Brow. Of the four, only L.A.’s Anthony Ausgang pledges allegiance to the movement, but New Yorker Ron English, D.C.’s Maribeth Egan. and New Jersey’s Orlando Cuevas all craft paintings, panels and sculptures. that feature the eye-popping colors, slick presentation and hot cars of Low Brow.
The movement’s founding troika – Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Von Dutch (nee Kenneth Howard) and Robert Williams—started out, back in the ‘50s, as hotrod enthusiasts who worked on cars instead of canvas. proudly raising middle fingers to snobby high-art aficionados. Of the three, only Williams, now pushing 60, is still working. (Roth. creator of Rat Fink, a popular 1960s Mickey Mouse alter ego. died in April; Dutch in 1992.) These days, Williams is pursuing the rather highbrow endeavor of putting brush to canvas. But he hasn’t left behind the cheap thrills of his hotrod days. Take generous portions of souped-up cars and curvy girls in heels, add a taco or a hamburger. and you’ve got the Williams formula down-scatological comics on canvas. And they’re skillfully painted, too.
“A Low Brow painting can easily be achieved utilizing a ’32 Ford Roadster; a chick with big tits and Frankenstein,” latter-day Low Brower Ausgang, 42, tells me via e-mail from Los Angeles. “At its best Low Brow art takes these images and builds an unheard-of narrative, creating a new take on these cultural references.”
Ausgang’s own Dali-meets-Looney-Tunes canvases reveal the Williams influence. His version of “The Tortoise and the Hare” called “Why Walk When You Can Drive?,” has the rabbit handing the long-suffering tortoise the keys to his purple-and-lime car. In other panels, Ausgang stretches cartoon creatures to taffy-like lengths; mauve trees and melting skies add to the hallucinatory effect. Products of the untamed id, many of Ausgang’s works are scatological and perverse, but you won’t find those on view here. In keeping with the Rockville art center’s mandate to appeal to kids from its summer art program. the works here are rated G. Or maybe PG-13.
The troupes of kids I saw tramping through ‘Second Childhood’ appeared delighted with what they saw. That’s probably because all the work here is eye catching–bright colors and lots of action. But the kids are also loving it because some works here were made, in part, by their contemporaries. English transforms drawings by his 2- and 5-year olds into paintings on large canvases done in candy colors. Most of his paintings in the show are funny, conceptual one-trick ponies. His other pieces here, neo-Pop James Rosenquist-like juxtapositions of G.I. Joe figures and model planes, are more sophisticated. But it’s his eerie photorealist canvases of kids, some with three eyes, or in full KISS make-up, that are the most intriguing. Local artist Egan doesn’t consider herself Low Brow, but her small panels, presented in a series, are loaded with kiddie culture references. She layers them with digitally manipulated images borrowed from film stills, comics or thrift store finds and mounts them on panels, which she paints over in gouache. She says they mimic “how memories happen in the brain.” They’re a barrage of images that emerge and vanish again as quickly as they like a rapid-fire slide show of Dr. Seuss characters and Barbie.
While Egan and the rest refer to toys, Jersey City artist Cue vas actually makes his sculptures out of them. He buys loads of toys—on sale only, it’s his rule–takes them apart and reassembles them. With fat arms here, a kitchen sink for a torso there and a clay head on top. they surreal Franken toys Cuevas’s “Out of the Dollhouse” is a giant backdrop for his toys to play on. Made of several eight-foot-long modules, it’s an oversize playset, like the kind you can buy for Batman or Barbie. One scene is inside a house, another in front of a fanciful palace; a third is a little village where Frankenstein monsters drive around in former radio-controlled cars. Although this stuff looks more like outsider art than Low Brow, curator Sommer points out Cuevas’s facility with one particular icon: “He constructs a wicked little car, and wild cars area Low Brow standard:
Second Childhood, at Rockville Arts Place.
I e-mailed him out of the blue. I figured he might have heard of me since we’d been published in countless magazines together. I’d seen his stuff and was entranced by it. I already had an incurable case of “Ausgang-itis”. With Ausgang-itis you see lime green and bright orange dots everywhere. And cats… lots of cats.
He got back to me by e-mail and said he was interested in trading a piece with me. I do this with all of my favorite artists; and that’s a small club! This way I can get a piece of theirs into my Private Erotic Art Collection, already willed to a Museum at my demise. I already have original pieces by Weegee, George Hurrell (famous 1940’s glamour photographer), and many others… so he was in good company. He told me he had a piece that needed a special home; one he’d never been able to place. He sent me a scan of it and I immediately fell in love. It was round. It had attitude. It had cats.
After our trade was initiated, we continued to e-mail. His e-mails were some of the most witty, wild and savage ones I would receive. I knew this Ausgang was a formidable character.
The painting he gave me is my all-time favorite in my erotic art collection. It used to be my Weegee self-portrait but Ausgang-itis changed that. When he said it was a round painting, I thought he meant it was a round painting on a square canvas. Then I opened up the crate it came in and I’ll be damned-it’s actually a round fuckin painting… totally round. Like a circle on your wall. Only a circle with it’s own whimsical world inside. I think it’s called “Cat Pimp” and it’s got a Jessica Rabbit type babe in it with all of the volutua one can muster in a cartoon diva. Veronica Lake hair, pouty lips and boobs for days. And the funny thing is, that when I look at this painting, it always makes me feel good. It’s right up on the wall of my bedroom, right above my sewing machine, where I see it every day. One of the things I value most about his work is the originality in it. That’s what impresses me these days, originality in artwork. How many times have we seen something that’s just a version of something else? Too often is the answer.
In “Ausgang World” there’s lots of bright colors. Lots of cartoon characters with eyes falling out of their heads. Lots of pinks right out of a psychedelic poster with acid-oranges to match. One of my favorites on his site (www.ausgangart.com) right now is a painting called “The Ambush”; it’s cartoon cats all tatted out-a meaner, leaner, more delinquent version of his cats that are usually featured. They’ve got this other cat ambushed with tattoo guns while the background is obviously a tattoo shop in some comic book haven that can be found only in his head.
He informed me the other day that he first became acquainted with my photography in the crapper at the Frolic Room in Hollywood. Someone had stuck one of my stickers on the wall of the john but had craftily torn off the contact information on the bottom. However, due to bathroom fate, our meeting would come later.
Ausgang spent a while in art school and then pulled away from the histrionics to find his own way. I, for one, am certainly glad he did cause nothing he does is a version of the norm. Nothing he does is a part of someone elses art. He is a TRUE ORIGINAL. Round paintings are his frenzy. The crazy eyeballs are all part of his disease. And the cats are all his own.
Justice Howard: Your stuff is really cartoon-oriented. What is your thinking and your theories behind that?
Anthony Ausgang: Why do I like cartoons so much? Is that what you’re asking?
AA: Well it goes back a long time. It has a lot to do with my pop, who was basically an immigrant to this country and didn’t have much of a clue of what American culture was all about. So he was watching these cartoons on TV when I was growing up, with the same kind of enthusiasm I was. He’d never seen them before and I’d never seen them before, so we’d sit there together and watch cartoons on TV and just completely flip out on Warner Brothers and things like that. He would explain to me what was going on, like the adult humor and stuff like that. I just kind of really bonded with my dad over cartoons. But the thing that was most important was, since I liked them so much and my parents realized I liked them so much, they decided-if you fuck up or do something wrong, you can’t watch any cartoons. So it really made me value the cartoons and it kept me in line. There was kind of like a work ethic attached to that, ’cause if I did well I could watch cartoons. So when I paint, I want to paint the best thing I can so I paint cartoons. Does that make any sense?
JH: Yeah, that’s good. What kind of comics did you read as a kid, like MAD magazine or…
AA: I had a really weird upbringing because my father was Welsh and my mother was Dutch, therefore they were very European, and they tried to bring me up in a European way in the middle of ’60s America. I didn’t really read many comics, I read books more than anything. I think that has a lot to do with why I’m so visually oriented because I would come up with the images that were described in these books, as opposed to looking at a comic where it’s basically laid out for you. But I always read MAD magazine. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. I didn’t know of the cultural references, so I didn’t really get it. But it was all like magic to me. It didn’t make any sense, it didn’t hook up with any of my cultural brainwashing, because I had this European culture thing in my head and yet I was reading all this weird stuff like National Lampoon, their first few issues, and MAD magazine. It was all completely surreal to me because it didn’t hook up with anything I’d ever been told about.
JH: For a while you went to art school, is that correct?
AA: Yeah, I went to the Otis Art Institute, I went to the University of Texas. Basically what went down was my dad was paying my tuition and I was just coasting along, enjoying living in LA. One day I went to a bar, and I met this guy; he was getting drunk, I was getting drunk. We were sitting there talking and it turned out he had also gone to Otis and he had ended up owing sixty thousand bucks. So instead of getting a job as an artist he ended up getting a data entry job for some insurance company. So here he had a degree but he wasn’t using it because he had to pay off his education. I thought ‘Fuck that, I don’t want to fall into that trap.’ So I dropped out of art school after two semesters. I managed to hang on for one more semester by sweet-talking the teachers and acting like I was a student; I just kept going to classes.
JH: So you kind of rebelled against art school? Or you just found that it wasn’t for you or it was a waste of time…?
AA: It wasn’t a waste of time. I could see that there were a lot of things to be learned in art school. No question about it; there’s a lot of things you can’t really learn on your own, you have to have some parental or authority figure breathing over your back saying, ‘You have to do this by Tuesday, you have to do this by Wednesday.’ And that’s a good kick in the ass. I didn’t have any discipline. I was just a fuckin’ kid in his early 20s getting stoned; taking every drug I could get. I needed something to reel me in. But at the same time I also realized-because I started going to art openings, which I had never experienced before, at least growing up in Houston and Austin-if I go to school I’m not going to be able to become involved in any meaningful way with this [showing my art], other than being a spectator, for four years. So I decided to drop out of school, paint, and start going to galleries with my shit.
JH: I’ve seen your resumé, the one you mailed me about a week ago, and I was pretty impressed; you’ve had a lot of shows.
AA: Yeah, I’ve been really lucky. A lot of it is sweat and toil. I mean, there’s two types of artists; the people who make art because they have to, because it’s a part of their fucking life. They’re gonna get spun out if they don’t do it; the hell with whether there’s a show coming or whatever, they have to do this. And then the other type is the people who work when they get a show. I’m constantly working, so if anybody came up to me and said they had an opening or a slot available or a group show on blah blah blah theme-I would always have work ready to go. So I’d be able to get into shows because I had shit ready to go.
JH: That’s very cool.
AA: And I’ve been at it a long time. That’s one of the perks of getting older, you get a lot of stuff behind you. It looks pretty impressive but you know, you’re looking at ten years worth of ruined relationships, sweat and blood. If all that was compacted into two or three years, I’d say, ‘Fuck, that guy’s awesome!’ When I moved out to LA in 1980, I was this bored out of place punk rocker in Houston and Austin and when I came out here I found a whole social scene. They accepted me for who I was, with my funny hair and torn up clothes and fucked up attitude. One of the things that was most prevalent in the scene those days was the DIY ethic-get it done, don’t wait for somebody to do it for you, just do it. And that was a real motivating thing to me, that carried over into my making art; just do it. Not the Nike slogan, but just do it and get it done and do it yourself.
JH: Right. There’s a lot of titles and designations that have been put on your style of art; you know, a lot of people call it lowbrow art…
AA: Oh yeah. Lowbrow, fucking surrealism…
JH: Yeah. What would you call it yourself?
AA: [laughs] I gotta tell you a funny story that has to do with that. A couple years ago, there was this really dynamic couple that showed up in LA; these Canadian kids. They were totally brand new on the scene, they hadn’t experienced anything like this kind of art that you’re talking about, the unnamed art movement-
JH: The unnamed art movement! That’s even better!
AA: What I really want to call it is-who’s that guy in that band the Dwarves? [Hewhocannotbenamed-ed.] Anyway, I think it should be called the art movement that dare not speak its name. That’s what it should be. But these guys from Canada decided they were gonna name it, this art movement, a year or so ago. And the guy was really into the whole European ’30s tradition of nailing the door shut; ‘We’re gonna come up with a name for this movement and a manifesto, and until we do it we’re not gonna leave this joint.’ And he tried to pull something like that off at this place here called the Key Club, which is a big rock and roll venue.
JH: Yes, I’ve had shows there, I know it well.
AA: He basically had a bug up his ass that we were gonna pound out this manifesto and we were gonna come up with a name. The guy had machine rolled about a hundred joints, there was tons of booze and about 15 different artists. It was catered, and indeed the doors were locked-and nobody could come up with a name for it! You know what I mean? We ran down a list of like hundred names for this thing, and they were all pretty catchy. They almost sounded like band names, you know? But nobody could come up with anything. I don’t know, I call it cartoon mayhem. I call it fun. Whatever. That’s not the job of the artists, that’s the job of the critics. Punk Rock; who came up with that, Lester Bangs? Some English guy? Somebody else. Somebody who’s job is to intellectualize what’s going down; they’re wordsmiths, that’s their job. We do the art, let the critics decide what it’s called.
JH: One of the things I’m really taken with in your art is the wonderful colors; the bright pinks, the lime greens, the lemon yellows, what’s your take on that?
AA: Sounds like Trix cereal doesn’t it?
JH: Yeah. Trix cereal on acid… with animal friends.
AA: Well yeah, it probably would have a lot to do with dropping acid, I would think. When I dropped acid a lot, I would generally go out into the country and just blaze. I didn’t really do it recreationally, to go out and see a band-of course I did that kind of stuff-but for the most part when I dropped acid I would go out and just get really into the visuals. And there were certain trips that were really colorful, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘These are colors I want to try and remember.’ But also, I worked as a colorist for this fucking textile company, and these guys would come up with 12 different color chips and say ‘OK you have to match all of these color chips perfectly… by noon.’ I got really good at that, I got to the point where I could match any color they gave me, and in my spare time I would just go to the paint and think, ‘OK, what would happen if I mix Thelo Green with Thelo Blue and throw in some Cadium Yellow, what will I get?’ Sometimes I would get mud but sometimes I would get colors that were just insane. So I was really blessed that I had unlimited amounts of paint and all the time I wanted. I could just experiment and play and do all that.
JH: So you’re painting original works over found art canvases?
AA: Well, I was at a thrift store one day and I found this really nice painting of the Redwood forest. I was stoned and I was just lookin’ at it and I thought, ‘That’s a really nice scene, but there’s no action, no story.’ So I thought, ‘OK, it’s not signed, it’s in the thrift store dustbin; it’s free, and I feel free so I’m going to paint on top of this thing.’ But, at the same time, I felt there was a certain amount of respect I had to maintain for what the other person had done. Because, like it or not, I was involved in a dialogue and I had to respect what they had done before me. So when I add to these paintings I add characters, I add some very subtle things but for the most part I want to leave them the way that I found them. You know what I’m saying? I think understatement is the key. Because this whole art movement that cannot speak it’s name is all about overstatement. I’m like the black sheep because I believe in understatement.
JH: What do you mean by that; you’re the black sheep because you believe in understatement?
AA: Well, I mean there’s a lot of people who find a certain icon and just beat the shit out of it; keep using it over and over again. Big tits; hot rods; this and that.
JH: OK, right.
AA: You can do more with those things other than present them as an icon on their own. You can use them to represent something. So there’ll be some cat who’s doing Frankenstein driving a fuckin’ jalopy, and that’s cool. But wouldn’t it be cooler if you took Frankenstein driving a jalopy and you gave him an environment, and a reason he was doing that? So I try to look just beyond the image and figure out-what is this and why is this happening in this painting.
JH: Like the one that looks kind of like an impressionistic nude and you put a little naughty cat underneath the nude grabbing her boob? [laughing] You mean like that?
AA: Yeah, like that. Well that one is specific because who hasn’t thought about screwing the nude model? I mean you get all these people sitting around in a classroom looking at a nude model, and somebody at some point is going to be thinking, ‘Is she do-able? Is that guy do-able?’ There’s like a sexual subtext to the whole nude modeling session anyway so I thought, ‘Fuck it, why not have this guy grabbing the tit?’
JH: It’s a very cute painting.
AA: It’s benign, right?
JH: Yeah. And of course he’s hot pink too, and bright orange. I wanted to ask you what artists you admire? Who are your art icons?
AA: That’s really tough. It changes; constantly. There are certain people I’ve always respected, one of them being this guy Franz Marc-he was a German expressionist painter who died in World War I. He did a lot of really bitchin’ animal paintings, really gripping, cool stuff. I think I like his work the most because he was such a talented person and his life was cut short, and he’s not really known. I bounce back and forth with Duchamp. I think Duchamp is a villain sometimes and other times I think he’s brilliant. Basically my opinion on art is, what I respect changes but it depends what I’m doing at the time. ‘How can I justify what I’m doing? OK, I’ll throw out Duchamp this time!’ [laughs] But the next piece I’m gonna love him again. And Robert Williams, of course. It’s a real pleasure to be alive at the same time as artists you respect because… somebody of the stature of Robert Williams has affected me in so many ways. It makes me think, ‘Yeah, Mozart was real person. Mozart was a guy with emotions, a guy who got hungry, took a shit, jacked off, had sex… ‘; you know, he was a real person. As the years go by and this person just fades into history, you tend to depersonify them somewhat and they become like this force, this thing that’s just there. I feel completely blessed to be living at the same time as Williams.
JH: That’s quite a compliment.
AA: It’s a big one, but he deserves it. I don’t know, for the most part I was influenced more by writers than anything else because of the imagery that good writers come up with in their books, it’s a mental exercise. I think reading is one of the most important things an artists can do because it really works your vision muscle in your head You can read something about tank warfare; whatever subject you want, it’s just printed letters on paper. But while you’re reading it, if you have a developed visual mind you can envision these scenes, and the carnage… you just can work out your visual muscle. Does that make sense?
JH: Oh yeah, big time. Do you find over time that your art always seems to be changing and maturing? ‘Cause I just wrote this thing, it was a preface for Erotica magazine, and that’s actually what it’s about. I’m finding that personally, and I’m looking toward a lot of other artists-ones historically in the past, and also even Marilyn Manson; he’s no longer so much like the devil boy anymore, you know? So I find my art kind of maturing and changing and I was wondering if you’re finding that also?
AA: Yeah. Progress is also a good word. I think all the true artists mature. It takes a lot of fucking guts. Because you’re gonna alienate your audience. I’ve got this reputation of painting hot rods, flames, cats, this and that, and I’m trying to take it a step further; I’m trying to take it someplace else, and there are gonna be people who aren’t gonna dig it. They’re gonna go, ‘Where are the hot rods? What the fuck? What are these landscapes?’ I don’t give a shit, because it’s entirely for me. I have to do it well because there’s an audience of people looking at it, but that’s it.
JH: So basically when you paint, you paint for you?
AA: I paint for me, but I paint well for the audience.
JH: That’s cool. Let me ask you this, apparently a lot of porn people collect your art; is that true?
AA: Yeah, there’s a few people in the porn industry that have bought them.
JH: OK. Do you want to give any names of any collectors who own your stuff? Not just porn people, but people in the overall category.
AA: Nick Cage has bought a few, he’s probably my biggest “star quality” collector. Mark Mothersbaugh, Perry Farrell… I don’t really think about it that much. It’s interesting because there’s a lot of high powered people in industries, who aren’t that popular, who have ended up buying my work…
JH: Do you want to talk about anything you have coming up?
AA: I’ve got a show that’s coming up on October 28th at the Nils Kantor Gallery out here. That’s kind of a big move for me because I’ve been showing with this gallery called the Merry Karnowski Gallery out here; she represents a lot of the Kustom Kulture, lowbrow, whatever the fuck you want to call it, artists. And that’s really nice, it’s an appreciative audience, but I’m preaching to the converted. So I wanna take my paintings to a whole different audience, which is spoiled brats in Beverly Hills. [laughs] So we’ll see what they think about it.
JH: I’m sure they’ll love ’em; I just think your stuff is the shit times ten.
AA: You ever hear of Foetus?
AA: He bought one.
JH: OK. So what’s your favorite thing to paint?
JH: Why is that?
AA: Oh man, I get asked that question so many times. I have a lot of different answers. I was talking to my friend Sonic Boom, I’ve been doing his artwork for him; we were sitting around one day and he was asking me that. We were talking about it and he said, ‘Well, it just works.” It just works, I can’t really explain it. I suppose it could go back to that cartoon thing we were talking about earlier. I mean watching Sylvester and Felix the Cat-
JH: Do you own any?
AA: Yeah, I’ve got one, he’s sitting right there. I always have to have one around. It’s really interesting because when I went to the British Museum they had-apparently they discovered this tomb where there were, I think, 40,000 cat mummies in it.
AA: I mean look at the Sphinx, that’s a major piece of world history and it’s a cat, of all things. I like painting cartoon characters because one of my basic philosophies about why I do this shit is-ever since the cave paintings at Lascaux, people have been painting the human figure, and I think that’s long enough. I mean, painting the human figure for 10-20,000 years is long enough. I want to get the whole idea about what it is to be a person but get it through to people in an oblique way by putting it with cartoon characters. I mean, why did Warner Brothers do what they did? Why is there Daffy Duck? Why is there Sylvester? Why is there a rabbit? Why is there a pig? Why is there basically one fucking human, Elmer Fudd, who’s a dweeb? What’s up? Somehow in my childhood responded to this wacky universe that was presented to me, that I had never seen before, which was populated entirely by anthropomorphic animals and maybe one person and it all worked. So I bought it, and I’m screwed ’cause I’m 40 and I’m still into ’em-I still believe it! I went to a shrink once, I had these problems for a while, and he said ‘Tell me a little bit about yourself, tell me what’s going on.’ So I said, ‘Well I paint cats, and blah blah blah… And we talked some more and I told him about my mother, who had this weird sort of Northern European, Darwinist attitude where when stray cats would come to our back door she’s feed ’em and then she’d take them off to the vet to get put to sleep. Because she thought that their lives were so empty it would be a boon for them to be put to sleep.
JH: That mortifies me.
AA: Well, she was working with what she had, I can’t hold that against her. I can’t pass judgment on that, that was her thing. But the shrink leans forward in his chair and he looks at me and he says, ‘Well did you ever consider that maybe what you’re trying to do is give all these dead cats a life?’ And I said, “No, I don’t think so. It doesn’t go that deep!”
JH: I also want to make a point of the fact that you paint really good penises.
AA: Yeah. [silence] Am I supposed to talk about that?
JH: Well… yeah! [laughs]
AA: Why do I paint penises so much? [laughs] I’m obsessed with my own cock. I really am.
JH: I mean, I’ve seen some renditions that don’t even look-it’s not even close, you know what I mean?
JH: But yours are pretty right on the nut. Pardon the expression.
AA: No, that’s good. Well, it’s easier to paint because all I have to do is get a mirror, whip out my own dick and I can look at it while I’m trying to paint one. But if I have to paint a nude female, I’ve gotta go out and get a model or convince some girl to come over and strip.
JH: Do you ever do that, paint from real models?
AA: I’ve been doing that more actually. I’ve been starting going to life drawing class again. I have this friend, this guy Van Arno, he’s a supreme, really exquisite figure painter. He and I do completely different types of work but somehow we relate to each other very well. He’s convinced me to start going to life drawing classes.
JH: Are you teaching him how to paint cats?
AA: I’m teaching him color, how to use his colors a little bit more. But no, I’m not gonna teach him how to do cats or I’ll be out of a job.
JH: OK. And your babes are just pin-up heaven.
AA: If you look at pin-up art, there’s a certain formula to that. There’s certain visual images that get across certain ideas and there’s a lot of that in pin-up art; you’ve got small waist, big hips, big breasts and a good looking face. If you can put those four things together, you can come up with a passable pin-up thing. I don’t know, I appreciate what you’re saying but it’s kind of, in a way, formulaic. You know what I mean?
JH: Oh, I think you’re being much too humble.
AA: Bukowski was slagged by so many women for being sexist, but he loved women-and this happened with Williams too; they both love women. That is not an insult, what Bukowski wrote about women and what Williams paints. These are not insults, these are accolades, tributes to women and a lot of people have this knee-jerk reaction. They can’t handle it. But you have to look slightly below the surface and you can see that these are tributes to women. I definitely think that women are some of the best things on the planet. I’d rather spend time with a woman than a guy any time.
JH: OK, now all the readers are positively sure about Ausgang’s sexual preference, so that’s good.
AA: But at the same time, let me say that I think Tom of Finland kicks ass too. I mean it’s an eroticism, the pin-up formula is more about eroticism than it is about the female figure. I guess that would clarify that a little bit. I mean I’m not into big gay cocks and stuff. I’m not into that part but I really look at his drawings.
JH: Yeah, he’s pretty awesome. Did you know, just as a little bit of trivia here, that I am the first woman they ever archived at the Tom of Finland Foundation? Also there was a big backlash about it. A lot of guys canceled their subscriptions and were like, ‘Oh my god, you’re letting in a woman!’ It was really funny.
AA: I can’t deal with the whole separatist faction of the gay scene.
JH: No. I mean who’s the first to cry discrimination? You know what I mean? It was reverse discrimination, it was very strange.
AA: It’s bullshit, I don’t like the exclusionary thing.
JH: Yeah. The president of the foundation really stood up for me. He wrote this letter that said something like, ‘Look, get your heads out of your asses. This is about art and erotic art and the preservation of such.’ It was pretty cool. Anyway… in your art, Anthony, I really like the little hysterical cat faces you do; the ones with the big, round tennis ball eyes and the tongue sticking out and the whiskers that look kinda like lightning, they all stick out to the side. Those are wild.
AA: Yeah, that’s like a cartoon take.
JH: Yeah, it’s like the ‘Eek’ pose. Like it should have the little “Eek” lightbulb above it. [giggles]
JH: So do you want to mention your website?
AA: Yeah, sure, it’s ausgangart.com; it’s a place where people can go to find out what the fuck is going on.
JH: OK, Double-A, is there anything else you want to mention?
I wanna mention that I think computers area a really important new tool for the artist, and I think a lot of artists need to overcome their dread of it. Although that seems to be happening anyway. But I’ve been using a computer now for going on seven or eight years, and I know that there were a lot of people in the beginning who were absolutely shocked by the fact that I was using computers. Because they felt there was this sort of ideological problem with it. But I use them for putting my paintings together. I’m not a big fan of digital art; at it’s logical end, it’s just a piece of art that’s strictly digital. But I encourage all artists to use Adobe Photoshop, learn it; it’s as important a tool as a #2 pencil.
JH: That’s what it is, it’s a tool. It shouldn’t be used right from the get-go, like you’re saying, like totally done on the computer with no kind originality or human artistry, that’s bad.
AA: I’m not saying it’s bad; I’m just saying for me, it leaves me cold. I mean the last really big development in terms of painting was the invention of oil paint. That was, I think, in the 17th century. In 200 years people are gonna look back on Adobe Photoshop and say it was as profound an influence on the visual art as the invention of oil paint or the invention of photography. For people not to understand that and take advantage of it right now is bullshit. Well maybe not bullshit, but I think they should do that. That’s the last thing I want to say, because I really want the artists to start using computers and get over their fear. I remember Williams came over to my studio once and I said, ‘Let’s put your name on a search engine, I’m sure all kinds of stuff will come up.’ So I did, and all this stuff came up. I said, ‘Come on over and look, there’s 80 different listing of your name,’ and he wouldn’t do it; he didn’t want to look, he didn’t want to have anything to do with it. He’s a holdout, and I really wish Williams would start using a computer. The dude doesn’t even have a fax machine. [laughs]
JH: You’re kidding.
AA: That’s what Suzanne says, I don’t know if that’s true. But I know they don’t dick around with the computer.
JH: Is there anything else you want to add?
AA: No, that’s about it. I’m all talked out…
So there I am, with my family at the “CBGB Gallery”, a music-cum (more on that later)-art gallery next door to the original, famous CBGB’s, catching a show by Max’s guitar teacher. On display are paintings by Anthony Ausgang, a guy who specializes in cartoon-style funny animal imagery. (I’d seen his art before; his main character looks vaguely like MGM’s Tom cat, but is usually caught up in graphic and/or uninhibited situations.) My eye wanders from the stage and catches sight of Ausgang’s largest canvas, sitting in an ornate frame to the side of the stage and there, in full glorious view of my family is his character, depicted as enormously endowed and unmistakably at the climactic moment of a gargantuan act of self-abuse! (The spermatozoa-patterned wallpaper behind him was a nice touch too.) Deena and 7-year old Ben didn’t even notice the picture, but it fooled 12-year old Max-he thought it was a picture of an elf masturbating; luckily, he has yet to be sullied by the pernicious influence of furry porn!
Seemingly worlds apart, yet in the same lowbrow neighborhood, is the work of Anthony Ausgang. Like Coop, Ausgang’s work involves cars and a lack of “fine art appeal.” And there’s another similarity – it’s all right with him that the fine art Mafia, as he calls them, aren’t all that interested in him. Ausgang feels like he’s getting to the people who need to know.
Ausgang’s paintings are habituated by cartoonish cats – cats in hot rods, cats with guns, surrealist cats – a far cry from Coop’s devil girls or Williams’ twisted stories. But the same stories are being told – “give it up, humans don’t learn by their mistakes and we’re all fucked.” The flip side of these tales of woe is, “since all is lost have some fun while we’re waiting to be wiped out.” Ausgang isn’t coming from some holier than thou pulpit, his tales are often autobiographical. He likes using the cats as an abstraction of the human form. Because the human figure has been used since caveman first put charcoal to the cave wall, Ausgang wants to pass on his message about the human condition using fresher methods. His goofy cats find their way into found paintings from thrift stores. His pink or blue or green cats get run over or pay for blow jobs or get mugged just like any old stupid human.
While the stories are clear to others like him, who grew up playing with Hot Wheels and watching Saturday morning cartoons, Ausgang realizes that fine art galleries aren’t particularly interested in his statement on humanity. Going from gallery to gallery, he wondered why these people would want his work. It was all cars and wild shit. Fortunately there is another success route for these outsider artists, because the car thing is in Ausgang’s blood. “Ultimately the hot rods are a big influence or starting point for me, more than anything. I don’t really know what I would be doing right now if I hadn’t recognized the beauty of cars.”
That falling in love with the automobile happened when Ausgang was still a kid in Texas. He put together all those Roth models, played with Hot Wheels and constructed Odd Rods. What developed in him was a fetish for hot rods with a monster twist. “I could understand that these things were cool. And how they got tied into this whole thing about California – surfing and hot rods,” recalls Ausgang. “I wanted to get the fuck over to California as soon as I could.”
What Ausgang found on the West Coast was a group of loonies that shared his same fetish. To Ausgang this hot rod enthusiasm arises from the idea that cars freed up American culture, while making the country mobile. His love of cars gave him freedom to “get kicks” from things outside of the art world. It was legit for him to dig places like dirt tracks, car shows and junkyards. “I love to go to the junkyards and just look at these wrecks. You can see these cars that were in horrific accidents. Generally when you see these classic cars they’re all beautifully restored, but you go to a junkyard and see these things fucked up. That appeals to me. They can no longer run. They become strictly a sculptural object. It’s just this gorgeous beast fucking thing.”
The junkyard offers a peek into personal lives decades after the people are gone. Shells of cars offer family pictures, clothing, eyeglasses, all sorts of clues about the people who first drove these cars home, fresh off the showroom floor. Ausgang sees the whole history of a man in the rusted bodies of the most expensive thing a family could own. “It’s this object of yearning until you get it. Then you’ve got it and you’re so fucking proud of this thing. It’s success and then it falls apart and eventually ends up in the junkyard.” Stories like these and other fucked up realities are what Ausgang offers in his work. One gallery show featured a fatally crunched and artfully flamed ’70 Cougar. To the artist, it concocted the story of a guy in the fast lane having phone sex and getting his comeuppance. A guy, like a speed freak, who’s on the road all the time and at the whim of a woman who wants to have phone sex with somebody driving. Even when he included the phone and all the clues, Ausgang was surprised the viewers didn’t get it.
What people do pick up on is what also attracts Ausgang to this lowbrow school. Camaraderie. Traditionally even competitors in the hot rod arena share secrets, tips and respect for each other’s hard work. That feeling of community is often missing among artists. The creation of art necessities a certain level of self-absorption. Creation in the car world is greeted with open praise – like right on, bitchin’ car. Ausgang feels that same thing going on in lowbrow territory, particularly from the undisputed king-Robert Williams. “He’s glad that everybody’s out there working in the same school. He created this fucking art school. He created this style of art. He’s a fucking saint.”
Another of the lowbrow attributes carried over from hot rod standards is the lack of the ridiculous. “One thing about hot rods is you can’t baffle somebody with bullshit. You can’t write a 15 page theory about why your car should be going 150 mph, it has to go 150 mph. I try to find that kind of practicality in my art. I don’t want to have to write a 15 page theory about what my paintings are all about. You look at them and you see it. Fuck it. This is it.”
What’s presented as straight ahead is just the beginning for Ausgang’s search in his work. Sure eight balls and fuzzy dice have a proven attraction – but why? What is it about a custom Merc that embodies evil? Familiar with the empty feeling of walking away from art that functions as beautiful eye candy, Ausgang attempts to share more in his paintings including a message in the medium prevents him from doing what so many others in “homage” to Von Dutch and Ed Roth attempt to pass off as original art. An art enthusiast can only take in so many winged eyeballs or rats in souped up monster mobiles before craving a fresh thought. Or, as Ausgang says, “The amount of things you can choose to paint are infinite. So to repeat something that someone else has done blows my fucking mind.” But he also admits that there’s a difference between art and decoration, and if some guy wants the trillionth copy of Lady Luck on his car, well all right then.
“I paint a lot of cocks,” Anthony Ausgang says, and these days he’s not alone. When it comes to contemporary art, sex is the subject, Playboy the influence, and nudity the norm. Pomo porno art is everywhere from Lisa Yuskavage’s boobalicious babe paintings for the Whitney Biennial, to John Currin’s come-hither retro-hussy art at the New York galleries, to Matthew Barney’s filmic ruminations on his own testicles at the local indie-plex. In Los Angeles, Ausgang’s X-rated aesthetic plays itself out in a cartoon world of penises and pussies where bestiality is metaphor for our own accelerating desires to copulate ever creatively.
Born in Trinidad and raised in Houston, the tall, blond, and 40-year-old Ausgang, a former art-school drop-out and ex-art mule, lives and works in East L.A. Early encounters with ‘toon TV, his father’s stash of porn rags, and books of New Yorker cartoons are influences he cites as formative. Referencing the early caveman drawings from 14,000 B.C. in Lascaux, France, Ausgang counter-offers tongue-in-cheek: “For quite a long time people have been painting the human figure and I’m sick of it. I think it’s about time to try and get the idea of the human condition across, but using something other than the human figure.” Hence, humanity – a frequently sexualized one – is represented by Ausgang in the inter-species intercourse of John Holmesian horses, lothario yellow dogs, and pink and green perverted kitties. “I don’t really have to paint people fucking, but I can paint cats fucking,” explains Ausgang, “and it gets the idea across in a subverted way.”
Part of the so-called “Left Coast Low-Brow” art movement – L.A.-ites Robert Williams and Coop among them – Ausgang is somewhat more sophisticated, working in the genre of illustration but with a self-conscious knowledge of fine art. “The artists who are involved in this tend to be proud of the fact that they’re bottom feeders, in a way, in the cultural hierarchy, and I don’t mind that at all,” Ausgang says. Once I realized that there’s no point in taking my work to the Beverly Hills galleries – they’re never going to hep too it anyway – life just became a lot easier. I just suddenly ignored all that shit I was trying to get into and realized there’s a really vibrant thing happening at my cultural level, so I’ll just exist in that.” He adds, “If those people up there want to come down, that’s fine, but I’m not going up to them.”
Ausgang’s more erotic art is invariably comedic and titillating in its aggressiveness, as it regularly captures sexual moments caught, in time or by voyeur. His work falls into two groupings – fully original paintings, and reworkings of paintings Ausgang finds in thrift shops. By fucking with found paintings, he says, “It’s a collaboration in some respect”, one that, when it comes to kitsch art, “breaks them out of the cultural garbage can.”
Perhaps most prominently, Ausgang art on sex is populated by a plethora of genitalia. Most commonly featured are penises; as Ausgang points out: “If I’m gonna paint a female, I gotta go get out a dirty magazine, go on-line, or hire a model. If I want to paint a penis, I just have to whip it out, stand in a mirror, and I can pretty much do it.” As pomo porno artists are discovering, sexually racy art is a Catch-22, though. “It’s a way to get noticed – it’s juvenile, in a way.” Agrees Ausgang, yet response is complex. “Sex represents so many things to so many people because people have their hang-ups, their things they’re trying to hide, and it all comes to the surface when they look at a painting that has sex in it.”
With titles like, The Last Pussy in Town, Penis En Vue, and The Doctor’s Orifice, Ausgang does his part to add to the increasingly high-brow reception of the traditionally designated low-brow subject of sex. A solo show at L.A.’s Kanto Gallery will run from October 28 to November 30. “L.A. is just this chaotic stew of infinite possibilities,” says Ausgang, whose work is owned by Hollywooders like David Arquette, Nicholas Cage, and Perry Farrell. “You can go to an art opening and see porno actors and musicians and artists, and they all come together occasionally in these weird arenas. If you’re observant enough and you can see all this stuff going on, it’s really inspirational.”
No matter how violent classic Saturday morning cartoons ever got, their characters always bounced back. Elmer Fudd regularly survived shotgun blasts, Wile E. Coyote emerged unscathed from falls into deep canyons, and Tom and Jerry quickly rebounded from all sorts of household accidents. Although nothing so drastic happens in any of Anthony Ausgang’s cartoon-inspired paintings at Merry Karnowsky Gallery, it’s clear that his anthropomorphic felines do not lead charmed lives. It is as if the artist’s generic cats were the unlucky second cousins of Hanna-Barbera’s big, happy family of indestructible animals. Ausgang’s colorful acrylics on canvas depict a world in which things go wrong—and stay that way. His superficially playful pictures are as deeply indebted to an artistic tradition of Realism as they are to the giddy escapism of cartoons. Three bodies of work make up this ruthless show. The first consists of anonymous thrift-store paintings to which Ausgang has added an ill-mannered intruder who disrupts whatever was taking place in the original painting. Aside from an image of Van Gogh as a graffiti artist zipping through Holland’s canals on a personal water-craft, Ausgang’s altered images are one-liners that wear thin rather quickly.
His own paintings fare better because they articulate more com-plex narratives about the mean-spirited side of modern life. Bombs are dropped into rabbit holes or delivered to terrified residents, as party-goers in black hoods strike a piñata shaped like a blowup doll. Ausgang’s best works are his tondos, in which the distortion of convex surveillance mirrors pro-vides an ideal format for more animated compositions. Each of these compact images consists of a close-up of a character shadowed by his silhouette, creating a jittery visual experience that recalls a movie seen via a shaky, out-of-whack projector. True to Ausgang’s theme of life run amok, the form of his round paintings matches their content. ■ Merry Karnowsky Gallery, 170 S. La Brea Ave., (213) 933-4408, through Aug. 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Anthony 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 car 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 “Rantifesto,” (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.
Mention Anthony Ausgang and people will think of the neon-colored cats, dogs, and wolves who are forever being mugged and maimed in this painter’s cartoon hallucinations. If we seem to recognize these hapless creatures, it is because they are the whacked descendants of Wil E. Coyote and Top Cat, actors in an existential vaudeville that is both familiar and visionary, outlandish and claustrophobic, a psychedelic happy hour gone terribly wrong.
Ausgang belongs to the low brow art fraternity, that laconic convergence of kar kulture and Wild West apocalypse. No wonder, then, that his paintings are a supercharged freebase of violence, paranoia, and exhibitionist sex, in which the sensual is often accompanied by a playful undertow of menace. For all that, “erotic” may not be a word most people would use to describe the work of this Los Angeles artist, a fact that Ausgang himself is quick to point out. “How erotic can a picture be'” he muses, “if it doesn’t have anything to do with your species?”
The answer is plenty, for once Ausgang’s fur-otica is assembled in a single venue, as it is on these pages, the libidinous howl (or meow) that’s ever on the lips of his four-legged characters is heard loud and clear. These are images that poke deep into our subconscious fantasies and remind us sounds in our vocabulary of animal endearments, for words like pussy, tail, cock, and horndog also belong, of course, to the slangy lexicon of sex.
Like much of Ausgang’s art, his ribald pictures can be divided into two categories: original works and images painted over found-art canvases. In some ways these later pictures are the more subversive because, while flattering to their unknown creators with public exposure, Ausgang’s visual graffiti warps their original intent into something outrageously lascivious and often sinister.
Paintings like Little Red Riding Hood Got Big, in which a classically reclining Maja nude is about to receive her vulpine lothario in a cloudy swirl of fabric, and Hung Like A Horse, a romanticized landscape dominated by a majestic horse, impose animals, as well as human sex organs, over the serious intentions of the originals. The result deflates the latter’s pretensions while goosing the viewer into the role of juvenile voyeur.
It’s not all shaggy dogstyle stories, however, for in such original works as Tiki Torture, Ausgang moves away from animals to animism as a wooden idol gets the chains-and-cuffs treatment from a human dominatrix, while in The Slaves’ Birthday (inspired by the artist’s attending a child’s birthday party and later seeing an S&M scene on TV), only the genders of two bandage wrapped figures and a dom-pinata are apparent as the slaves get to turn the tables on their beloved tormentress.
While Ausgang’s work is refreshingly original, it remains part of an outlaw tradition of sexual iconoclasm that began with the early porntoons drawn by Hollywood animators during their off-hours, the other-worldly carnality of Hannes Bok and the outrageous comix of R Crumb. And like those of his predecessors, the scenes in Ausgang’s fantasies are born from the same kind of woozy dream logic that narrates most pornography, in which suppressed desires surface to reality through drugs, booze, or simple magic. The eroticism of Ausgang’s art may not be the torn pantyhose kind, but like the best erotica, it leads us to imagine our own before-and -after stories in what we are viewing.
It should come as no surprise that Ausgang’s paintings have found their way into the collections of porn industry figures. These are people who have no inhibitions about showing a little framed T&A on their walls, much less the critters from Ausgang’s heavy petting zoo. “Erotic art is a sophisticated person’s pornography,” Ausgang says, noting that erotic imagery has become a lot more acceptable than before. “There’s nothing subversive or countercultural about it to someone in the porn industry.” That may be so, but in these audaciously twisted images, Ausgang has brought a whole new meaning to the phrase “animal lover”.
Ausgang, English, Gossinein Three Artists, Three Visions
Three Artists, Three Visions, now on display at MOCA, curated by gallery director Clark, makes the subtle and satisfying point that perhaps even in the highly personal and individualistic work of a figurative artist, the city he works and lives in invariably makes its presence known through style, tone, and subject matter. Ron English from New York, Anthony Ausgang from LA, and Stuart Gosswein from Washington, each exhibit work in separate rooms and have seemingly little in common with each other, but taken together the exhibition, in its diversity and balance, reflects the greater and lesser angels of American culture. All of it is man/boy art and reflects that young male preoccupation with cartoons, the origin or mother of much of mature male art. Ron English, Pop Prankster and Gangster Iconoclast, is fond of inverting the universal into the personal, wringing out the nitty gritty of it, and then turning the personal back into the universal, intact but tattered, implausibilities exposed. The artist draws inspiration from the densely packed in-your-face daily imagery onslaught of New York City, co-opting images seen a thousand times and forcing the view-er to examine the hidden inflections in the complex Madison Avenue symbolism that most Americans are fluent in, but rarely realize they are absorbing. Ron English embraces an idea to discredit it, and then discredits it to the point of legitimizing the initial logic, showing us at what point the fallacy occurred. “McAmerica” is on first sight a simply done God’s eye view of a sleepy American town, with its pristine white church, picket fences, and winding roads. Above the horizon glows a spectacular rain-bow in the instantly recognizable shape of the Golden Arches of McDonalds. The town itself is replicated from Grant Wood’s masterpiece, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” with Paul Revere conspicuously absent and the glowing arches suddenly seeming ominous and glaring in an oil approximation of rain-bow fluorescence. The streets are empty. Paul Revere was there in the original painting to warn of the impending British invasion, but who is now left to warn of the all-encompassing corporate invasion? English can also use his considerable painting prowess and obvious deep regard for the Old Masters to effect a warmer tone. In “Barmaid at the Nursery,” he playfully turns the instantly recognizable source material into a highly personal, loving and humorous portrait of his daughter. The artist understands the visual vocabulary of art history intimately enough to use it in articulating his own some-times warped, always interesting view. The daughter, pacifier firmly held between her teeth, offers up a variety of baby bottles holding mysterious concoctions to a sinister Disney-like character in top hat and overcoat. Her eyes have the bored look of barmaids everywhere. By contrast, Anthony Ausgang seems to have created his own unique cast of characters and enigmatic forms that populate his series of work in the front room of MOCA. These are colorful, seam-less acrylic paintings full of masterful technique and jarring points of view that nevertheless exhibit their own inner logic. Ausgang seems to make fun a priority, escapism an absolute, and nonconformity, to the point of substituting round canvases for rectangular, the ideal end game. Creating his own tribe of “Everycats,” (and in some cases “Almostcats”, where the form is implied rather than spelled out completely) the Los Angeles based artist conjures up the dream of the impossibly lithe, deliriously brazen and brashly uninhibited felines and sundry other beings doing their business in solid screaming color schemes. In several others he creates new tensions by invading what he calls “Found Paintings”, thrift store ready-mades that the artist buys and paints on, inserting his mischievous characters in places they clearly don’t belong, in the tradition of Danish Copra artist Asger Jorn. Ausgang’s funniest piece is somber ready-made thrift store painting, done poorly in a faux impressionistic style with dull gray tone! of a rainy Paris day. Along a low wall toward the right, the color scheme suddenly turns electric as the viewer realizes with a shock that one of those everycats, seen to the far left with a can of spray paint in his hand, has vandalized an already perfectly bad painting. The wall now reads “Je deteste Paris.” For Ausgang, subtlety is not worth the suppression of an easy laugh, and comedic timing, for any of his paintings to work, must be as precise as the impossibly steep angles from which his characters continually dive. In contrast to the two coastal artists in this exhibition, who expound upon the Pop culture vernacular, Washington artist Stuart Gosswein, who has in the past dealt with religious and mythical iconography, is here obsessed with self-image and the private torture of the id’s struggle with the ego. Gosswein conforms the brushwork with the mood expressed in each painting. The sloppier and more agitated the brush stroke, the more intense the angst is illuminated. The sheer volume of self-portraits in the large back room of the gallery is at first off-putting, especially considering the fact that most of the portraits are full frontal, exposing an ordinary looking man in differing degrees of anguish a little reminiscent of the balding, nude self portraits of Rebecca Davenport from the eighties. One gets the feel-ing of walking into a neighbor’s messy apartment and finding him alone in the armchair, facing you, naked. You’re keenly aware of your own discomfort and assume he must also feel some embarrassment until you realize he invited you in. The artist seems to want the viewer to witness his private suffering, to feel embarrassment and pity and to feel some guilt at the sudden public exposure of a soul that had heretofore screamed only in the dark. It took a fearless curator like Clark to turn on the lights. Lawyers that we talked with at the opening liked this work a lot. This might say something about Washington, the practice of law and art and life in our Nations Capital.
MOCA DC, December 6, 1996 – January 4, 1997
The Dark Side
Anthony Ausgang’s cartoon-inspired paintings e-brace art’s dark, dangerous side. Titled “Car Phone Sex in the Fast Lane,” his exhibition at Zero One Gallery is a refreshingly unpretentious antidote to the popular mis-conception that art is good for you. The centerpiece of the show is a recently overhauled 1970 Mercury Cougar that was even more recently totaled when it crashed into a bus. Ausgang bought the wreck for scrap metal and used it as a canvas, painting his trademark cartoon characters on its fenders, doors and roof. Outfitted with a portable car phone and littered with porno-graphic advertisements for phone sex, the twisted auto is a creepy Pop monument to the potential power images hold over viewers. The car demonstrates that when pictures stimulate fantasies or successfully solicit involuntary bodily responses, bad things can happen. These circumstances weren’t any different for the ancient Greeks. Helen’s beauty so bedazzled a young man from another city-state that he forsook his fellow citizens and abducted her, leading to thousands of ships being launched during the Trojan War. Ausgang’s installation may not appear to be as heroic as the events celebrated by Homer’s poem, but his show is based on the same principles. Beauty—whether in muscle cars, mythical women or eye-grabbing paintings—entices people to take risks, sometimes acting against our own best interests. If Ausgang’s altered car makes this point with literal force, his paintings make it more figuratively or metaphorically. The best ones are round, like fish-eye rearview mirrors, creating the illusion that the Day-Glo cartoon cougars they depict are hot on your heels, ready to sink their fangs into your backside. Zero One Gallery, 7025 Melrose Ave., (213) 965-9459, through July 26. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
Cartoons have been at the center of Ausgang’s world for well over 30 years. From early brushes with Charles Addams and the subtle humor of the New Yorker, to the Technicolor surrealism of Tex Avery and Ubu Roi, this serial comic art form has the artist in a spin. The obsession appropriately manifests itself in his garishly-colored paintings of cats and dogs in all-too-human situations, which serve as single panel comments on the foibles of our race.
Raised in Trinidad, where his father worked in the oil industry, Ausgang’s early artistic endeavors – slicing up and reconfiguring Rat Fink toys and Hot Wheels – were met with support from his folks. Ausgang pursued his artistic vision at the University of Texas at Austin and at Otis Parsons, eventually ditching the idea, however, because, as he puts it, “The higher echelon of art education consists of being taught what fine art is-it had nothing to do with garage aesthetics. Like John Cage vs a garage band-they’re both making music, but with a totally different approach.”
Which is not to say he thumbs his nose at the concept of formalized education entirely. “School taught me the necessary discipline…as much as you’d like to believe art is something you just do- fuck all night, drink wine, get up in the morning, take whatever drug, sit down and make a painting.. it’s not that way.” It was during those lean years that the seeds of Ausgang’s artistic philosophy were planted. “In art school I cam e to the stoned conclusion that some of the ancient Egyptian gods had modern counterparts in popular cartoons. So, basically, the Sphinx is an ancestor of Top Cat and Furball, the only difference being that modern cats get their tribute at shopping malls. If the ancients used animals in the form of deities to express concerns with the natural world, then why can’t I attack contemporary issues with the same ammunition?”
Armed with practical experience gained working as a painted fabric production artist, and his own work consisting of collages assembled from ’40’s advertisements, Ausgang made the trip west to California and collided with car culture (later, quite literally; Ausgang survived a life-threatening head-on collision which wholeheartedly changed the nature of his work) and its chronicler, one Robert Williams. Of this fortunate meeting in 1981 he says, “It was Robert who turned me on to the possibility of the car being a loaded image. He was using them in his vocabulary of images, and I liked what he was saying. We were speaking the same language, and these were words I wasn’t using.
“Ever the champion of fresh ideas, though, Ausgang didn’t simply paint images of cars- he embellished real ones with his cartoon graphics. Most notably a ’36 Plymouth coupe, the doors of which were included in the Laguna Art Museum’s Kustom Kulture exhibit (an entire painted ’70 Mercury Cougar was also on view at the recent Zero show).
Ensconced in his East Hollywood lair in a neighborhood that’s seen better days, Ausgang has called a stretch of storefronts turned artist’s studios home for the past 11 years. Its sole other occupant is a fastidiously white cat named Clean, and a neat little collection of work, mostly paintings of unknown authorship: well executed thrift store painting’s, big-eyed Wallace Berrie figurines, antiques, Hot Wheels and Roth models, stretch canvases, and Chollo art. Tall, lanky, and plain-speaking, Ausgang’s life and work are imbued with a simple, pioneering air, and Western DIY spirit of an iconoclast ne’er-do-well who’s let the (art) world catch up to him rather than change. His egalitarian, non-prescious approach seeks to de-romanticize the creative act- why does original artwork cost so much? Why is it that ordinary folks cannot generally afford to own original art? “Artists are court jesters expected to bring dick-in-the-dirt deadbeat humor to high rolling art collectors, then leave,” Ausgang explains.
Recent attempts to address these concerns have resulted in the genius ATM show at a local cafe: just hit $40 on your cash machine and you, too, can take home an original Ausgang. As a result of this phenomenally successful exhibit of 40 works which sold out in a day, original paintings were introduced to people’s homes whose only previous art collection consisted of a signed picture of Roy Orbison and the sculpture of beer cans on the floor. “It was a reaction against this twisted concept that a Van Gogh painting is worth 20 million. What’s the worth of a human life? Getty once balked at paying two million for one of his kidnapped grandsons, but he’s pay two million for a painting. I wanted to make art that was easy for people to own.”
Then, of course, sometimes he just gives it away. His experiments with altering thrift-store paintings by injecting a little extra narrative into mundane landscapes led him to taking pictures down from hotel room walls in planes like the PST Aegis Hotel in Seattle and the Carillon Arms in New York when was bored, painting on them, and re-hanging them. A little something extra for sharp-eyed travelers.
Now, in an embrace of new media, the 36 year-old artist is more apt to use a computer to reconfigure his pencil drawings prior to transference to canvas, an idea which appeals to the artist’s sense of the unknown. Flying in the face of his previous painted surfaces and shapes, Anthony Ausgang has discovered the round canvas. “As much as (a computer) seems to follow a very logical system, when I scan my ideas and decide I am going to put this degree of ‘spin’ into this filter, I have no idea what it’s going to look like, so that’s like the chaos factor directions I didn’t know I was going in.”
The struggle of the artist primarily remains that of the individual striving to be more than just a cog in society’s lowest common denominator machine -to fuck shit up. Hot Rodders who take stock cars and reconfigure them know what this is about. Ausgang’s round paintings, like giant rear-view mirrors, reflect the world through cartoon-colored glasses.
Anthony Ausgang tries hard not to take the lofty ideals of Art too seriously. He thinks the Fine Art Scene is a dusty, dry environment that could use a splash of whimsy. And what better way to lighten the philosophical load than to pose existential questions using cartoon characters in search of situations, stage diving in punk clubs of the mind, morphing smiles into wagging terror tongues, spinning kinetic energy into pop-out inscrutable eyes.
The 36-year old Texan makes his home in Hollywood, the perfect arena for exploring the human condition via the cartoon character’s quest for self-actualization. His work makes heavy use of computer-assisted techniques, using Photoshop, he says, “like another basic tool alongside a paintbrush and a number 2 pencil.” Morphing and abstracting an original drawing gives him the freedom to create new believable perspectives that would be imaginable yet unworkable without computer assistance. He then creates paintings from the warped image studies. Ausgang encourages all artists to consider the computer a tool rather than an alternative for creating art. “Computers have affected all aspects of life, from how people relate, with love relationships on the internet, to how people write, and sooner or later, it will affect art and artists, those slow-moving dinosaur types.”
Incongruous, yet fluid, Ausgang also incorporates the found medium into his work, appropriating thrift store paintings, sometimes of the velvet persuasion, as background, or “ready-made environments” for his busy Everycats, reacting, subverting, littering and generally making a mess of the self-contained happy tree landscapes and muted seas. He explains, “Sometimes I’ll take the nice wood scene and insert two characters screwing behind a tree or drinking beer, and it’s like oops, you can’t get away from civilization.”
The artist mines the DMZ between the high-brow and low-brow art battle camps. Playing off the “very American misperception that you’re either one thing or another,” Ausgang’s cartoon characters frolic through color-field paintings and pop up in the most unlikely places with the best of the cerebral Appropriationists. But while perfecting his craft and learning new techniques in the digital age, he is determined not to take himself or his art too seriously and thinks the worst enemy of an artist is arrogance. “Duchamp once said there’s no difference between a ditch digger and an artist.” There is one real difference, however. You can’t fake a ditch. You dig it. It’s there. Catch Anthony Ausgang’s work at Zero-1 Gallery in L.A. and Bess Cutler Gallery in New York, and see if you don’t take a tumble for it..
This interview, like everything in Southern California, took place in a car. A ’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.”
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 fabric painting 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 fire 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
Imagine sitting in front of the television eagerly awaiting the usual Saturday morning cartoon lineup only to find that Tom and Jerry have been replaced by a new cast of brightly colored anthropomorphic cats who disregard road safety rules, smoke cigarettes, steal cars, and shoot up drugs intravenously. If this sounds like an attractive alternative to the world of Warner Bros., then tune in to the new exhibit by west coast artist Anthony Ausgang.
The Bess Cutler Gallery is hosting Ausgang’s first one-person show in New York. The exhibit features a col-lection of recent acrylic and thrift store paintings by the artist.
Ausgang’s work has been well received on the west coast where other cartoon surrealists and new pop painters have been commanding shows for years. Except for a few publications such as the magazine Juxtapose, a few previous Bess Cutler shows, and stores like Psychedelic Solution, there really have not been many outlets outside of L.A. for the new pop sensibility rising in modern American painting.
In 1993 a ground-breaking art show called Kustom Kulture was held at the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, California. It featured the work of those influenced by the custom car culture of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s most commonly associated with dancing flames painted on vintage automobiles. Ausgang’s contribution to the exhibit included a car he had painted.
The success of Kustom Kulture, the rock art genre’s increasing popularity, Art Forum’s feature on painter Robert Williams, and the resurgence of interest in 60’s underground cartoonist Robert Crumb inspired by the movie, have all led to an expanded awareness of the work of today’s in-artists such as Anthony Ausgang, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, and R.K. Sloane.
The paintings of Anthony Ausgang set themselves apart from the other artists working among similar lines of this new pop art. Ausgang uses extremely bright and vivid colors, and the lines in his paintings have a perfect curvature and definition. The faded and shadowed aspects of his work resemble an airbrushed look which Ausgang has amazingly achieved with acrylic paints and not the use of an actual airbrush. These distinct and talented features display a beautiful and disciplined style which Ausgang fully deserves.
Bess Cutler, owner of the Bess Cutler Gallery currently showing Ausgang’s work, referred to some of the paintings as “jewels of color…They have an edge to them,” she said.
As the bright color and clarity of definition attract the viewer to the painting, the viewer’s eyes become transfixed on the piece and it becomes evident that this is not just any gallery exhibition. The orange, purple, yellow, and blue cats which inhabit the world of Ausgang’s canvases engage in disturbing self-destructive activities.
The painting “Hot Wheels to Hell,” an acrylic piece on canvas and wood, displays an anthropomorphic character smoking a cigarette while speeding dangerously down the highway flicking off a death sign on the side of the road. The creature’s peace sign neck-lace blows backwards in the wind as if its meaning has been ignored or for-gotten.
Another work in bright orange, red, and blue, “The Fractal Zoons,” features two cat-like characters in a red living room. One is shooting up what one assumes to be heroin (a burnt match and spoon lay alongside a bong on the coffee table). The other cat sits on a chair smoking and watching tele-vision. An opened bottle of liquor stands on the floor.
The bright colorful characters entangled in dark sinful situations provide an interesting paradox.
Cutler said, “The contrast creates a tension in the work.” It is this tension which gives urgency and power to the paintings.
In a comic strip book by.Ausgang entitled Florence and Norman D. he writes, “In drawing animals in cartoons and comics, the creatures are very likely to take on human characteristics, to a greater or less degree.”
Perhaps his paintings offer a mirror to today’s human behavior. Through the guise of blue, red, and green anthropomorphic creatures, Ausgang forces us to confront the is-sues of drugs, sex, and crime in a forum which appears comic but also deeply disturbing.
Anthony Ausgang’s show at the Bess Cutler Gallery also includes a series of found art and thrift store paintings. These are anonymous pieces which Ausgang has painted on to create an entirely new work. “The 5th Horseman of the Apocalypse” features George Washington sitting majestically on a horse very stern and proud with the Capitol Building dreamily placed in the clouds. Ausgang has reinterpreted the ,previous work by adding one of his trademark characters who sits on a cartoon horse. Both of them are laughing and thinking about a 7-11 convenience store in the sky contrasting with the Capitol Building. The conservative and comic contrast provides an amusing portrait which causes one to wonder which is the truer representation of America.
It may be hard for many to adjust their television eyes from the small screens to picture frames, but the effort would be very much worth it to see Anthony Ausgang’s exhibit at the Bess Cutler Gallery. Ausgang is an intelligent and extremely talented painter who puts on more of a show than any network ever could.
The exhibit is currently running through Sep. 30. The Bess Cutler Gallery is located at 379 West Broadway. For more information, call 219-1577.
Shocking, bright pink, orange, purple and yellow cartoonish cats spring into action through the frames and onto the pastel colored walls in the current Anthony Ausgang exhibit at System M. Vivid acrobatics, funny antics and an occasional hostile act bring back the charm of those lazy Saturday morning cartoon days. Only, these aren’t only cartoons-they’re art. Neo-Pop art to be exact. And viewing these crazy cats isn’t exactly relaxing.
“Neo-Pop art has come into its own,” Moins Rastgar, owner of System M, said. Rastgar, who has exhibited the West Indies born artist a few times before, said Ausgang is one of the up and coming artists in this movement. He is particularly good because he doesn’t really have a genre, he said.
Ausgang has experimented in this style of art for a while and seems to have found some unique approaches. His concept of “found art,” utilizes thrift store paintings. In the past few years, it has been this art which has been resurrected from the cultural scrap heap and seems to be telling something more about the lost generation X. A desire to examine this art as a symbol or meaning of ourselves has inspired many to search through the relics of the past and procure these treasures.
Ausgang has taken these works and incorporated his energetic characters into them, filling them with a new-found life. He works with generic landscape scenes and his embellishments transform these otherwise mundane works into reflections on the clinches in art. Cartoonish cat-like creatures jump out from tranquil landscapes painted on second-hand canvases.
“He has his own brand of artistic humor,” Rastgar said. In one painting entitled “Ships That Pass,” the somewhat dreary brown seascape scene is brought to life when a glowing green cat wildly purses a precariously balanced Columbus-type vessel across a churning sea. This painting now inspires a reaction. It isn’t just something to fill a void on the wall – it has something to say. All of Ausgang’s work is done in bright neon acrylics glistening in vibrant pink, purple, turquoise, yellow, orange and sapphire. The colors alone shock and inspire reactions. They seem to mesmerize and capture the viewer. “The Mad Dash” depicts a seemingly crazed orange and purple cat in the middle of a highway in Monument Valley. The splendor of the ancient landscape shaped by natural elements in contrast to the modernity, simplicity and superficiality of the cartoon seems to suggest a discussion of man’s invasion of the environment.
Another ecological-minded painting seems to be “Earth. First,” where again a found canvas is brought to new life when the tranquility of its early morning snow scene is interrupted by the feuding of two characters. A wildly scolding magenta fish threatens an orange and green cat diminutively reduced to half the fishes’ size. Additional paintings like “Rude Awakening,” “Look What They’re Doing,” and “My Eye” feature colorful headshots of. these extraordinary characters: with exceptional expressions. Unlike, the stark white walls of many galleries, System M changes the color of their walls with almost each exhibit. For this exhibit, the warmer colors provoke more responses and feelings from the audience, Rastgar said. This exhibit will definitely provoke some thought and reflection. Cartoons aren’t just for kids anymore. System M plays host to the Ausgang exhibit through the end of the month. The gallery/cafe is located in downtown Long Beach at 213 A Pine Ave.
Anthony Ausgang is a master recycler. His work often incorporates what he calls “ready-made backgrounds”, paintings he picks up at garage sales or thrift shops, which he then “augments” by adding the cartoon characters that he loves to work with. He uses the ‘toons as abstract representations of humans, “creating a bottom line of wackiness from which ever larger heights of lunacy are possible. My characters are metaphors for the nonplused people we meet everyday, and parables for the kinds of situations in which these people find themselves mired.”
We had a plan for this interview, Anthony Ausgang and I. The plan was that he was going to come to New York, I was going to take him out to dinner and were going to pass a pleasant evening talking about his work and art in general.
Then Anthony got hit by a car.
Anthony is no stranger to skid marks and tire treads, he’s been knocked down and rolled over by three cars now. And, as if that wasn’t weird enough, one of them was being driven by a dead man. Evidently the guy had a heart attack at the wheel and was stone dead before he ran Anthony down. It’s hard not to see some sort of “Tales From The Crypt” script there. Anyway, Anthony had some serious bone knitting and other recovering to do after his latest highway mishap, so the following interview was conducted via Ma Bell.
MICHELL DELIO: Your bio sheet says you grew up in the West Indies?
ANTHONY AUSGANG: I was squirted out into this mayhem in Trinidad, but I actually grew up in Houston, Texas.
MD: Is there some sort of logical progression there that I’m missing?
AA: Sort of, but not really. My parents met in Europe after the war and fell madly in love. My dad needed to get a job and saw an ad in some paper saying there were jobs in Trinidad. He went there and my mom followed him shortly after. My dad was involved with computers, back then it was still a beginning technology. At some point he decided he had to move to the states, and that’s how we ended up in Houston.
MD: Was it horrible after Trinidad?
AA: Well, Houston is one of those typical, once interesting, little autopias. Downtown Houston was okay, but we were way out in the ‘burbs. And they kept knocking down the cool old buildings and replacing them with these sanitized modern things. That depressed me. Even though I was a baby when we left the island, I guess Trinidad imprinted on me somehow ‘cos I dream of having a nice colonial house surrounded by palm trees…
MD: A lot of people dream about that who have never set foot on a tropical island in their lives
AA: Yeah, I guess.
MD: When did you start making art?
AA: I’d always mucked around with it. My parents provided me with reams of paper and made a gallery of my work in the kitchen . My dad used to bring home these great books from the library like “New Yorkers Best Cartoons from 1946” That’s when I got turned on to Charles Addams…
MD: I loved him when I was a kid. Mortitia Addams was my role model. I thought she was so hot.
AA: I think that’s where my love of narrative art work came from. And it was interesting too because my dad was bringing all this strange stuff home and my mom had a real high European fine art aesthetic. I got to see first hand that there was no difference. Art is art. But what really got me going was vacation trip we made to Bali when I was 16. I was totally impressed with how the people there saw art as a basic part of their daily lives, as necessary to their well-being as eating, sleeping or making love. And they didn’t attach ego stuff to their work. One thing sticks in my mind even now; this big old tree had did beside the road and someone had come along and carved the tree into this magnificent sculpture. He or she didn’t sign the work, and probably didn’t mention it to anybody but his or her spouse. Art for art’s sake. That blew me away.
MD: We make art so formal and scary and intimidating in this country. Did you do the whole art school thing?
AA: Well, actually I planned to enroll in a journalism course. So on freshman orientation day I found the journalism class, walked in, sat down, took a look around and was horrified. The journalism students were the weirdest pack of people-definitely not cool! Then some guy got up and actually started doing this stupid cheerleading routine “We’re going to be reporters! Yeah!! We’re going to be writers! Yeah!!” My god! It was all too crazy for me so I walked out. I wandered around the campus until I saw a bunch of hip looking people standing around. It was the art building. That’s how I decided to major in art.
MD: What a well thought out and carefully considered decision!
AA: Yeah, right? But it didn’t last long because they also wanted me to study things like math and Texas history and deadly dull stuff like that. I just couldn’t get into it. Finally one of my teachers said ‘why don’t you just go to art school?’ and I was like ‘art school-what’s that? You mean I could just study art?’ It sounded great so I transferred to the Otis Art Institute.
MD: Was it a good thing?
AA: The best part of it was that it introduced me to the art scene, to the fact that living people were actually doing art. And it taught me what you had to do to be successful as an artist. If you sit in your bedroom and just draw whenever you happen to feel like it, you’re never going to get anywhere. You have to develop a certain discipline.
MD: Why did you decide to work with cartoon imagery?
AA: I was always fascinated by cartoons. To me they are a particularly bizarre form of abstract art. Working with them is very free and liberating. When you are rendering the human figure you have to be very precise and careful. Everybody knows what a person is supposed to look like.
MD: We all have that very immediate and accessible point of reference.
AA: Right. But cartoons can be however you want them to be. You have to get the technical stuff right, like foreshortening. But after that, you can fudge it a lot.
MD: I like the work you do with found canvases, where you add a cartoon character to an existing scene
AA: I have a lot of fun with them. There is a myriad of talent coming out of those little store fronts, Tuesday night art classes. Raw talent is not a rare commodity. But to me a painting has to be more than technically proficient, it also has to have an interesting narrative. I like to browse in thrift stores and I kept finding these carefully rendered paintings of seashores, fall foliage scenes, you know, that were just dead- absolutely no action in the painting. No problem- I can fix that! I thought of them as great ready-made backgrounds.
MD: How do you think the original artists would react to what you’ve done to their work? Would they be flattered or insulted?
AA: I have a great deal of respect for the original artists who painted whatever pieces I alter. I just recently bought a beautiful painting, a very intricate painting of a Buddhist ritual. It took me ages to augment that. I wanted to get it just right.
MD: What did you end up doing with it?
AA: Oh, I turned it into a hot rod swap meet.
MD: (long pause) How does a hot rod swap meet tie in with a Buddhist ritual?
AA: I don’t know. But the painting jelled together. I figure a hot rod swap meet is a religious ritual anyway.
MD: So getting back to the original question, how do you think the artist who painted the Buddhist scene would react to “Buddhist Hot Rod Swap Meet” a la Ausgang
AA: I think he’d be surprised.
MD: I bet. Speaking of augmenting surfaces, do you still do graffiti?
AA: Nah, I’m an old fucker now. People want to see the new kids chops.
MD: Somebody who reviewed one of your shows said you had the color sense of a tattoo artist. Did you take that as a complement or an insult?
AA: Definitely as a complement!
MD: What are you working on now?
AA: Right now the big plan is to do another car piece like the one that was in “Kustom Kulture”. Doing that piece fits in with the work I do with found canvasses, reusing and recycling stuff that’s perceived as worthless.
MD: Where’d you find the car?
AA: In the junkyard, on its way to being crushed and probably turned into a couple of compact cars.
MD: Does it run?
AA: No. Everyone keeps telling me I should get it to run but I already have two cars that run okay.
MD: What was your take on the Kustom Kulture show?
AA: It was cool to see alternative art in a museum setting and I was stoked by the attendance – lots of people came to check it out. But I was kind of bummed by the attitudes of some of the artists.
AA: It’s like they think they’re way above what they perceive as “fine” art and more evolved than the artists who produce it. Like they’re the next great thing and soon they’re going to take over the art world and get rid of all those hacks who are doing abstracts. I don’t like that. I believe that all artists, no matter what techniques or mediums they use to create their art, are all trying to solve one common dilemma. We’re all in this together.
MD: That’s a great way to see things. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty rare attitude. Where and when is your next show going to be?
AA: My next one is a group show called “If You See The Buddha In The Road – Kill Him.” After that I’ve got some other stuff coming up but I don’t obsess about where and when anymore. I can’t create when I’m worried and hysterical about when I’ll get another show.
MD: It’s like you have to make the choice between doing your work or promoting your work.
AA: Yeah, and I figure I’ll just concentrate on the work. I don’t want to end up like, say, Jeff Koons, who might have some good ideas, but has surrounded himself with so much hype that now his work is secondary. I want to concentrate on doing the best work I can, paintings with a serious message rendered with serious technical expertise. To me, Robert Williams epitomizes what I want to achieve, He’s got some bitchin’ ideas and he’s a master technician. That’s what I’m devoting myself to now. I want to continue to explore the relationship between static comic art and the sequential movements of animation cartoons. With animation, each drawing is dependent for its proper context on the image that preceded and follows it. As a painter my challenge is to convey that same sense of movement, limited as I am to a single canvas. My last accident really changed the way I see things. I realized that none of us have any guarantee about our time on this planet. The only way we’re going to survive this boiling cauldron we’re stuck in is to dream our best dreams and carry them close to our hearts.
Picture this: cartoon characters from our Saturday morning collective unconscious converge with, materialize into, and begin acting out the absurd realities of life as we know it. Mimicking what they see on the evening news and city streets, come characters commit acts of senseless violence, while others just run around wildly. Thanks to Anthony Ausgang, these precious moments are forever captured, personalized and communicated on canvas- the visual ramblings of an artist who has had a pop-culture overload, or maybe one who’s just having a good time for himself.
Ausgang, a 34 year old L.A. based painter is currently in what has to be the coolest group exhibition ever to be organized: Kustom Kulture, which has traveled from the Laguna Art Museum to the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore, and will go on to the Center of Contemporary Art in Seattle (April 8 through June 4). He has shown alone at the Julie Rico Gallery in Santa Monica, the Bess Cutler Gallery during its West Coast days, and Zero One Gallery in Hollywood.
Born in Trinidad, West Indies, Ausgang moved to Texas when he was a young’un. Over the years, his family traveled around the world, so he was exposed to a wide range of cultural experiences. He lived in Europe and Asia at different points during his youth and claims that this made quite an impression on him, especially where art was concerned. These experiences afforded him the opportunity to see the masterpieces of western art in the same light as the folk art he came across in exotic places like Bali- distinctions between high and low art became blurred at an early age.
As a kid, Ausgang liked to draw. In fact, the cartoon influence reared its head in tracings he would do of Playboy girls whose smiling faces would be replaced by those of Archie Comics’ Betty and Veronica! Destiny has set its course.
He went to art school for a stint in Texas, then moved to L.A., got involved in the punk scene and began frequenting comic conventions and collecting thinks like Felix the Cat. During this time he started making collages using comic book images which eventually evolved, mutated and found their way onto live canvases.
As for the characters that inhabit his painted dystopia, Ausgang says that he was tired of using the human figure in art, and prefers the flexibility that imaginary animals can afford him. Graphically, anything can be done. There are no limits to what a cartoon can do! The quirky critters are given human qualities, although not always the most admirable traits of our species. These brightly colored, superficially cheery creatures have a nasty side to them – so look out!
There’s a familiarity about the works that may come from the characters that populate them. Many could be distant relatives of Warner Brothers and Hanna-Barbera characters. The resemblance is certainly uncanny, but there’s something else about them that goes beyond modification and appropriation. Unlike the Saturday morning cartoons, the paintings are ambiguous; the narratives are left open-ended for the viewer’s interpretation. A cute lil’ hot pink cat points a gun in the air, and an orange cat (with a couple of bandaged boo-boos here and there) lies in the grass, obviously uninterested in the potential danger or the yummy pie that sits undisturbed on a windowsill. What gives?
The universe he has created lies somewhere between fantasy and the harsh realities that are a part of our culture. These spunky guys inhabit a world littered with signs and symptoms of urban and social decay- firearms, bombs, graffiti, abandoned cars, desolate settings and a hell of a lot of attitude. On the other hand, these paintings seem joyful and celebratory, reveling in the artist’s obsessions to boot- like various references to nostalgia, car culture and the motifs that surround those phenomena. Besides that, the characters all seem pretty psyched no matter what they’re doing, and I guess it’s all in the eyes of the beholder.
And think of all the thrift store paintings Ausgang has salvaged over the years! He claims that these landscapes deserved some action, so now a tranquil natural habitat is the setting for a friendly game of bomb toss between a pink and blue finned fish and an orange cat with a blue mohawk. Then there are the animals cruising around in little boats, defiantly cutting through placid water and interrupting what may have been a very peaceful day. In a way, the found paintings serve as a background for imaginary action, just like an animation cel. Bob Ross would flip his wig over the violation of the “happy, little, magical trees and clouds.”
I’m sure you’ll be seeing more of Ausgang’s work in the future, and he’s in good company, with artists like Robert Williams and the rest of the gang who say it’s okay to make art that’s way out there and fun to look at. Art Alternatives is running an interview with him in their latest issue, so be on the lookout.
Maibu: Myth vs. Reality
One might have expected a show in Malibu about Malibu to be ridden with cliché, perhaps a dreary array of pastel sailboats and seagulls. But “Malibu: Myth vs. Reality” was anything but monotonous. In fact, there were so many different perspectives on the theme, that at a glance it appeared to be a little overwhelming. Brady Westwater, curator of the show, let the artists have free reign with their creative commentary. The initially disorienting diversity was actually the essence of the show: all different interpretations of this small piece of California coastline were relevant, some of them insider’s perspectives, some the perspectives of those who have experienced Malibu only through parties, week-ends at the beach, and animated folklore. “Myth vs Reality” indeed ! Russell Crotty’s Film Reviews by Hammond Wild invited one to contemplate the ongoing relationship between man and wave, an interaction which has spawned some of the part-mythical, part-realistic portrayals of that quintessential Malibu sub-culture, the surfers. The social image of the perfect-bodied blond surfer girl — the Malibu Barbie —most little girls pray to be like, and the unfortunate cultural imprinting it has left on a generation of women, was dealt with in a subtly stringent and overtly humorous way by Diane Holland. In her piece, Malibarbie. Holland has juxtaposed the impossible Barbie image with the reality of what we are by way of a diptych. One part of the piece, rendered on paper, contains several superimposed transparent images, the most apparent a typical portrayal of a woman — cute, sexy, non-threatening. The other half of the diptych is a mirror of equal size to which attached is a plaque reading “Malibarbie”. Other social temptations such as wealth and greed, and the repercussions of too much of either, are embodied in A Malibu Golden Boy’s Reflections or True Confessions of a Colony Cool Cat by Lynn Coleman. Coleman’s work recalls the mayhem of 1970s Malibu subculture and the discrepancy between its professed search for higher consciousness and the sour actualities of decadence. Coleman’s piece displays both obvious and subtle symbols, such as dollar-sign pajamas and large nose-people assembled in celebratory manner on a boat titled i.e. Nez”, a sort of Hollywood-by-the-sea. The reality of Malibu wealth, the removal from the outside world it can buy, and the alienation it can cause those on the outside looking in. was represented clearly in David Wells’ Sun and Surf Security System. This very strong, cold, gate-like wall structure with dollar signs shaped into it formed an austere barrier between the viewer and supposed paradise. Anthony Ausgang commented on the impending doom of the beautiful coast resulting from the area’s rampant real estate speculation in Myth vs Realty. In this work Ausgang has superimposed an ostentatious, cigar-tapping, diamond ring-sporting cartoon hand over a classical elysian beachscape also interrupted by an obstrusive For Sale Sign poking out of the sand. Myth vs Realty prompts the viewer to bear involuntary witness to an unspeakable crime. All these pieces together in one room might not have worked in another context: but here they partook of an element of freedom appropriate to the atmosphere of the location. This freedom also forced viewers to lose any preoccupation with sameness, guiding them to the realization that every artist’s expression — and every viewer’s interpretation— may be based in fact or fiction, myth or reality.
New York gallery owner Bess Cutler opened her Santa Monica gallery in September because she wanted to give emerging and mid-career New York artists California exposure, and she was looking for new opportunities.
“It was a jump for me because I was enmeshed in New York standards (and values for young artists.” she said. “There are different aesthetics in New York that are tied to Europe.”
Her current exhibit. “Post Pop & Beyond,” shows 26 works by 10 artists. most of whom live and work in Los Angeles.
“I am always looking for where the energy is,” she said. “This whole ‘pop’ thing—cartoons. comics. ethnic culture—is where the energy is. It reflects the culture here. These new ideas are not derivative of New York.”
Sandow Birk composes contemporary Los Angeles street scenes in the pattern of specific classical paintings. The configuration of “East Side Incident” —in which people gathered after an incident look up to an approaching police helicopter—corresponds directly to that of Rubens’ painting. “The Miracles of St. Ignatius of Loyola.” circa 1618. Similarly. “Crack Deal (Saint)” relates to Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of St. Thomas.” circa 1600. For this painting. Birk was assisted by Wil Lanni, who painted the brightly colored, graffiti-style background with spray paint.
Jose Lozano explores the essence of Latino culture through some-times surreal and narrative images of Latinos superimposed over a pattern of generic Latino faces. His mixed-media works include “Ethnic Delights *2” and “Wonder Woman (Mujer Maravilla) Steve Hurd’s large oil painting “Available SWF” looks like a collage. Hurd first made the image in a small newspaper collage. Then he projected the collage. and pains-takingly recreated the detail of the newsprint and the form of the female figure on canvas.
Anthony Ausgang’s acrylic paintings focus on cars and cartoon characters. He photographs images from animated television pro-grams. projects them and then paints on canvas or occasionally a car door. There’s more to his work than mere copying. though; his images convey a seriousness not associated with Saturday morning children’s programs.
Robert Williams is represented in this show by four drawings and an oil on canvas painting. “Lord High Solver of Puzzledom.” He first worked in the studio of Ed (Big Daddy) Roth in the 1960s. drawing hot-rods and motorcycles. Roth became famous -in the 1960s for his T-shirt designs of weirdo monsters such as “Chevy Man” and “Rat Fink.” His “Sidewalk Surfer.’ is here in a silk-screen edition of 150.
Lynn Coleman. John De Fazio. Gary Panter and David Sandlin are also represented in the show.
Toons in Trash
Like Pruitt-Early, L.A. artist Anthony Ausgang is a cultural bottom feeder who con-structs philosophical conundrums out of materials largely dismissed as trash. For the past six years he’s been investigating the language of cartooning ( Warner Bros. cartoons—those by Tex Avery in particular—are a major influence for him ), and in a body of new work at the Walker & Walker Gallery in Santa Monica, he adds a new element to the mix; he’s now painting cartoon characters into amateur paintings found in thrift stores. For instance, he paints a hot-rod into a corny landscape of an idyllic country lane in one piece, and a wolf going goo-goo eyed over a sweet young thing walking alone through the woods in another. In the past year or two, thrift store paintings have been resurrected from the cultural scrap heap and been examined as important artifacts with a lot to tell us about ourselves ( L.A. artist Jim Shaw was one of the first to recognize their value and has amassed a large collection of thrift store masterpieces). Consequently, Ausgang’s alterations of these canvases—done without the consent of the anonymous artists—might be seen as vandalism by some viewers. Moreover, you needn’t be an aficionado of thrift store art to see that a few of these paintings are so fantastically weird that it’s impossible to add anything to them (a canvas of a singing paper bag takes top honors as Ausgang’s most surreal find). Mostly, however, he’s working with generic scenes, and his embellishments transform them from kitsch throwaways into thoughtful and witty reflections on cliches in art. Also on view is a conceptual prank by DNA, a four man art team from Holland. Their visual one-liner involves a painting kit, instructions on how to make an authentic DNA artwork, and a few completed examples which hang on the walls with dangling price tags. This cynical piece is neither smart, funny or original—the commodification of art is hardly late breaking news. ■ Walker & Walker Gallery: 1748 Berkeley St., Santa Monica; to May 11; (213) -829-9505. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Umberto Eco once asked how one could declare “I love you” in a postmodern society without resorting to saccharine platitudes. Similarly, two fine shows at Walker and Walker—featuring DNA Funart, the Dutch collaborative group, and Anthony Ausgang—wonder how or if an artist can state “I am original” in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In both cases, the asking of the question is certainly more telling than any possible response. In their conflation of commodification and humor, DNA Funart and Ausgang utilize found objects. These objects, however, are the generic K mart blue light paintings that are sold by the square foot in a variety of colors. Once acquired (appropriated), these pieces are re-worked and thus re-contextualized. The “original” in Ausgang’s The Long Goodbye consists of an old man and a young boy, both attired in sailor suits, along with a dog, gazing wistfully from a bluff at a sea-bound vessel. Ostensibly as sappy as an Old Spice commercial, the scene is enlivened by Ausgang’s application of a stridently colored mooning cartoon character, also dressed in a sailor suit. This presence shifts the narrative from the departure of the ship to whether this character is going to goose the old man. DNA Funart’s The Funart vactorie I also uses a schmooze canvas, this one from Taiwan, showing a. snow scene cut into three equal sections. Each section is affixed to a production line painted on an unstretched canvas, as if it was in the process of being assembled. Both shows seem to deny the prospect of originality. Ausgang is original only in the sense that Rauschenberg’s erasure of a de Kooning drawing is original; his claims to originality seem to reside more in these cheeky gestures of defiance. He signs his works below the signatures of the “original” original artist. This creates an invigorating ambiguity: is the first artist’s signature mere calligraphy or the remnant of the aura of an artistic presence? Ausgang’s contribution to the work is in the value-added, in much the same way that one car is assembled in many parts of the world; the finished product he then passes on to the consumer. DNA Funart’s claim to originality is not so much an artistic translation of the economic principle of value-added but, rather, in the production technique of assemblage of components. Each work is interchangeable, save for the inclusion of an “original” original, a are the colors and the artists: each of the group’s four members work indiscriminately on each piece. It is irony, however, which galvanizes these works: the series really is about the subsequent frag-mentation (cut into three) of a found canvas, similar to the way in which a corporate raider sells off units of the acquired company. Like Ausgang, DNA Funart is original only in the way in which they subvert and then recontextualize the found work of art. A “consumer” can even purchase a kit for making these works: the kit contains a blueprint of the assembly line image, brushes, enough paint for one canvas and a contract granting exclusive permission (and specifications) to “create” these pieces. As a result, both shows may claim that there is no prospect at present for originality. On one hand, it nonetheless remains that not claiming to be original is a stance as genuine as saving one is original. On the other hand, perhaps such claims miss the mark entirely and in time will become a relic of an institutionalized avant-garde.
Ausgang Takes Cartoons Seriously in Exhibit
Largely because of their accessibility to children, cartoons aren’t taken too seriously in the world of high art. It’s a weird, widely held assumption that art should be hard to understand, and cartoons—a familiar part of every-one’s childhood—are intimidating to no one, so they can’t be art. Roy Lichtenstein might’ve gotten away with using cartoon motifs in the ’60s (things were a bit less but-toned down then), but Ronnie Cutrone and Kenny Scharf have their work cut out for them trying to do the same thing today.
Add to that list Anthony Ausgang, an L.A. artist who uses the vocabulary of comics to explore a variety of adult themes—the legacy of the Vietnam War, animal rights, gender bending and high vs. low culture, to name a few.
Inspired by the art of Robert Williams, Charles Addams and Tex Avery, Ausgang, whose work is on view at the Zero One Gallery, cites Warner Bros. cartoons as his central influence. “Warner Bros. imbued cute cartoon animals with a malevolence that’s peculiarly human,” says Ausgang, whose work is ignited by a brash streak of aggression. Pulsating with the hysterical energy of adolescence and rendered in shrill, Kool-Aid colors, the paintings are rooted in the anarchistic aesthetic of punk rock and the skateboarding world.
The work shows considerable growth over Ausgang’s last solo exhibition. This new cast of characters looks as though it were lifted straight from a Looney Tunes classic, but they’re actually composite figures, each with a distinctly different personality. As in work by Jeff Koons, these figures look like something we’ve seen before, but in fact, we haven’t. Ausgang handles paint better now as well, and he’s learned to get his point across with a minimum of fuss ( his compositions are much less cluttered than they used to be). He can be seen operating at the peak of his powers in “Elegy to the Vietnam War,” the least literal and most emotionally straight for-ward piece in the show. Like a Tex Avery version of a portrait by Francis Bacon, “Elegy” depicts an anguished cartoon character stretched and contorted in pain. It’s a surprisingly powerful image.
Zero One Gallery, 7025 Melrose Ave., Hollywood, to May 10.
Splendid Racket From Art-Bangers Gutbucket
There’s something in a young artist that likes banging on things, preferably on stage with a large group of friends, and there’s a long tradition of neo-tribal post-art-school percuss-O-rama in Los Angeles. Gutbucket, the newest art-bangers, put a hip-hop twist on the genre at LACE on Friday, occasionally sounding more like a Public Enemy backing track than like the more traditional Gary Glitter-meets-“Ummagumma” treatment.Above the splendid racket of a half-dozen guys pounding congas, oil drums, trap-sets and whatever, trumpeter Michael Whitmore blew the kind of breathy, dour solos that Ornette Coleman plays when he picks up a trumpet, and a fellow named Chrono muttered Beat-ish groove rhymes. Local painter Anthony Ausgang scratched along on turntables, Jeff Kaufman pinned down the meandering beats with coherently funky bass riffs and leader Vinzula Kara wailed stylishly on melodica.
At times the jams got repetitive, and this sort of thing is invariably more fun to play in than to listen to. Still, with blurry slides flashing past in the background and a wandering video cameraman seemingly as much a part of the band as the percussionist, Gutbucket was a low-budget, total-media assault.
Having exhausted the resources of the Lone Star state, Anthony Ausgang lit out from his native Houston some six years ago with a sketchbook under his arm and a black tomcat peeking out from the breast pocket of his old Army jacket. He’s been here ever since, terrorizing the streets on his skateboard, making a nuisance of himself at art openings, turning the city into his own demented playpen. “Fine art is very stifling,” Ausgang contends. “People demand an explanation for everything you do, though it does provide a blanket excuse for errant behavior.” Mr. Ausgang has remained faithful to the loves of his childhood, a rich and abundant period during which he weaned himself on a heady diet of Charles Addams, Billy Bunter and Krazy Kat comics, among other articles of influence and education placed into his eager hands by a benevolent father. He must be one of the few people who can boast of having read Gravity’s Rainbow 15 times before ever slipping into a pair of long pants. He soon discovered the most suitable means of containing the reckless extravagances of his imagination to be the application of paint upon canvas. Barring any element of academic conceit from his work, he has created a psychotic kindergartner’s vision of Saturday morning cartoons, in which bellicose hordes of playful feline folk and the outcast residue of many a lowlife detective novel run amok. Thus he has been able to catch the observers unawares, all the better to seduce them into his wild and beautiful world. Recently, Ausgang has fallen into the habit of enlivening the walls of the city with his handiwork, and the results can be glimpsed in a number of recent movies, including Legal Eagles and The Golden Child. He is currently engaged in a series of works in which he collaborates with the anonymous perpetrators of miscellaneous paintings acquired from thrift-store dumpsters. He’s also in the process of inventing a mobile home on a skateboard, which when completed will be equipped with every convenience to satisfy a man and his family. You can see his work at the Abstraction Gallery, 443 S. San Pedro St., downtown, where he exhibits in a joint show with Tara Fondiler beginning January 17. —John Tottenham
Artist Anthony Ausgang hasn’t figured out exactly what he wants to say in his work, but he seems to be having a good time sorting through the possibilities; his pictures bristle with a yelping zest that suggests he takes a great deal of pleasure in the physical act of painting.
A Post-Modern Pop artist fed on pulp novels, Raw Magazine and classic American animation (Krazy Kat in particular), Ausgang has the color sense of a tattoo artist and could be classified a cartoonist but for the fact that he works on a large scale. One of two massive spray-painted murals included in this, his first local solo show, depicts red musical notes and white keys exploding from a pumping barrelhouse piano. Beautifully painted though it is, the piece lacks content and comes off as little more than a flashy style job. A third mural on view a few blocks away on an exterior wall at LACE was done more recently and finds Ausgang moving in a positive direction. The composition is less chaotic, more lucid and resolved. We see a workman digging a grave for three dead mice; next to the digger crouches a hungry-looking cat whose tail wags like a dinner bell.
Ausgang manipulates a spray can better than he handles a brush, and his oil-on-canvas paintings are more problematic. He tends to load his paintings with incongruous elements—a nude blond girl, a gun and a pair of snarling tigers, for instance—that seem heavy-handed. Ausgang needs to examine his vocabulary of recurring symbols and clarify for himself—and the viewer—precisely what they mean to him. Nonetheless, even when straining for surrealistic dazzle, Ausgang’s paintings are infused with a good-natured ease that’s quite charming. It’ll be nice if he manages to hang on to that as he irons out the philosophical glitches. (Cheap Racist Gallery, 2190 E. 7th Place, to May 29.) —K.M.