Embrace Your Kitsch
Artist Shag infuses Cocktail Culture with a Modern Twist

By Lee Valentine Smith

The antithesis of the often dark and foreboding imagery of many of the stereotypical Dragon Con guests, the collected works of Shag (aka California-based artist Josh Agle) looks back on the space-age excesses of the late '50s and early '60s imagery with a bright and timeless touch of cheeky modernism.

The busy artist exhibits internationally and is featured on album covers, posters, limited edition prints, annual projects for Disney and his own line of merchandise.

The gregarious Shag took a break at his studio to discuss his instantly recognizable style before he brings his swanky pop-up store to Dragon Con.

Is kitsch a bad word to you?

No but I think - to me anyway - "retro" is derogatory. People can write stuff off because it's so-called retro. Of course, you can do the same with kitsch, but if you truly embrace kitsch and really own it, then I guess it's ok. "Retro" sounds like you're about to cough up a hairball.

Like many artists featured at Dragon Con, your work also depicts a specific fantasy world.

I don't know if it ever really existed, but it's that lifestyle of moneyed hedonism that is so connected to the idea of Hollywood or even Palm Springs of the '60s. That's what I'm trying to capture.

I'd love to live in those scenes.

Me too! I've tried as hard as I could to make my life look like those scenes - visually. But the rest of my lifestyle just doesn't go along with it. I have two kids and I've gotta pay the mortgage.

Reality always finds a way to step in. Your '60s-inspired imagery actually arrived in the '80s.

Yeah, I was working as a commercial illustrator - mostly for the record industry in L.A. - and I'd started working on these themes on the side. It was based on things from my childhood like animation from educational films and advertisements. I had no idea who the artists were but they were doing this sort of cubist-beatnik, stripped-down style which I really liked. When I finally had my own art show, then I had to figure out what my art would look like so that's what I gravitated toward. I didn't think I would actually sell any of my own stuff so I wanted something I would personally like, that might look good on my apartment wall.

Did living in southern California influence your style?

Absolutely. My friends and I loved to find what we called "old man" bars, basically bars from the '50s and '60s that hadn't changed and most of the clientele tended to be older people. A lot of them were theme bars, so there might be a cowboy theme or a New Orleans theme, but our favorites were always the tiki bars. That had a really heavy influence on what I was doing.

The tiki lifestyle is incredibly popular in certain circles.

Out here we have the Tiki Oasis, which is the world's largest tiki convention. I think southern California was really ground zero for the resurgence of that style.

What do think is the major appeal of the whole tiki culture?

It's a sort of return to an exoticism that is unfettered by political correctness. I guess it could be the same thing that appealed to someone going to a tiki bar back in 1962 - just leaving your everyday life and entering this exotic world that has nothing to do with what's going on outside. Suddenly you're in Tahiti, with a tropical drink in your hand, surrounded by bamboo, tikis and hopefully some beautiful maidens. You're transported to another place - if only for an evening.

You've just described half of the LP covers at Goodwill.

(Laughs) Yeah old album covers were definitely a big influence on me, too. That "bachelor pad" vibe with a guy putting on a record and a beautiful woman draped across his couch.

That imagery seems so antiquated now, but there was a time when that was actually current.

Right and I guess Hugh Hefner had a lot to say in that - what books to read, what drinks to drink and what to have in your "pad." I think now a lot of people gravitate to the pop culture aspect of those images.

Is your work primarily paintings or have you embraced modern technology?

Almost everything starts out as a painting because that's how I started. But I'm working on a movie poster at the moment. I did a series of drawings for it and I've been digitizing some things and then using the computer to move them around.

So you aren't completely old school.

Well I try to be, as much as possible. When I first started, I was trying to make my paintings look like silk-screen prints because I couldn't afford to do an actual edition of prints. You know, with lots of flat areas of color and sharp edges. Then computer programs came along that could mimic that style so well. I use those programs now as a tool but I still try and keep the hand-built element as much as possible. But I've always tried to give it a modern sense of humor and irony so it could be from anytime. Ultimately I hope these paintings will last longer than I do. So if someone looks at my work in maybe 200 years, they'll still be engaged by them.

Unlike many artists, you actively embrace merchandising.

I made the decision early on in my career that merchandising is a good way to get my work out there. So why not put it on coasters or a cocktail glass? If you're a successful artist, your work is probably gonna end up on merchandise anyway but it might be after you're dead. I'm sure Vincent van Gogh never pictured his art appearing on oven mits. My main rule is it has to be useful or it has to be art. So basically there's not going to be a Shag snowglobe. Yet.


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