Art Interview, In the box beneath the city, interview, joshua hagler

Artist: Joshua Hagler

BBM: How’s life treating ya? Like Hemlock.  It’s perfect.

BBM: What was your first major experience with Art and how did you know it was for you?
When I was in kindergarten, I had a “twin,” a classmate with whom I shared a birthday. He was a drawer of fantastic castles and I populated them with occupants, humans with fascinating powers. We knew we had something special, a yin and yang if you will, and they started an after school class at this little public school in Idaho for him and me and few other kids that year. It seemed we had artists among us. The ordainment was conferred.

BBM: Give our reader a little history about yourself:

I was born to a military/working-class family on an airforce base in Idaho. A tragedy in my family lead to the death of my youngest brother and we moved to a small Illinois town a couple years later, which consisted of a library, some churches, and a few fast food joints o the famed Route 66. I drew constantly on my classwork at school and my parents were called in because it was thought I was a “morbid” child, but my parents defended me because my grades were unafected. I attended the church youth group regularly and went to church camp in the summers. I was the second in my extended family to receive a college education and got a BFA in visual communications, which is a combination of illustration and graphic design from the University of Arizona. At U of A, I did a daily comic strip in the school paper, which my church ministers didn’t much care for. This was the beginning of the end for me and organized religion.The entire world seemed insane to me at that time. When 9/11 occurred, the news media in Tucson ran stories about how terrorists might use tunnels dug by illegal Mexican immigrants to stage the next attack on American Soil here in Tucson because Raytheon, which builds missiles and other military weapons, was located there.  

My parents divorced and my father went through a period of intense religious fanaticism, first brought about by the church I had earlier urged him to attend. Shortly after, I was ostrisized by the campus Christian group Wildcats for Christ, to which I had previously belonged.  When I graduated, my first item of business was to hightail it out of the desert quick as I could, and that brought me to San Francisco, a city of freaks and searchers much like myself and the only interesting  city I had spent time at that stage of my life.  My would-be wife joined me a few months later.  

Back then, I thought I wanted to be an illustrator, and I took what illustration and design gigs I could while working a variety of jobs to pay the rent that included a frame shop, construction for Cirque du Soleil, and participation in UCSF studies for things like pain research where I learned that given the choice between being shocked, burned, or frozen, it’s best not to pick freezing because it requires the most endurance. Whenever I couldn’t get freelance gigs, I just made my own art and was occasionally
at a club or salon  or something. I was plugging away at that when, in 2007, my wife and I had an arson in our building and left us without a home for four months.  I was able to borrow a studio from a friend of a friend until I could finish work for my first real solo show. This was a period of intense focus and transformation. I think I might have made my first good painting around this time, and soon after I was ridiculously lucky to meet a collector online who would become a patron of my work.  Until then, there had never been a time when I had a cent or had anyone who believed in or supported my work. For the first time, I was given an opportunity to make art as a way of engaging in a more authentic search than what was possible as an illustrator. I’ve continued my education on my own, which has lead to new ideas and leaps in the way I think about what is important about art making. I feel grateful to work and exhibit in various places throughout the world. For instance, last year I lived and worked in southern Italy for six months as part of an artist residency, where I had my first opportunity to create paintings for a deconsecrated baroque church on Lecce. That was an amazing feeling. I exhibit with galleries in San Francisco, Miami, and LA, with a show coming up next year at the University of Illinois, where I’ll also give a talk.

BBM: What are some projects you’re currently working on?

I’m working on two projects at the moment: a graphic novel as part of my current residency at Alter Space in San Francisco and a series of new paintings for the U of I show entitled “The Unsurrendered.” You can read more about it here:

The graphic novel is called “In the Box Beneath the City.” To create this project, I’ve been interviewing certain individuals in a jail cell in the basement of Alter Space. The building itself was once and S&M leather shop/sex club and is now an art gallery.The first question I ask each interviewee is, “How do you plead? Guilty or Innocent?” The conversation is improvised from there. I then take parts of the conversation and rewrite and reframe them to tell a story in graphic form. The same basic process was used in my animated video projection “The Evangelists” which I exhibited earlier this year at Frey Norris Contemporary and Modern in San Francisco and the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. Doing it in graphic novel form has allowed me to go back to the first medium I ever fell in love with, which is comics.
BBM: Three words that describe your art? “What is religion?”

BBM: What are your tools of the trade?
Paint, action figures, brushes, blunt objects, university podcasts, books, other people’s minds.
BBM: How would you say your art has evolved since starting? It has become more complex in form and content, but more focused and self-aware as I’ve become more skillful at making it. I try to look beyond the first available cliche to represent an idea and have been rewarded for that creatively. I’ve learned that sincerity itself isn’t enough, that in the desperate state of self expression a lazy kind of decadencearrises, one which can seduce the artist into believing himself without question. The work has become more aware of its deceptive qualities, and I try now to bring that forward, so that if the work is to be self-evidently deceptive, I at least have the opportunity to be sincere about my propensity for deception. Each new body of work responds to or even reacts against what came before it. My approach to making art has changed as dramatically as the way in which I think about what matters to me
in the world.

BBM: Funniest/ Most Memorable career moment? Everything about an art career is funny. The decision to have an art career at all is to know the absurd, and I mean that in both the colloquial and existential ways. The art world is a pack of hand-eating lunatics in wigs and high heals and the artists their trained sex monkeys. When you shoot at our feet we dance.  This is an art career. Seen through this lens, almost everything that is said or transpires within the current of an art career is a farce about what happens when something created in a state of full aliveness and out of a primitive need for survival becomes academic and commercial. What I want to learn now is how to live without thinking about a career. As for what is most memorable, I would have to say that my month in Norway at the LKV residency was among the most important times for me creatively.  I spent the month of December 2010, the coldest in Trondheim in 110 years, where the sun never rose above the horizon, where you had about three hours of grey or pink light each day and the rest was a dark festival of nightmystery. I was able to be present with my work in a way that was similar to 2007 after our fire.  I got rid of the clock, I ate and slept little, lost a bunch of weight, worked anytime I was awake, tried reindeer sausage and whale steak.   Fell in love because that’s what beauty and hunger does to weak men. One has the feeling of being at the edge of the world when in Norway. Magic certainly exists there, and it squeaks at you when you pass through the snow alone on a hill in the middle of the night at 3pm.

BBM: Where do you find inspiration in life?

David Foster Wallace said in his commencement speech to the graduates of Kenyon
College not long before he killed himself, 

“If you’re automatically sure that you know what 
reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”  Which is meant earnestly while also meant in jest.  I think inspiration is like that–at once important and ridiculous to talk about.
Where I find my inspiration is in the everyday experience of sitting alone at a table with a plate
that I’ve eaten off of a million times before but never really looked at and now see for the first time, taking notice of its chips and cracks on the day after my wife moves out. A question or a phrase or a vague impression creeps up and I save it and it sits in my weary brain for a long time and after a while it coalesces in to a monkeyball and becomes what it will. Then I find it in the rare genius like Wallace, who noticed something and told me about it and got the whole monkeyball rolling. Then I find it in the fact of what he said in contrast with the fact of his short life and the largeness of it all flattens me against myself. Everyday you wake up you commit at least one act of faith, and so you approach everyday, whether you like it or not, with a religious impulse. The history of religion’s driving mythologies confront us with this and tell us about any version of reality that could matter to anyone.  It’s comforting to know that what matters now is what has always mattered. That makes me feel deeply human, which is how I want to feel when I make art.

BBM: A fact a fan may not know about you?

Better to keep it that way.
BBM: How’s the art scene in your city?
I’ve been here making art for a decade and still feel like an outsider. One key that I’ve found to understanding the scene is that the pretentiousness and cliquishness common to scenes in general perpetuate from individual and group insecurities, which I have some sympathy for. People want to be recognized for their brilliance, but don’t want to risk saying something that hasn’t already been said, which of course subverts their brilliance. I used to introduce myself to certain names and faces right away like a good corn-eating white boy who just wants a friend, but found that I startled them, the captains of culture; they were forced to regard me as a philistine because they couldn’t bring themselves out of a narrow-eyed social anxiety, which is infectious here. Now I let them ease into it, give them some room, allow for snuggle time in the safety blanket of name dropping and trailing equivocation. I used to be skeptical of the intentions of hipsters, but now realize that they aren’t usually the ones who shape the scene anyway, but rather just perpetuate certain currents already flowing quite handily without them. Hipsters, as it turns out, while often the first to know about other things, are often the last to know about art on any scale beyond the local. Who- and whatever the scene ends up favoring is rarely interesting, but that’s how scenes are. San Francisco is a strange place because there are so many opinions floating around in the political sphere, and yet to have one about art seems dangerous.

In truth there isn’t one scene here, but several. If I want to be general and reductive I can split them into two camps 1) The Dude Art Camp (Dude, that’s fucking sick! Look at those rainbow lasers!) and 2) The MFA Camp (Even though I have no particular skill set and lack experience, my thesis will explain why you should care about my art.)  The in-between is hard to find, but its there and flourishing, because this is after all a  remarkably creative place to live, whether or not anyone outside cares to take notice. I can satirize it because it’s busy and dynamic enough to capture my attention. All told, I think the Bay Area scenes are vibrant and healthy, if at times self-sabotaging and predictable.
I’m also excited by all the new activity taking place in Oakland, even when the crowds overwhelm. With San Francisco’s willy-nilly techno-optimist start up beat-down sensitively slapping the shit out of poor people and artists, there is compelling reason to pay more attention to the crash landing that’s happening in Oakland.
BBM: What is currently in heavy rotation in your record player?
All I can listen to over the past few days is stuff without lyrics. My friend just sent me Max Richter’s compositions of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and I can’t turn it off. Before that I was being all sensitive with Phillip Glass’s piano music. Before that I had been listening Patrick Watson, Future Islands, Exitmusic, The Dead Weather, and James Blake.  Also I like me The Boss when he’s on fire about something political.

BBM: What was the last good movie you saw? Holy Motors. I depend on the French for film and philosophy. 

BBM: If money was no object I would…

Pay for health care for those self-employed in the arts and humanities, contribute mightily to an organized labor movement for visual artists in eort to reverse the art world food chain, and buy a massive church and start a collective called “The Church” where we would make whatever the hell we wanted without the permission of institutions slow to catch on.  When I wasn’t busy financing the revolution, I would collect art, travel, and buy a dining room table, some more bookshelves, and a bed because I need those things.

BBM: Where can fans get the latest news about you and get some prints?
I’m not so much into making reproductions of my paintings. I do make one-of-a-kind prints, the latest batch presently available from Gallery Wendi Norris in San Francisco if you go to their website or give them a call.  I did a series called “The Shadow People” who were included in my solo show there earlier this year.
watch an abridged version of “The Evangelists” here:
BBM: Any last words?
I’ll have an open studio at Alter Space in San Francisco occurring on 1-4-13 from 7-10. I’ll be presenting progress on “In the Box Beneath the City” and showing some new paintings. If you’re in the Bay Area, come on out.