Vanquished and Resurrected: Joshua Hagler Paints Hero’s and Mojo’s
By Max Eternity
Joshua Hagler is a self-taught artist, but one would not readily suspect that due to his academic prowess and brilliance. Hagler’s work presents subject matter that is visually lush and lyrical. And from a safe distance, his color-filled paintings hang on the wall like innocuous eye candy. As the viewer comes closer, however, each piece explodes and morphs into a radical discourse on philosophy and religion, simultaneously challenging the fact and fiction of American history.
Hagler is based in Oakland, California, and in the following interview he talks about the roots of his work, and the mind space from which he creates.
Max Eternity (ME): At the Alter Space in San Francisco you’ve just completed an artist’s residency, which concluded with a solo exhibition, entitled The Unsurrendered. And coming up this week you’ll be giving a talk in Illinois at the University of Illinois, coinciding with a solo exhibition there, on campus at the Krannet Art Museum.
Joshua Hagler (JH): I think it was a year ago I was asked to do a lecture at the Krannet, which was around a show that I did called The Imagined Chase. It’s a quote of Dante’s Inferno, which is also the title of the lecture.
The talk is part of a series of the school of art and design does, and this year’s theme is expiration.
ME: This gives some idea about subject matter. Let’s explore that more.
JH: The lecture is about how certain ideas expire, and in the process of searching in your [one’s] work how new ideas emerge. In this framework, I’m working with the Imaged Chase; in terms of art making and just thinking about how we come up with ideas, and processes of making art.
ME: To create art is to implicitly suggest emotive ideas and contemplation. This does not mean, however, that the work presented is going to necessarily be compelling. Your work is, but leaps beyond all that to amalgamations that are willfully cathartic. You’re getting into these historical legacies and controversies—conflating and constructing impossibilities of race, religion and culture that could theoretically exist, but does not.
JH: All those things work with me, and the main reason is that I grew up in a very religious environment. Starting out in a small town in Illinois, and then in Arizona.
When I was around 22, I had a falling out with the church and really had a reaction against religion at that time. But when I starting creating work of my own, I started gravitating back to religion in an anthropological way.
Mircea Eliade, who wrote the Sacred and Profane—and one of [the] my most important books, Rites and Symbols of Initiations—influenced me greatly. So, it all comes back to sort of starting over of the idea of what religion is. That’s a central question of all my work. I’ve tried to understand that, and one way is through art making, which I consider to be an inquiry, just [itself] in the making of art.
ME: When I saw your show at Alter Space, seeing the work presented in my mind how superheroes are much like Catholic Icons—larger than life and ubiquitous, yet shrouded in mystery? At this moment, I’m thinking of your painting, entitled “So far from your weapon and the place you were born.”
JH: This painting uses what I call the ghost dancers. It’s not super obvious, but it’s my private language of what exists in the cosmology of my work. It’s just my own language for what I call my work.
I would say that the conflation of superheroes and Native Americans may seem arbitrary. For me, what interested me about using these elements is that I’m making paintings of these mythological figures. What draws me to the super hero and the Native American figure, is the uniquely American mythology.
I wanted to find these mythological aspects that seemed really American.
ME: It’s art in America, simultaneously being—in the most literal way—America in art.
JH: When you think about all the art and the way it functions here, is always so colonial. So, I wanted to drag this back out, but it was difficult because I’m a white man.
Curiously, all our cowboy and Indian motifs were almost all painted by French and Germans, and the collective imagery informed by that is highly inaccurate.
I have a lot of fantasies about a world that I don’t live in. In this, I get to live in a different world. There would be so much more hyper-aliveness in that world, other than the world where I have to pay my bills and the live in the social construct of the [Western] art world.
ME: That explains the desire to return to that which is native. So, what of the superheroes?
JH: Superheroes are an escape fantasy for boys. And for many reasons, because we don’t have the tribal rites, we don’t really have a moment where we get to be a warrior or provide food for the tribe.That’s not part of our daily lives anymore, but superheroes allow you to do that. They have some special powers that can transform daily activities, and this is also true about native American tribes. But these kinds of things are not available to us in the rational modern day, and you can’t really even have a discussion about that.
I’m interested in the absurdity and the tragedy of that.
ME: It’s quite amazing when you think about it, in the way that thought control, as it were, limits the imagination, and therefore social discourse. Rethinking history, and the consequence of that affecting or changing current reality, can be disturbing though. What say you to this—last thoughts?
JH: I was thinking about confusion, and I was thinking how I always create these labyrinths, and inside the labryith I’m searching, indirectly. It’s a sort of game for me to play with the work itself. In that process, I myself become confused about what I believe, not just about my art, but also about the world, and there’s some anxiety that arises about that.
Opposite to that is that it’s more of a bias in the contemporary art world that you create art around one concise thesis. There’s one particular thing that you want to communicate in the work. And there’s something about that process that feels cold or sterile, or even bored with itself. So what I’m wondering now if is there’s room to allow confusion, and in amplifying that kind of confusion, allowing it to remain in the work without it being obstruficated.
ME: I’d say its certainly an idea worth considering.
JH: Thank you.