Joshua Hagler 'Missouri Parallels'

Catching up with Los Angeles-based artist Joshua Hagler before his forthcoming exhibition of new works at Galleri Oxholm.

Published: May 25, 2017Words: J.Scott Stratton & Joshua HaglerArtist Link:

Looking back, what prompted you to pursue a career in art?

The first thing I ever wanted to be was a comic book artist and I was one. I had my own series for a short time called “The Boy Who Made Silence” from 2007-08.

In college, I did a daily comic strip for almost four years for our student newspaper at the University of Arizona. So I was always writing and drawing. I left Tucson in 2002 and landed in San Francisco because, up until that point, it was the most interesting city I had been to. I arrived with my Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme convertible and $500. I sold the Cutlass as quickly as I could and lived illegally in student housing with friends who were going to the San Francisco Art Institute where I consistently embarrassed myself with how little I knew. I didn’t have a real art degree from a real art school, but I thought the art school kids were funny and smart, but also a bunch of dickheads—as if I wasn’t. I was a first-generation college graduate, so I thought that made me smarter than my parents, which was enough for me.

Like most artists I know, I worked a variety of day jobs to make ends meet, which was never easy in San Francisco. I took freelance illustration and design gigs when I could get them, and made my own paintings or worked on my own comics when I couldn’t. I grew into contemporary art slowly. I made my first not terrible painting in 2006, while at the same time I was feeling stifled by art directors in the commercial arts. So the paintings started feeling a lot more important. But I never set out to exhibit art in galleries. That just sort of happened accidentally over time. I never dressed or talked like the kids I that thought was supposed to do that and they made sure to ignore me accordingly.

Even though the majority of your work is on canvas, it’s hard to place you as just a painter—in lieu of works like ‘A Fossilizing Toward’ and ‘Omission Epic’. Can you tell me how you select what medium you are going to work in when you set out to create?

I would say that everything I do stems from painting, but my ideas often extend into other media. For a painter, I think I’m more concept-oriented than might be first understood by the casual viewer. So there are times when I would prefer to work in video, sculpture, installation, or book-making, not that I’m great at any of those things. I also write, so there are times when I prefer poetry or fiction as a means to work something out.

I have a major installation project coming up early next year at the Brand Art Center here in Los Angeles. I’ll install a 30-foot channel of partly-frozen water with two doors bookending either side of it. There is a sound component of layered recordings emanating from either door in a call-and-response fashion. Embedded in the ice will be fragments of a horse skeleton. The work responds, in part, to a critical moment in the Wilson Price Hunt expedition of 1811 along the Snake River in present-day Idaho, in which several members of the overland party froze, starved, or vanished. The image conjured of the incident, for me, offered an opportunity for a poetic response that felt, in this case, limited to painting.

Projects like this, or the Omission Epic (an altered text of Hunt’s Overland Diary), as you mentioned, or videos such as “Between Winds” or “The Evangelists”, will often act as a basis for much of the content that turns up visually in the paintings as well. So there’s a nice relationship among various media, where each can inform the other, often times in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

You often work with a lot of physical texture in your paintings. Is that a stylistic decision? Or is there a reason for the extraneous materials on the canvas? In other words, is the choice of material per-determined or spontaneous?

I think most of the texture you’re pointing to is a natural result and record of my process. Since 2014, I’ve been developing a process in which I work both forward and backward at the same time. The act of digging, picking, and erasing is important formally as well as conceptually. I think of the canvases as operating tables and excavation sites. Much of the process is outside of my control, which offers an opportunity to be confronted with a presence that can’t be easily summed up or explained. The paintings depict multiple periods of time within one space. Unexpected forms are revealed with the removal of layers of paint. For me, these forms call into question the notion of progress within linear time. Time itself, then, becomes a subject in the work. The process and the subject are enmeshed.

Where do you find your sources of inspiration, research and subject matter?

I’m quite a ways into a kind of labyrinth I’ve laid out for myself over the course of many years, so at this point, the work I did before is what informs the work I do next. The same can be said of my research. So, for example, I recently traveled along the Missouri River for the second time, beginning in Missouri and ending in South Dakota. My research began with an interest in the Missouri for its significance as an early 19th-century westward water route for explorers like Lewis and Clark and subsequently for Wilson Price Hunt in 1811. My first trip occurred before the presidential election; the second trip, after. The areas I explored tended to be pro-Trump areas. I specifically looked at sites imbricated with many layers of history. Remnants of slavery, past and present indigenous cultures, Industrial-Revolution-era manufacturing and agriculture, ghost towns, as well as wildlife, farms, nature preserves, and education sites could all be found along the way.

I also look to film for visual cues as well. Cinema, to me, is a kind of dream that colonizes collective memory. Hollywood doesn’t tell us the truth about history necessarily, but it does tell us the truth about the way the descendants of colonists think about our own histories and demonstrates ways of appropriating and altering the histories of others.

I’m presently looking at “The Birth of a Nation” by D.W. Griffith. “The Birth of a Nation” was a silent film which cast the Ku Klux Klan as its central heroes. After its release in 1915, this propaganda film, groundbreaking in its day, was used to recruit new members into the KKK. The work responds to certain scenes in a way that uses white supremacist imagery against itself. What I hope to reveal is a nostalgic romance that white American history has with itself, in its tendency to render its story falsely just and sympathetic, and, in so doing, ironically revealing its inherited shame and redemptive need.

Take me through the process of how you start a piece or a collection of work?

Well, let’s take the example of “The Birth of a Nation.” When I watch the film, I’m looking for moments in which the image’s meaning changes when it’s removed from the linear narrative that surrounds it. Simply by freezing time, the image changes. In my painting “True to their Promise, the Chums Meet Again” I respond to a film still taken from a scene in which two cousins die on a Civil War battlefield simultaneously. One is Union, the other is Confederate. In the film, it’s meant to illicit sympathy for both characters. But removed from that context, the romance of the image both heightens and changes meaning. I could see it even as a romance between two men, which is a very different image than would have been intended by the pro-KKK filmmaker. So for me, this image has redemptive potential when frozen in time.

To make the painting, I first make several small-scale studies with a mostly unplanned palette. The film itself is in black and white, so I am without a guide to help inform the palette. I make the studies with ink on the film itself as a surface. The ink on film is hard to control because the frictionless surface of the film will reject the ink in many areas. I then paint some oil on top of the ink. It has an appearance similar to that of celluloid burns on certain frames in old film reels, which, to me, is a partial erasure of memory.

After I’ve made several studies on film with ink and oil, I use these studies as reference for a larger oil painting on canvas. I make one complete painting from my study as a reference. I then paint the next one directly on top of it. After that, I remove as much of that layer as I can. The paintings have anywhere from two to twelve layers, depending on the work. So the painting I end up with is very different from either the original film still or from any of my studies. Sometimes it’s in keeping with what I planned. Other times, it’s completely different.

Can you tell me how your work has evolved over the years?

I’ve been wondering about the concept of evolution, whether it’s the right term outside of its use in biology. The truth is, my work has always changed a lot from year to year. Sometimes someone will say something to me like, “your work is becoming more abstract” or “this work looks like a departure from your usual work.” But what they don’t realize is that I might be working on three very different kinds of things at once. So it’s not a direction or a departure. It isn’t a timeline. I’m not evolving toward. I’m just trying different things out. I like to pose problems or ask questions to solve for myself in the work. I’ve usually had enough when a new question forms out of that work, and subsequently my strategies for the new work shift. I’ve had studio visits where I’ll display a very realistic rendering of an astronaut, say, and next to it on the wall, two doors fastened together with paint rubbed on them with towels and rags, then scrapped away, along with LED lights installed behind them. The visitor might try to figure out when I made which, why both works are here together like this. And when I tell them I made both at the same time, they are sometimes confused.

I will say this toward the question of evolution: Going as far back as 2006, I did ask myself a specific question which has stayed with me all of this time, and which the iterations of my work have dealt with in a wide variety of ways. The question was, “what is religion?” I think it’s fair to say that my thoughts on that question have changed with time (is that evolution?) and the way it manifests in my work has lead to different approaches.

Do you feel that your work is evolving even more towards something new?

No. I know that I want a greater presence in the work. I want it to feel someday like something that could hold the weight of a body and care for it, not out of pity or mercy or anything sentimental, but just as a natural result of its being called here. I don’t know if that’s going to make sense to the reader. What I mean is, my best work now functions as a type of prayer, a hope sent out (or in) toward something I’ve never encountered that might send back to me a set of instructions on how to accomplish this holding of weight. But so far the instructions haven’t arrived. So I don’t think I’m evolving toward anything. I think I’m praying for a damn miracle or something ridiculous like that.