The world of art and midcentury art collectors know him as SHAG, however, the artist and designer known for capturing the whimsical, cocktail party life of the 1950s is named Josh Agle. Working in Palm Springs since 2002, Agle’s work is seen in his downtown gallery/store and in famous depictions from Disneyland attractions to the Pink Panther. SHAG’s art is a melding of the midcentury vibe that celebrates Palm Springs living with the nostalgia of his own Southern California upbringing--from Tikis to hot rods.
How did SHAG come together?
JA: SHAG is a portmanteau, which is a word used when two words are combined. I took the “SH” from Josh and the “AG” from Agle, and stuck it together. I did that back in the late 1980s when I was playing in bands and doing artwork. I thought it would seem very unprofessional if somebody looked at it and said “Hey, the guitar player did this.”
How do you describe your art?
JA: I always call it aspirational art because when I started painting I was painting places I wanted to be, people I wanted to hang out with and parties I wanted to be at. Visually, it is based on commercial illustration from the 1950s and 1960s, but I try to put a current sensibility to it. There’s a little bit of satire and irony to the images. Colors are not necessarily the colors that would have been used back then, and a lot of times there’s a dark twist to the art as well which you wouldn’t have found in commercial art in that era… I’m painting things that I sort of want to find myself part of.
How did you become an artist?
JA: When I was a little kid I wanted to be an artist… When I got into high school, I started hearing about starving artists and realized not everyone is successful as an artist so I started thinking about other careers… I enrolled in business school and was studying accounting. It came naturally to me, but I thought “do I want to spend the rest of my life adding up numbers?” So, I switched my major to art.
What is your creative process?
JA: My process is to sit down with paper and pencil and start sketching--a lot of sketching. If I have a theme in mind, I sort of work within that theme. I do a lot of people, a lot of things, a lot of environments-- really rough drawings. I decide what the color scheme should be. Once a painting is finished, that’s it. I’ve never had a problem letting my paintings out of my studio and into a gallery. I’ve never felt an emotional attachment to any painting where I thought I need to keep this one--even paintings of my kids.
Your paintings tell stories. How do you come up with your stories?
JA: When I originally started painting, having gone to art school, telling stories in your artwork was not something emphasized. They wanted you to represent things without telling a story, but I decided I would embrace the 5,000 years of art history that preceded the 20th century, and I would tell stories with my art.
The story is usually set in the middle of the story art. Something is happening before and something is going to happen afterwards. And it’s the viewers who figure out what they think is going on there… Sometimes people tell me what they think, and it’s better than what I actually intended. My paintings are definitely formed by movies and television. That’s why the average SHAG painting is about the size of a TV screen; it’s sort of like you are looking at one frame of a TV show.
Tell us about the people and animals in your paintings.
JA: The animals in the paintings all represent things. The cats, which are probably the most common animals in my paintings, represent the female and especially female sexuality… Bulls, on the other hand, represent sort of the masculine, hulking persona. I will put people I know in the paintings. Especially early on, I was kind of putting them in these scenes that I wanted to be in. I’ve painted myself into quite a few paintings; occasionally I paint my wife into a painting. Rarely have I painted my kids into a painting because the world of SHAG is sort of for grown-ups.
How did your Disney art come about?
JA: I got a call from Disneyland saying that the 40th anniversary of the Enchanted Tiki Room was going to be happening in a couple years’ time and they wanted me to design artwork product and merchandise and sort of a whole program to celebrate the 40th anniversary. You know, I couldn’t resist. I love Tiki, and I love Polynesian-- Tiki bars, Polynesian restaurants, tropical drinks, Mai Tais--so there was no way I could say no. I did four pieces of art and designed a whole bunch of merchandise and clothing, and it proved to be really, really successful. I think much more successful than the Disney people were anticipating. So, that sort of launched my career with Disney.
How did you connect with the Pink Panther?
JA: MGM Studios called me up and said that the Pink Panther was having a 40th anniversary as well, and they wanted to know if I would be involved in redesigning the Pink Panther character himself and all the merchandise and apparel and everything that came out for the next two years of the anniversary celebration… Again, that was something that I couldn’t say no to. I could remember the cartoons from when I was a kid. The fact that the Pink Panther doesn’t speak is something in common with my art… It also fits hand- in- hand with my policy about animation. I won’t allow my work to be animated… I don’t want my characters to speak because I want the people looking at the paintings to transpose their own ideas about the personality of that person onto the paintings.
What brought you to Palm Springs for your second home and your store?
JA: My wife and I came out in the early 1990s because we wanted to stay at the Tropics Motel, which is one of the few remaining Tiki- themed resorts in Southern California. We took one of the little bus tours of Palm Springs and fell in love with it. We got off of the main streets and into the side streets and realized, wow, there really is a lot here… I was really into the city and the idea of the city--what it used to be and what it could be in the future. In 2002, when the Preservation Committee of Palm Springs approached me and asked me to do some artwork for a fundraiser, I couldn’t say no. I really wanted to do something Palm Springs centric. And that sort of launched my career as a painter who depicts what’s going on in Palm Springs, what you wished was going on in Palm Springs and what used to go on in Palm Springs.
Describe your home in the Royal Hawaiian Estates.
JA: We call it the “getaway” since it’s not our permanent place, and we come to get away from everyday life. It is a Polynesian, Tiki themed little villa in the historic complex designed by some of the really renowned architects of the modernist movement in Palm Springs, Donald Wexler and Richard Harrison, built in 1959 and 1960 in a Polynesian, midcentury modern style. How could I not respond to that? I knew I wanted the interior to sort of expand on and magnify what the exterior buildings looked like. And it wasn’t going to be something we had to live with everyday so I did crazy things like design my own wallpaper and hang a bird cage full of fake birds over the dining table, put in crazy color mood lighting… You stay here for a week, and it doesn’t wear on you.
How did SHAG, The Store come about?
JA: When I did the event for the Preservation Foundation I met a couple who told me they had been thinking of opening a gallery in Palm Springs, and they asked, if they did so, would I consider showing with them. I told them, if you guys open a gallery, I’ll do your first show. They opened a gallery. It was called M Modern Gallery, and I had quite a few shows with them… They told me they were thinking of doing a sort of a satellite gallery based solely around my art, and I said “do I get to design it?” I just wanted to design a store, kind of a little concentrated SHAG world. I drew up these sketches and sent them off to Jay and MiShell, They recreated everything I had drawn down to the most minute detail.
How does it make you feel to see your artwork used in so many different ways?
JA: Seeing my artwork used in a lot of different places and on a lot of different things, merchandise and books, is great. I think any artist wants as many people as possible to see the work they like… When I was able to put my piece of art on the first piece of merchandise, a non-art thing, which was a zippo lighter, I thought how many people are going to walk into a smoke shop and see that lighter who had never been in an art gallery. And I loved the idea that this little 2- inch by 3- inch thing was its own little gallery canvas. So I went wild with the merchandising… I got to the point where my art was on too many things. (When) a lot of my merchandise contracts lapsed, I didn’t renew them… In the SHAG store a lot of the merchandise is a limited edition thing. It’s a piece of art as opposed to just a glass you drink out of, and that’s been the way I’ve been approaching it recently.