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Illustration by ShagGiddy art freaks queue up on the sidewalk outside the Starlite Room, one of several retrofied shops lining a block of Fourth Street in Long Beach. More freaks are packed inside, waiting to ring up at the cash register or watching the surf band play on the back patio. All these people have stuff with them—books, magazines, lamps, mugs, posters, shirts, handbags—and everybody, especially the five Japanese kids who flew all night to be here, will hand this booty to the lanky, bookish guy standing behind a podium in the corner. He'll take a black Sharpie and scribble a four-letter word onto everything that's thrust before him: SHAG. Not Brit slang for "fuck," though; Shag is his name, the one with which he signs his pieces and paintings. Otherwise, he's Josh Agle, a 39-year-old recovering Mormon and onetime Swamp Zombies and Dynotones guitarist who created "Shag" by combining the last two letters of his first name with the first two letters of his last. It's a hip tag and easy for people to remember, which is the whole point.
Shag is not merely an artist; he's also an art-marketing monster. And if you don't know him already, you will. Very soon.
Agle/Shag is hot. Famous folks such as Ben Stiller and Whoopi Goldberg collect his work. He has slightly creepy, obsessed fans who ring the doorbell of his house in Orange and ask him to sign things—in one case, a guy wanted Agle to do a sketch for him on the spot. (He politely declined.)
"The people who come up to the door? I'm always nice to them," says Agle, who's reclining in his cramped home workspace, a converted bedroom. "If they want me to sign stuff, I'll sign. I'll usually let them into the living room, just because I feel bad. I feel that's my part of the bargain, that I have to sort of allow that to happen because of where I am in my career."
Japanese groupies? Celeb fans? Semistalkers? That's about as rock-star as a painter can get in America. Agle has had solo shows in Europe, Japan and Australia, but in OC, where he got his start doing graphics work and designing album covers for the old Doctor Dream indie label, he has been largely ignored by the galleries, exhibiting just two paintings. That will change Aug. 30, when the Brea Gallery opens Sophisticated Misfits: 15 Years of Shag, a retrospective that will include more than 100 paintings and assorted pieces of Shag-related merchandise.
"They were the first to ask," says Agle. "No Orange County gallery ever called me before asking if I wanted to do a show." LA galleries, meanwhile, phone him up two or three times a month inquiring about exhibitions.
The 1950s-era tract house in Orange, with its Agle-sculpted tiki on the front chimney, won't be his much longer. Agle, his wife and young daughter are moving to more spacious digs in Cowan Heights, and things are strewn everywhere. His 300-strong tiki mug collection has been boxed up, and several recently finished paintings lean against a wall, one of which is a typical, cartoon-like, Shagian take on Edouard Manet's Luncheon on the Grass.
"If I start counting up the value of all the paintings sitting here, it'll start to scare me," he says. He picks one at random and pulls it out. "You've got maybe $10 worth of materials there, with the paint and the board. And yet, for some reason, people pay $7,000 for this."
People do. Partly, perhaps, for nostalgia. Shag paintings look like stills from old cartoons that were never made: bright, color-drenched scenes populated by strange, funny-looking characters: women with exaggerated eyelids, men with twig-like fingers and feet, anorexic-thin cats. They're often gathered at some sort of lounge or party—circa, say, 1962—where at least one wooden tiki is part of the décor, and drinking, smoking and having a fabulous time is a requirement. Print and TV advertising from the 1950s and '60s, of-the-era furniture designs, tiki, lounge culture and Googie architecture are his major reference points.
"It's definitely a look of that time," Agle says, and then launches smoothly into a contemporary graphics history lesson. "Up until the late '40s, magazine illustrations were like Norman Rockwell or something, very realism-based. Then suddenly these art directors got into more abstract figures. Instead of rendering a nice pair of legs on a figure, it'd be a straight line with a little foot coming out. That's the thing that really appeals to me."
"You see his paintings, and you want to be there—you want to be one of those sleek-looking, accepted, A-list people," says Brea Gallery director Dianna Miller, who's responsible for organizing the Shag show. "His work is like a Rothko—you just look at it, and you like it."
The fun of Agle's work can sometimes mask a tinge of Fellini-esque mystery. A skeleton serenades a grinning, cocktail-swigging female. Satan and his gal pal picnic on the beach while watching TV police chases. Wolves, bulls and monkeys sit at tables and converse with nonchalant humans.