Shag and His Trend Chasers
My hairstylist recently moved her salon to a new location, one that happens to be where my old hair salon had been. In that old salon, a host of Nagel prints lined the walls, and I often thought this was one reason I went there—it felt like the safe, comfy salons I'd frequented in the 1980s for every midwinter ball and prom.
When my hairstylist took over the salon, she ditched the Nagels and gave me one that she felt looked particularly like me. I have it in my bedroom because even though Nagel is tired, the women he drew were exceptionally stylish and sexy, and Nagel's ability to transform slightly varied imaginings of the same type of woman using the same color palette was once the ultimate in post-Art Deco cool; he even painted the cover of Duran Duran's most famous LP, Rio. But Nagels don't say anything, and they don't mean anything—they're just New Wave pretty, and everyone who was anyone had one.
Like Patrick Nagel, Josh Agle, known as Shag, is an expert illustrator. Hailing from the Lowbrow art movement that began with underground comics, Shag is embraced by rockabillies, hipsters and hot-rod culture enthusiasts, the darling of those who thrive in the resurgence of mid-century modern—which is the new New Wave, just as New Wave was the new Art Deco. There's nothing wrong with any of it, but the point is that Shag is commercial, decorative art, not the outsider, alternative stuff some make it out to be. Looking at a huge gallery space filled to the rafters with 250 Shag prints, as I did at the Grand Central Art Center's new exhibit, "Hand Pulled: The Complete Shag Print Collection," anyone can see that Shag's vision is limited to fantasy playgrounds where he—and apparently his devotees—wishes he could live, just as we all wished we could date that Nagel girl.
In Shag's world, we find myriad flip-haired and bouffant-topped cocktail-dressed ladies drinking with swanky, spectacled gents, all hanging out in jet-setter locales: Palm Springs, tiki lounges, Playboy parties and poolsides in pristine planned communities. Sometimes, the people are go-go dancing; other times, they're lying around, bored, cocooned in a perfect world in which everything is posh, the black cat is not annoying, and there are few people of color. Here, devils and moody bulls enjoy martinis with flight attendants and Hawaiian girls, and dapper men always sport Rat Pack, laid-back attitudes. Even Shag's series commissioned by Disneyland presents the theme-park lands as we wish they were: filled with happy nuclear couples with tidy, well-mannered children, and the retro rides long since removed.
Among this array of wishful thinking and fond remembrances, however, there are a few newer Shag pieces that are unusual, and in them, we see signs that Shag's fantasy might be breaking down—almost as if, finally, even he needs to get real.
In true pop art (which Shag is not), the image should mock or reveal the idiocy of the droning mass consciousness. None of Shag's older works does this—not even Welcome to Your Beautiful New Home, a title that is ripe for irony and yet really does just present a beautiful new home with a beautiful new family installed. In his 2011 print Watson and the Shark, however, we find a group of moderns aboard a small yacht, complacently looking on as a man in the ocean below is attacked by a shark. They don't give a wit, as they are much more interested in their images and their booze. It's a commentary that could be lost on Shag-lovers, but it is an important one: Are hipsters as numb to life as the mainstream folk they openly despise?
But it's in his 2010 print I Author My Own Disaster that we find Shag's most revealing and important creation. This is the only piece titled in the first person, and it's the one in which we find violence and disillusionment for the first time: Inside a swanky house, a daddy-o berates his whimpering son, while behind them, a woman holds a man's decapitated head. In the back yard, two nudes ride an elephant, but the woman is depressed, and in the foreground, a Clark Kent type wields an ax at a giant owl. Anger, dismemberment . . . Manhattans? They don't usually go together in Shag's world, and this indicates a new vein in his work that might one day land him in the pop art realm he seems to crave—instead of in the dollar bins of antique stores alongside many, many Nagels.
This review appeared in print as "Trend Chasers: The Grand Central Art Center's new show on Shag unintentionally proves he's the new Nagel."
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