I love a lot of the same things that Shag loves. I love that kooky, flat graphic style that was so popular in the late '50s and early '60s, the kind of stuff you used to see in the opening titles for sitcoms with theme songs by Henry Mancini. I love girls with big hair, short skirts and pointy boobs. I love monkeys and devils and tiki heads. But I don't really love Shag, and I don't like not loving Shag. Not loving Shag makes me feel like I must not be nearly as fun or hip as I like to think I am.
A lot of other people love Shag (a.k.a. Josh Agle), and they avidly buy up just about anything he puts his pseudonym on. There is every sort of Shag merchandise you could imagine, as well as a lot you probably couldn't: lighters, skateboards, mouse pads, pillows, T-shirts. In 2005, the Los Angeles Theater Center presented Shag With a Twist, a lavish dance production based on the artist's work. Five years ago, the OC resident graced the cover of the Weekly in the form of a commissioned self-portrait. There is even Shag soap—mai tai-scented, of course. (Hey, Shag, here's an idea: your designs printed on area rugs called “Shag Carpets.” Thank you. So, where's my cut?) Now the Laguna Art Museum is presenting “Shag: The Flesh Is Willing,” the artist's first solo museum show, and frankly, it's starting to feel like I'm the only person alive who isn't absolutely crazy for Shag. (There are actually two Shag shows going on now, the other being a retrospective at Pure Color Gallery in Laguna Beach. See our new Calendar section for info.)
The thing is, Shag's art is perfectly fine on lighters, skateboards, et al. Shag is a very capable illustrator, with a charming and obviously marketable style. But there's illustration, and then there's fine art. Sure, the best illustration can become fine art. (I'm confident M.C. Escher's work, for instance, will undergo a major critical reappraisal in the coming years.) But illustration's main goal is to look cool, and fine art is supposed to actually say something and hopefully change how you see the world. There is nothing in a Shag mousepad that will change how anybody sees the world. In an interview posted on YouTube, Shag described the style of '60s graphics that he likes as “cubism refined for a mass audience . . . Like Pablo Picasso through the eyes of an advertising agency.” I look at most of Shag's work, and I see Picasso filtered through '60s advertising filtered through an ironic new era filtered through Shag. You filter anything that much, and you're probably going to end up with a rather tepid brew.
So I went into “The Flesh Is Willing” with a weak spirit, expecting to see more of the same charming but easily disposable stuff that made Shag a millionaire. But Shag surprised me. This show is a cut above his usual work, and whatever it lacks in nutritional value it more than makes up for in sheer deliciousness.
The show's centerpiece is The Garden of Earthly Delights, an enormous triptych riffing on Bosch's masterpiece. Shag's Eden has the storybook grooviness of Disneyland's It's a Small World ride, with Adam and Eve luxuriating on patio furniture while they're overseen by a benevolent Easter Island godhead who doubles as a stylish fountain. The Earthly Delights panel looks like what would happen if Samurai Jack went to an orgy, with piles of nude, 2-D cuties, giant bugs, hot-air balloons and so on. Hell arguably looks like the most fun of all, with beatnik devils and curvy dames lounging around an infernal bachelor pad. If eternal damnation is really anything like this, we've all got a lot of sinning to catch up on.
Bosch's original is such heavy stuff, and Shag has lavished so much imaginative energy on his own interpretation of it that this piece cannot be simply dismissed. This isn't another cute Shag girl hanging out in a bar with a cute Shag monkey. For once, Shag actually seems to be saying something, not only about Bosch's work, but also about the giddy consumerism of the space age. The exhibit also features some old-style fairground games made over so that, for instance, instead of telling you if you're a “spicy” lover, they tell you what your secret sin is, and that's just neat any way you look at it.
But then you hit the gift shop and discover a bunch of exclusive Shag swag, including the inevitable T-shirts and coasters, and you remember that for Shag, no statement will ever be more important than the earnings statement his merchandising contracts bring in every month.
(Seriously—Shag Carpets. It'll be huge, I'm telling you.)
“SHAG: THE FLESH IS WILLING” AT THE LAGUNA ART MUSEUM, 307 CLIFF DR., LAGUNA BEACH, (949) 494-8971; WWW.LAGUNAARTMUSEUM.ORG. OPEN DAILY, 11 A.M.-5 P.M. THROUGH JAN. 27. $8-$10.