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Cats, cocktails: It's a swing thing

June 26, 2003|Adam Bregman | Special to The Times

Life appears to be more fun in a Shag (Josh Agle) painting than in the real world. In his swinging universe: a naked blond on a divan is entertained by a man with a Spanish guitar; the devil bartends in a serene poolside scene in hell; a sultry, Jackie O.-style gal flirts with a grasshopper in a suit; Death, sporting a flowery shirt and clutching a reaper, sits bored waiting to collect a drunk man who is being entertained by a dancing hula girl; and a man with a pineapple head is seated at a table with a lifelike tiki on it, while a giant Polynesian woman with a pineapple spear and a pot of flowers on her head looks on.

Shag's characters have the sleekest furniture, the grandest parties and the most elegant cats. His cats are more attractive than real cats.

"My style is based on commercial illustrations from the '40s and '50s and a little bit from the '60s," says Shag, who at 6 feet tall, thin and with black framed glasses looks as if he could be one of the characters in his paintings. "When I was an illustrator, it was just the style that I chose, and I started using it in fine art, because I hadn't really seen anybody doing that. There are a couple of illustrators that really influenced me, a guy named Gene Deitch, a Czechoslovakian who illustrated jazz magazines in the late '40s, sort of this wacked-out cubist style.

"Another guy was Jim Flora, who did all the covers for RCA and Columbia in the late '40s and early '50s. And there were a lot of generic, nameless commercial illustrators, most of whom didn't sign their work. Going through old magazines, I'd see advertisements that were in this sort of minimalist, cubist style that really appealed to me."

Tagged as a tiki artist, because he's painted plenty of tiki-related scenes, Shag has since moved on to other subject matter. Almost all of his work is related to the swinger's lifestyle. Practically everybody in a Shag painting is sipping a cocktail or reclining on chic retro furniture, while sock monkeys have more fun in his paintings than they do anywhere else.

When he first started collecting tiki mugs in the early '80s, Shag didn't believe that anybody else was interested in that stuff. Now, tikis, lounge culture and the swinging '60s are all fairly mainstream, and Shag's career has expanded with them.

"When the paintings got to a point where average people couldn't afford them, I started thinking of other ways for people to get my art and the next logical step was prints," says Shag. "But then the prices on the prints got to be pretty expensive as well, so I had to come up with other things that people could own. So, then came the merchandising."

Though not available in every store, Shag's work is represented on a staggering amount of merchandise: cocktail napkins, photo albums, decanter sets, coasters, gift wrap, stationery, handbags, mousepads, checks, pens, stickers, cocktail and appetizer recipe books, address books, shorts and soap.

Shag also does custom work. Recently, he completed five prints for Disneyland's 40th anniversary of the Enchanted Tiki Room, and he was hired by MGM to do a style guide for the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Pink Panther movies. His work has also hung in museums, including a retrospective with 100 of his paintings that spanned 15 years of his career at the Brea Museum in Orange County. Some 1,200 people showed up for the opening.

Shag's frequent gallery shows often have a theme. "I did a show based around the calypso culture of Trinidad and Tobago, which some people know and some people don't," says Shag. "I also did a show recently about sin, which is not too big a stretch from my usual material. But I depicted it in a positive light, because I think sometimes sin gets a bad rap."

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Shag A/Z

Where: BGH Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica

Ends: July 6

Info: (310) 315-9502

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