Since the early ’90s, Anthony Ausgang has been leaving his distinct mark on the contemporary visual art scene. The L.A.-based artist may best be known for acrylic works featuring cartoonish cat characters, placed in settings as absurd as they are
The cats and critters in Ausgang’s world are sometimes within classic comic book scenarios, including jalopies, nature or night club settings; yet their bodies contort, leap and stretch to the point of being unrecognizable, as a shocked expression with bugged-out eyes is pulled like taffy across a shifting, checkerboard background.
In the last century, the feline has been immortalized everywhere, from the 1920s’ surreal flavor of “Felix the Cat” to Dr. Seuss’ “Cat in the Hat” (1957) to Robert Crumb’s notoriously pornographic puss of the swinging ’60s, “Fritz the Cat.” In that same tradition, Ausgang’s rendering of man’s other best friend is one of the more iconic images of what is known as the Lowbrow Movement.
In the ’90s, underground art maestro Robert Williams coined the term “lowbrow” to describe the diaspora of artists born from scenes and styles that were by their very nature the antithesis of “highbrow” culture. Everything from hot rod pin-striping, tiki culture, Betty Page adoration, horror film monsters, acid rock posters of the ’60s, punk rock fliers, skateboard designs and graffiti were celebrated and absorbed under the umbrella term Lowbrow.
While Ausgang is considered one of the de facto kingpins of Lowbrow, in the past two decades, his art (ausgangart.com) has been gradually clawing its way up from the underground. Ausgang’s imagery has been featured in more than 50 international group and solo exhibits and appeared in a variety of places, from Volcom skate graphics to The Boredoms’ and MGMT’s album covers. The L.A.-based Ausgang, interviewed by email, explained his views on Lowbrow art, his tripped-out imagery and feline affections.
Folio Weekly: Do you feel comfortable with being identified with the Lowbrow movement/category?
Anthony Ausgang: I wear the Lowbrow Art label like a badge of honor since, after all, I was one of the originators of its second wave. Basil Wolverton was arguably the O.G. [original gangster] of the Lowbrow style, but Robert Williams and his Zap crew [were] the primogenitors of what would become Lowbrow with a capital “L,” essentially forming the first wave. That’s because Williams made a great effort to get his paintings in legitimate galleries, an attack that had never been attempted before. He also knew that a lone voice in the wilderness is easily ignored, so he invited all the brothers and sisters of the Lowbrow cloth to participate in group exhibitions. But it wasn’t until rich art collectors began to buy Lowbrow art and art critics wrote about it that the art dealers became seriously interested in what was going on.
F.W.: You seem to like to focus on using these cartoon cat characters in most of your pieces. On your online manifesto, you explain that you use those creatures in “an attempt to explain the human condition.” After 20 years of using this same motif, do you ever struggle or feel confined by working with that particular image?
A.A.: Sure, I often regret basing my life’s work on an impulse, which was essentially how I chose cats. There was no brainstorming, no anguish over theory — I just found a cat figure in a comic that was in the correct pose for what I was trying to do, and that was it. As I became more famous, people began asking me why I chose cats, what it meant, etc. … Andy Warhol once said that he gave different answers to the same questions asked by interviewers, so he knew what people had read when they talked to him. I have all sorts of answers to why I chose cats; thanks for not asking.
F.W.: When I look at your paintings, I’m baffled as to whether or not you’re trying to tell a story, convey some kind of narrative or simply creating an image as an icon or graphic. In fact, over the years, it seems like you’re creating even less of a “story,” but rather playing with the plasticity and shape of the cat-like characters, to where it seems like you’re almost saturating the figures just to the edge of complete abstraction. Am I off the mark with this observation?
A.A.: No, you are correct. Most figurative art is an attempt to capture a particular moment in a narrative. That’s why we see George Washington crossing the Delaware and not eating his cornflakes that morning. The trick is to catch the most dramatic moment. So, Lowbrow took on that dogma and some very interesting and new stories began to be told. Meanwhile, the Lowbrow artists were trashing abstract art, holding it up for public ridicule as the most offensive manifestation of highbrow art. Well, that got me interested in importing these hated elements and seeing if I could slip them by these arbiters of taste.
Back in the early 1980s, I worked as a production painter for a furniture upholstery company whose gimmick was selling hand-painted fabric. I learned a lot of techniques to make the various decorative patterns, but there was just no way to apply these methods to anything representational. After a while, I forgot most of that knowledge and just worked on developing my own style, eventually getting so good at my method that I got bored and the paintings began to look stagnant. Around that time, a few healthy doses of the powerful psychedelic drug DMT reintroduced me to the joys of abstract visions and a deconstructed reality. I eventually combined my new interest in a nonlinear psychedelic narrative with the painting techniques I had shunned for years; the marriage was perfect and completely reignited my interest in painting again.
F.W.: How many cats do you own?
A.A.: I have two cats that are all mine and two that come over every day and chill out with us. One of them crosses the street to get over here and actually looks both ways for cars, quite an impressive feat. Sorry, but I’ve never seen a dog do that.