“When [Mad Men] first started, all of my friends, everyone who knows me, said, 'You've got to watch it. You'll love the costumes and the sets,'” says Josh Agle, the artist best known as Shag.
Agle, though, wasn't necessarily interested in checking out the mid-20th-century costumes and interiors that mark AMC's hit series. And when he finally walked in on his wife watching Mad Men, it was the stories and characters that sucked him into the show.
“I hope that's the same thing with my paintings,” he says by phone. “They might be set in the '50s or '60s or '70s, but the real content is in the characters and stories they're telling as opposed to the window dressing, the way they are dressed and the furniture that they're sitting on.”
Since the 1990s, Shag's depictions of life in a retro world filled with lavish parties and cool people have attracted more than just fans of Cold War-era aesthetics. And while his distinctive style may draw viewers, it's his knack for creating intricate narratives within his paintings that keep people gazing.
“A lot of times, people ask me what's going on in this painting and I never tell them,” says Agle. “Sometimes the stories that people are thinking are better than the ones I had when I was painting them.”
For his latest show, “Animal Kingdom,” Agle's created a whole new slew of characters and scenarios guaranteed to have onlookers guessing about the story behind the painting. Each piece in the show, which opens at Corey Helford on Saturday, features at least one character dressed as an animal. The animal costumes, Agle says, represent human traits. There are feline women and equine men. There's a boy dressed as a lamb acting as though he's an adult and men sporting antlers hanging around a woman lounging in a living room.
The initial inspiration for the show was a costume pattern Agle found that dates back to either the late 1960s or early 1970s. The pattern featured one suit and a variety of different ears and tails to create a number of different animals.
“It's not stated directly, but in most of the paintings, the woman is in control of the situation,” says Agle. “So, a lot of the paintings have women and men or a woman and a man, and just by how they are dressed and how the woman is posed, you can see that she is in charge.”
This idea goes back to one of Agle's favorite images, the Playboy bunny.
“Women would put on a bathing suit and then some ears and a tail and all of a sudden they were a bunny,” he says, adding that he's intrigued by “what that said about the women in the Playboy Club and the men who went there.”
But the themes for “Animal Kingdom” go beyond the old-school Playboy bunnies. Agle also found inspiration in the furry subculture and anime fandom.
“I love looking into subcultures,” he explains. “Whether or not I'm interested in it myself, I love that people throw themselves into it wholeheartedly. “
In the furry world, where people dress as anthropomorphic animals, Agle found a connection to the themes that have been running through his work for years. But, it wasn't simply the idea of people dressing in costume that Agle thought was interesting; it was the notion that people are “hooking up” in costume at furry conventions.
“In my paintings, I always try to reference our connection to our prehistoric selves as human beings,” he says. “Since we're descended from earlier mammals, maybe these people are more in touch with their primal being.”
As for anime, Agle was drawn to human characters with animal attributes, like catgirls. Agle says he was most interested in instances where there's no real explanation as to why a character has a tail.
“I found that intriguing as well because it says something about the character, but never directly references that fact,” he explains.
Like furries, this genre of anime character does tie into his previous work. If you've seen enough girls wearing maid outfits and cat ears, you can probably relate them to Playboy bunnies on some level.
Naturally, Agle has filtered the relatively modern furry and anime inspirations through the vintage eye of Shag. His characters play against paneled walls and shag rugs with cocktails in hand.
After experimenting with a more subdued palette in shows like “Autumn's Come Undone,” Agle is back to painting with more vivid hues, including very '70s shades of orange, green and red.
“When I first started painting, it was all about the '50s. I loved the look of the '50s,” he says. “Then it moved to the '60s. Now it's kind of moving toward the '70s.”
Agle chuckles as he finishes his thought. “Maybe one day I'll actually reach the 2010s or 2012.”