Exorcizing of useless or harmful thoughts with Paul Gagner

The satirical paintings of Paul Gagner conjure up the humorous and bizarre nature of the life of an artist. His work includes text like “How to impress and baffle people with artspeak” and “How to do everything and nothing all day. Tomorrow” that is both hilarious and somehow undeniably relatable. The artist’s paintings, which look similar to self-help book covers, poke fun at the seriousness of art and lighten the mood of pretentiousness that can often be found in the art world. With a brilliant wit that is not unlike the headlines from the sardonic news site The Onion, Gagner’s work is sure to leave you wanting more. 

The autobiographical nature of Gagner’s paintings makes them unassuming and light-hearted, although they are so often painfully true. Each painting captures the anxiety, uncertainty, and absurdity that so many of us feel after graduating from art school, or just after graduating from any school—or perhaps even from just waking up in the morning. Whether you are an artist or not, Gagner’s work hits the nail on the head. Using himself as a subject, Gagner describes his works as therapeutic as they “exorcize” his inner critic. The self-doubt and critical thoughts that so many of us experience are reversed and flipped on their head, as the artist turns them into hilarious retorts. 

Originally hailing from Wisconsin, Gagner currently lives in New York after moving there to attend the School of Visual Arts, where he earned his BFA. Although he studied illustration during his time at SVA, he later studied fine art at Brooklyn College where he earned his MFA. Join us in discussion as Gagner tell us about the time he took himself way too seriously, his experiences in the academic art world, and the importance of being able to laugh at it all. 

AMM: Let’s begin by getting to know about the person behind the paintings. Were you always a creative type growing up? Where does your sharp sense of humor come from? 

PG: Yes, I would consider myself as being a creative type from a very early age. I drew a lot in my childhood. It started with mimicking comic books and the Sunday comic strips, like Bloom County, which was one of my favorites. In fact, the humor in Bloom County was particularly fascinating to me, which could be seen as a smart and irreverent critique of the Reagan Administration. For whatever reason, I was really drawn to those who were irreverent. My first live concert was Weird Al Yankovic. I loved his humor and his iconoclastic image. In retrospect, Weird Al had a huge impact on my sense of humor. As I got older, my humor shifted to other humorists and iconoclasts like Frank Zappa and Gwar. I also try to embrace the mantra of “never take yourself too seriously.” It’s for this reason that I make fun of myself more than anything. Also, I’m from the Midwest. Midwesterners are frequently self-deprecating.

AMM: In one of your paintings, it says, “Mom. Dad. I’m an artist. Breaking the News.” Did you ever have a moment like this with your parents, or did they always know your dark secret? When did you first consider yourself an artist? 

PG: Dark secret! I love that. No, my parents were very supportive and still are. I really appreciate that about them. They have always been proud of my artistic abilities and accomplishments. I never hid my fascination with art from them and, frankly, it never occurred to me that it would be an occupation that was off limits. I’m not sure there was a decisive moment when I considered myself an artist, but it probably occurred after grad school. Before that time, I was insulated by institutions and it never felt honest or real. It was after grad school that I realized that “I need to focus, because no one else cares if I produce work or not.”

AMM: Has your art always had a satirical, humorous edge to it? What led you to develop this strong voice that is so unmistakably present in the work you create today? 

PG: Yes, it’s definitely my “standard operating procedure”. There have been moments when I’ve gotten too serious and it always comes across as being pedagogical and didactic. It ends up feeling phony to me. At some point I realized that satire and humor could be used as a particularly powerful vehicle for delivering hard truths, perhaps because it softens the blow and makes it more palatable. Although, I never set out with the intention of telling someone how they should feel or view a situation. Over the past several years, I’ve developed this kind of litmus test for my work. While humor isn’t explicitly one of the requirements, it often ends up being implied by how I think about the work. For instance, I want my work to have some awkwardness to it. Sometimes that awkwardness ends up being very funny because it results in unexpected imagery or compositional ‘no-nos’. I always enjoyed John Baldessari’s Wrong series that challenges the conventions of composition in art and photography. Sometimes doing something “wrong” is so much more compelling than doing it “right” and, consequently, it can be very funny too.

AMM: With memorable messages like “How to Impress and Baffle People with Artspeak” and “Art Events are for Networking NOT Penis Puppetry” your paintings seem to be part self-help book covers and part PSA announcement, which I love. Can you speak a little to these witty quips and retorts in your work?

PG: Thank you! Yes, I always refer to them as self-help books, but it never occurred to me that they could also operate as a kind of PSA announcement, but I love that. That’s very funny. For me, this series was always about motivation. What motivates us to do or behave a certain way and why? Most everything that I do is autobiographical, partly because it’s therapeutic, but also because I’m lazy and it’s easier to use myself as the model for these paintings. So, the titles are really meant to be my internal art critic who only offers awful advice. I can’t speak to other artists, but my inner critic is very impulsive, cruel, and irrational. Making these paintings is very therapeutic for me. It’s kind of an exorcizing of useless or harmful thoughts. Also, I think the use of humor has a way of pointing out just how ridiculous some of these thoughts are. I think the satirical news site The Onion is a good example of how satire can point out absurdity and hypocrisy through humor. I try to channel that.

AMM: What inspired you to integrate text into your work? 

PG: I’m not sure. Honestly, text just crept into my paintings a while ago and, frankly, I never really thought about it. I’m also a graphic designer, so that might explain some of it. The designer side of me loves type and the nuance of typefaces. However, it wasn’t until other people pointed it out to me that I noticed just how often I incorporate text. I guess it’s very deeply imbedded in me.

AMM: Many aspects of the life of an artist your work cleverly puts in the spotlight are often situations that are first encountered at art school, like studio visits. Can you tell us a bit about your own time studying Fine Art? 

PG: That’s true. It’s impossible not to consider how much our individual education has affected our current perspective and outlook. My upbringing didn’t stress the importance of going to college, so I started a little later than most at a community college in Madison, Wisconsin at the age of 22. I then transferred to the School of Visual Arts in New York and got my BFA. While I liked my time at SVA, the non-art related classes were laughable. It felt like a school for kids who could never handle a traditional college education. I felt a little cheated in this aspect. However, the art classes were top notch, but I should also add while I was at SVA, I was studying illustration and not fine art. My fellow illustration/cartooning friends and I would laugh at the fine art students. It’s probably not fair to say this, but we thought at the time they were turning out these emotionally overwrought and terribly didactic works and that we were doing something useful or more justified in some way. We were definitely arrogant and overly confident. The strange thing is that I wanted to be in those fine art classes. I really didn’t care about illustration; I just thought it would be a more stable job. Needless to say, my illustration background didn’t prepare me for applying to grad school in fine art. The work that I applied with was horrible. Thankfully, none of it exists any more. Grad school is where I started to understand fine art, but it wasn’t until after grad school that I started to consistently make work that I could live with. In retrospect, art school is a good foil to the art world. It’s a kind of hermetic experience complete with its own language and hierarchy. It’s for this reason I love poking fun at it. I definitely took myself way too seriously back then.

AMM: Does the dark-comedy that appears in your work reflect your own experiences as an artist working in today’s often-convoluted art scene? How do you feel about the so-called “art world”? 

PG: I’m a pretty small figure in the art world and for this reason I probably don’t get the kind of criticism that way more established artists get. Or at least I don’t hear of it, anyways. The biggest obstacle for me and other artists in my position is being written about at all (good or bad). I’ve been very fortunate to have some wonderful press, but more often than not, nothing is written. It becomes the philosophical equivalent of “if an artwork is placed in a gallery and no one writes about it, does it exist?” This was especially true early on after grad school. I think back to art school and it’s sort of a microcosm that was cut throat and divisive. I haven’t actually seen that in my experiences of the “art world”. I assume it happens, but most everyone I know has been exceptionally generous. Maybe it’s because I don’t feel especially competitive with others and I avoid assholes. I should be clear; it’s not all rosy. Certainly I see major issues with the art world. The most egregious is the lopsided ratio of men to women, and white artists to people of color. Also, it’s sometimes hard to shake the idea that we’re all just making luxury goods for an elite class. That can be profoundly depressing, if I think too hard about it.

AMM: Almost all of your recent paintings include the words, “By Howard Moseley, M.D.” Who is this person? Is he someone you know or is he a fictional character? 

PG: Howard is a fictional character. He came about after reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith. The protagonist is a British art historian named Howard Beasley. In my mind’s eye, I saw him as a frumpy, tweed-wearing liberal academic, which I thought would be the perfect model for my fictitious self-help guru.

AMM: Your work often pokes fun at the absurdity in the painful anxiety of the future and expectations. Does this mood that your paintings capture come from your own thoughts and emotions? 

PG: That’s a really good read! I often tell myself, “Keep a low expectation and you’ll never be disappointed.” It’s a cynical way of looking at the world, but it kind of works. I suppose all of the work is a questioning of the role of the artist and a more general existential angst. However, that would be too depressing to tackle head on, which is why I inject humor. It makes it more palatable for me and hopefully others. In the end, we have very little control over this and the best thing that I’ve found is to laugh at it. Not to get too philosophical, but we’re all filled with contradictions, so we might as well admit to it.

AMM: Is there a part of being an artist that you have ever struggled with? What has been the most enjoyable part of art-making for you?

PG: I’ve definitely struggled with being an artist and still do on occasion. It can be hard to keep yourself motivated when you don’t have deadlines. Also, the way that I work can be a bit laborious. Sometimes work comes out fast, like in one sitting, but often I’m working and reworking a painting because it doesn’t look right. That can be very frustrating, because I don’t work with any sort of blueprint. Sometimes that goes as far as thinking that a painting is finished and then turn around and paint right over it with something completely different. However, when it does eventually come together, it’s a sweet feeling. Those moments when things are going well, there’s nothing better. I live for those moments.

AMM: Who would you say is your biggest influence as an artist? 

PG: That’s a tough one. Growing up I adored Picasso, Monet, and later on Pollock. Nowadays, I love Nicole Eisenman, Amy Sillman, Rachel Harrison, and Dana Schutz. Perhaps the one artist that
I keep returning to is Philip Guston.

AMM: Much of your brilliantly catchy messages in your work can be read as advice or perhaps a warning. Can you share with our readers your favorite piece of advice? 

PG: That’s a hard one. I always liked the advice to embrace failure. It may be overused, but it’s really good advice. Also, for me, I feel like artists are often too precious with their work. I had a professor that told me that if you have a favourite part of the painting, then you have to get rid of it. I never really understood that at the time, but for me it means one good passage can’t prop up an otherwise bad painting. A painting works as a whole or it doesn’t at all. Also, another professor told me how he would start a painting by “destroying” it or by making an awful mess of the surface. Then he would get to work on “fixing” it. I always liked that idea that a painting could be broken and all it needs is fixing, like a window or an old appliance.

AMM: What is the next step for you? Where do you see your work going in the future?

PG: I’m not sure, yet. I never really have an idea for where it’s going or, when I do, it often ends up in an entirely different direction. I suppose that’s the fun part. It’s not predictable. However, with that said, I’ve been thinking about sculpture lately. I want to make some objects. I had been thinking of making some clocks, but haven’t gotten very far with it. I guess I’m getting a little bored with flat, square surfaces and need a break for a little while. But who knows? I guess I’ll have to see where the work leads me. I like surprising myself!

Find out more about the artist: www.paulgagner.com

Text and interview by Christina Nafziger for ArtMaze Mag.