I wrestled a mythological creature today and lost myself On Joshua Hagler’s "Chimera"
It melts. Liquid, distorted scenes wash over me. The image vibrates, falls
apart, puts up resistance. My eyes dart in every direction, are drawn in by one
of the many fathomless abysses. My gaze ascends while I descend. I feel lost.
Grasped. Implicated. An other. The world is unrecognizable. I close my eyes.
The first time that I saw Joshua Hagler’s new collection of paintings, “Chimera”, it was difficult to react. I didn’t know what I was seeing. Abyssal scenes. A furious metabolism. Matter and leftovers. Relics, fragments, and artefacts from bygone eras. Frenzy.Fire. Pain. A burning pit that pursues you, shreds you open, and devours you. Me, consumed, wandering in something that seemed to want to say as much about painting in general as about the charged significance of these specific paintings. I looked a horrifying beast straight into its gaping mouth. And only its creator had gone before me, putting himself on the line, undoubtedly pushed to the point that he would almost have to destroy what he had only just brought to life.
I open my eyes again and repeat: it’s only art, it’s only art. I carefully venture
closer, deeper. I descry lost eyes, hands that reach out for salvation, in vain. A
breast. Teeth on which the veil across the world catches. A rain of biting
colours shreds through the canvas. Ever deeper, faster, sharper. The end of
time whirls through my head, and everything becomes more intense. Livelier.
And then darkness falls and I feel the hot breath of the beast.
My God v.I 2019
How did Joshua Hagler tame this monster? The Chimera – a fire-breathing creature from Greek mythology that manifests itself in the freakishly blended forms of a lion, a goat, and a snake. Four legs and three heads that are cast into a cursed existence. How do you repress the irrepressible? You don’t. The creature Joshua Hagler has thrown into existence is uncontrollability incarnate, a monster fed by the shadow of our gaze, on the periphery of our own rightness. “Everything exists in greater and greater polarities,” he explains. “This binary thinking might be a natural thing to do in terms of human consciousness, but the reality is always a lot more complicated than that. Instead of taking responsibility for the creation of this unintended consequence, for this chimera we are all living in, we would rather just look away and not face whatever contradicts our thinking.”
It is in this all-consuming opposition – that becomes increasingly total – that the beast grows its scales, a goatee, claws, and a mane undisturbed. There, on the other side, on the barren terrain behind the dichotomy of guilt and the eternal lack of atonement, it grows, swells up, sheds, and metamorphoses into something unrecognizable, a dissonant noise that nobody wants to hear. The appeal of the other becomes the needed enemy that breathes down your neck.
The gasping dies, dissolves in the nothingness. As though I am standing in the
silent eye of the storm. In the fold of skin that I recognize but cannot place. A
rip in the canvas is a scratch on the soul.
Where do you stand when the illusion of an absolute dichotomy starts controlling the construction of identity? We are everything that the other is not, and the other is entirely dissimilar. A fathomless identity emerges, a present without history, an essence derived from pure opposition, the simulation of a pocket-sized truth. The unshakeable and rigidly delineated category makes us blind and envelops the difference, variation, the other (in ourselves) in mist. The fact that you have to continue gropingly leads to very unsteady footing. In “The River Lethe” – a reference to the river that in Greek mythology runs through the underworld, and of which the water, if you drink it, erases your memories and historical consciousness – Joshua Hagler had already dived into “the cultural amnesia and psychological repression of white nationalism in America today,” in the summer of 2018. “I was trying to excavate an identity that never really existed. If anything, it revealed that there is no truth there, that there is no reconcilability, that we’re stuck in this sort of limbo of non-identity.” How do you make art in this context, “in which no message can be sent or received outside the sphere of the spectacle”? Joshua Hagler does by unleashing the beast, the untameable Chimera. By cutting into blinkered perspectives and thus bringing the deeper truth and the deeper lie to the surface. By bringing images to the fore that self-destruct. Images that hurt, that expose the contradictions themselves. That expose us. Here we lie, naked and defenceless, at the point of being devoured by the beast that we ourselves unsuspectingly raised. We have become collateral damage. If to the ancient Greeks the Chimera was a hybrid, fire-breathing monster, then why should we deserve it to be anything less than that.
From that fold, I see a landscape. The skin is weathered. Open wounds,
fissures, and bumps make it tremble. Like a mirage. Constantly on the border
between appearing and disappearing.
Joshua Hagler’s paintings are such untameable creatures, tearing away at the world as we know it, only to reveal our own violence, our own illusions, our own distorted image in the scattered remains. They add nuance, shatter truth and replace it with a hybrid body, flesh and bones that are barely holding together. Human after all. “My work deeply speaks to some sense of broken-heartedness,” Joshua Hagler says. “I have this idea that so much of the forces that act on us in our lives are anti-human. If we can make a work of art and put ourselves into it, it’s like we’re able to stay alive. If I did not make art, I would fade away. My body would feel like it ceased to exist.” It’s better to hurt than to fade away. And so Joshua Hagler plucks at the skin of his paintings. Until little cracks appear, grooves along which the image gets distorted, multiplied, fragmented – a Tower looms, crumbles. By layering several, imposing canvasses on top of one another and then bleeding the images into one another by removing certain parts again – as if pulling dead skin – he orchestrates encounters. He creates connections, transformations, mutations that speak of an inalienable truth. He is not merely showing the fragments of an image; he puts the fragmented nature of any image on display. By peeling away the skin, he is able to show what is underneath, and that it is far more complex, far more nuanced than we currently think. “There are limits to what art can do. It can’t solve the polarization. It would be arrogant to even think so. We’re in a bad place when we expect artists to be some kind of activist heroes that enlighten others. But what I can do is inspire a kind of attentiveness.” By disrupting expectations. “If you’re looking at a drawing that is relatively faithful to the world around you, it is not going to change your set of ideas, because it isn’t anything you haven’t seen before. I think it’s more important to get that consciousness working. By making sure people can experience the authentic discovery I go through in the process of making the work.”
Shadows appear. Images slide out of the frames, changing context and
meaning. In the burning pit on the canvas, time fades, life becomes tangled in
an inextricable knot of the real, fictional, possible. The body sheds its skin.
Apart from a conscious construction, this game of adding and subtracting is also a question of letting go, embracing the accidental. Joshua Hagler’s canvasses are bursting with unsuspected possibilities. His work shows itself to be veiny, living…to the point of bleeding. It simultaneously withdraws from the day. Like a locus where time itself becomes a hybrid creature. Where the past attempts to find its way back to the surface. And the present reveals itself to be an open field of potential connections. Through his paintings Joshua Hagler connects with what is lost, with what has never been or has always been there, and what roots itself like a hook in your skin, head, and heart, and challenging patterns and systems. Across the boundaries of time. He thus wrenches back open that which had pretended to be a closed chapter. In “Chimera”, he does this by evoking old masters and new enemies. Through the godlike figure of Michael Jackson, for example, or the work of the German expressionists Emil Nolde and Max Beckmann. “They are figures that complicate things for everybody’s points of view. Take Emil Nolde. He was under house arrest and forbidden from painting by the Nazi regime from 1938 to 1945. He had some views that were kind of nationalistic, but he wasn’t a Nazi. But the popular view on Nolde is that he was. You could see him as both the oppressor and the oppressed. And nobody can be both these days. One has to be either this or that, the good guy or the bad guy, the hero or the villain. I like the fact that Nolde isn’t really convenient to anybody’s politics. I like that he complicates things.” And thus questions and moves pole and antipole to the extremes of a continuum. “The paintings he made during the Nazi regime, he called his Unpainted Pictures because he wasn’t allowed to paint them. I liked what that could mean for my process, the way that I also sort of unpaint pictures as I paint them. And I liked what it could mean politically: that the picture you have of the world gets unpainted when you go beyond the simple ideological perspective and look closely at history, politics, and the weird way they really work.”
Babel, after Emil Nolde, 1938-45. 2019
A father appears. A jester, a dog, a master, a god… The other. Perhaps that is
what these metamorphosing images evoke. What they bring to life in their
impressive tangle. The unknown is given contours. The ungraspable takes on
From the confrontation of the various layers with which Joshua Hagler constructs his canvasses, from that convergence of intimacy and distance, construction and destruction, painted creatures appear that escape all definition and categorization. From the shadow of our gaze, the periphery of the perceptible, another presence manifests itself. Some sort of artefact, a residue, something that was left behind. And which impressively looms large through the intensive building and destroying, painting and unpainting. A hybrid figure that detaches itself from its congealed identity and shimmers on the edge of reason, out of time. “Something or someone I can’t really reach, something that on canvas can only take the shape of a pitiable surrogate, wanting to be more than it can be.” That is the war that Joshua Hagler’s paintings wage: the struggle for life or death. The struggle to be more than they are. A mould for empathy, for hope and humanity. A way to resurrect what we have lost. A language that only the skin can understand. That which remains unsaid but which everyone knows. Because that is what we all share. We all inflict pain and we suffer, we cause grief and we mourn, we all love and cherish, lose and hold on, forget and remember. We paint and we unpaint. We appear and we disappear. We are links in a story. Small yet untameable creatures that keep this story alive. Fragmented, scattered, barely holding together. But human after all.
I feel lost. Grasped. Implicated. An other.The world is tangible, inhabited. I close my eyes. Chimera, I dreamt I saw you.