Paul Gagner’s paintings blend self-deprecating and wry humor with illustrative figuration and reflexive storytelling. His subject matter is vast, ranging from massively scaled sandwiches (often filled with toppings that absurdly extend beyond the edible realm) to still lifes with arranged body parts, art books, and everyday objects. His recent work develops this array of narrative subject matter, while also continuing a series of paintings of self-help book covers by Dr. Howard Mosely -- a fictitious psychologist crafted by Gagner, whose book titles reflect an internal dialogue of the artist’s own fears, anxieties, and grievances. The result is a hilarious reflection of the sardonic and honest thoughts that are incredibly present for artists today, while also poking fun at the structures of the art world and the system in which artists operate. At his recent show at SPRING/BREAK Art Fair, Gagner expanded these Howard Mosely paintings into objects themselves -- transforming them into book covers and translating the painting into a physical object. Witty and poignant, Gagner’s paintings are a harmonious balance of imagined narratives and honest observation, dense with content and a joy to unpack as look at as viewer.
Paul Gagner grew up in rural Wisconsin and received his BFA from School of Visual Arts and his MFA from Brooklyn College. Currently based in Brooklyn, NY, Gagner has shown in solo, two person, and group exhibitions nationally and internationally, including David & Schweitzer Contemporary, Lesley Heller Workspace, and Linda Warren Projects. This year, Gagner showed work at SPRING/BREAK Art Fair, had a solo show at Allen & Eldridge Gallery, NY, and was in a two person show at Katharine Mulherin Contemporary in Toronto, ON.
How did you first get interested in painting and start making work?
The first time I actually painted was pretty disastrous. I grew up in Northern Wisconsin, and I didn’t really have much of an art outlet. There are no galleries around there, and the nearest museum is the Walker Art Center in Minnesota, which was about 2.5 hours away. I didn’t even visit the Walker until I was 18 or 19, so my art outlet was comic books and cartoons. And also Bob Ross. I really loved Bob Ross when I was younger, so my first attempts at painting were trying to paint along with him and they were just awful, I had no idea what I was doing.
The first time I really began taking painting seriously was in high school. I had an art teacher who knew enough about oil painting to help her students figure it out, so I started there. I was much better at drawing. I didn’t really develop the oil painting until I got into college, where I was i fortunate enough to have professors who were really good at explaining techniques, how the medium behaves, and the history of it. That’s when I really started to take off.
What were your earlier works like and how did you enter into this current body of work?
I was in a two year technical college in Madison, Wisconsin that was focused on graphic design and illustration. I got into that because I thought graphic design would be something that I could take anywhere and was applicable to a lot of things and, frankly, could get me a decent job. My heart was way more into illustration and painting than graphic design, but graphic design utilizes a lot of skills that are applicable across the board in visual art so I liked it enough and it wasn’t completely unrelated. I think a real breakthrough for me was when I was in the last semester at that school getting my associate’s degree and we had a portfolio show. Each student had to propose a theme for the show and I made this painting that was based on old pulp fiction covers, so it had this sort of 50s, horror, SciFi vibe. It had this woman with a beehive, or some 50s or 60s hairdo, and she had long nails and was dressed up and had this intense look of horror on her face while looking at a black portfolio that she had just opened up, and the title was ‘Attack of the Killer Portfolios’. They chose that theme for the show and I think it was a real breakthrough moment for me because it was the first time that I had incorporated humor into my work in a very deliberate way, and it was also the first time that I had included a real sense of nostalgia. Marrying the two created this trajectory for me when I came to New York and finished my undergrad at the School of Visual Arts in Illustration. My storytelling and humor started there and just continued to snowball as I was in school.
Your works are really funny, and have a self-deprecating and honest quality to their humor. How do you approach incorporating humor into your paintings?
Humor is tricky. I like to see humor in art that is wry, overt, sarcastic, or ironic. So much of what I do rubs up against irony, and I’m trying to be careful of that proximity. I appreciate irony, and I don’t necessarily have anything against it, but at times it can be a little cold and snarky without actually illuminating anything, which I don’t think has a lot of value or relevance. The way I try to distance myself from that and stay on the other side of irony is to be self-deprecating and make the humor and work mostly about myself. The Howard Moseley books for instance are supposed to be my inner dialogue and the terrible advice I give myself, and I would imagine that a lot of artists who are also sensitive people have those thoughts as well. I think that helps to keep it grounded in something that people can relate to instead of just having it be empty, snarky humor.
When did the Howard Moseley character first appear and how have those pieces developed?
It came about accidentally, which is the best way of describing its evolution. Some friends of mine who run Transmitter Gallery in Bushwick got a booth at an art fair in Chelsea. They wanted to include a bunch of artists and, because of that, they limited the size of the pieces that would be shown. The size they gave immediately struck me as being roughly book-size. In grad school I had made a sculpture that was a stack of these pre-existing self-help books. I had read self-help books and had an interest in the topic, so when they told me the size limitation and those guidelines, I just thought a self-help book would be perfect. The first two that I made for that art fair were a lot of fun to make and strangely therapeutic, so I thought I’d keep doing them as long as I could keep coming up with good titles without being repetitive.
It was interesting to see the photo-shopped book covers you created from the paintings at the Spring Break Art Fair. How did you approach marrying the paintings with actual sculptural objects?
That’s something I’m still figuring out right now. In grad school I was actually more interested in sculpture than I was in painting. When I graduated I very quickly went back to painting, but I still have this love of sculpture that persists. Perhaps one thing that I find frustrating about what I do is that the paintings always seem to exist only as paintings -- they’re stretched canvas, the sides are white, and they’re deeply rooted in painting. The Howard Moseley books allowed me to pull myself away from that and make something that exists as more than a painting. I definitely want to explore that more with my work. The paintings were just screaming to be book covers, so making the prints and wrapping them around books seemed like the next logical step to take them. I don’t think that the actual books that I’m using are exactly the right ones for this project. A friend of mine who works in publishing gave me a box of books that they had left over, with size being the only real common factor among them, but consequently they’re all young, adult fiction. I imagined wrapping the covers around sketchbooks or printing something on blank books. I haven’t quite perfected them yet. My photography skills also aren’t the greatest, so the colors aren’t quite where I want them to be. It would be nice to have them silk screened, or I also thought about sculpting books to paint on as well.
Books are recurring objects within your paintings as well -- what attracts you to them as a painting subjects? In hand with this, how do you approach the still life compositions in your works?
Other than having a title on them, I think the books exist as just objects. In a very broad sense, I think of them as knowledge; a book is just information bound and held together, and they represent an idea of potential knowledge. I like that food is nourishment for your body and the book is nourishment for your mind. Sometimes when I use them to cite particular authors or artists, they can act as stand-ins for a lot of assumptions that you can have about the work. For example, instead of making a painting in the style of another artist, I can just reference them with a book.
I first started painting books right out of grad school, but I had a different intention regarding their purpose and what they were meant to be. I was frustrated with the academic and intellectual side of art because I felt that it got in the way of actually painting. At the time I was painting books and heads. The heads had no bodies attached to them, and the idea was that I was just stuck in my own head. Adding the books into the composition was a way for me to push that idea further. Books are kind of just worthless objects that have potential. You have to open up a book and read it or else it’s just dead weight. I’ve started appreciating the value of a book more as people are doing more of their reading online. Books are tangible, rare, and delicate, and I like that knowledge and information is just sitting right there inside of them.
What is your work process like, both in terms of conceptualizing the composition and executing the painting?
My work process is constantly evolving, though I have thankfully been able to keep it a little more predictable now than I have in the past. There are certain patterns of questioning and thinking that I repeat for each piece, so I’ve gotten to know myself and my process better, and doing so has helped me paint better as well. I don’t make any drawings, so everything I do happens on the canvas. Because of that, I end up fucking up a lot of paintings. When you see lumpy surfaces or scratches on my works, that’s the result of other paintings that I attempted before which I discarded and painted over. Sometimes I’ll do that numerous times before I finally get the right painting, and other times it’s very direct. I also write a lot, and I have tons of sketchbooks filled with writing. It’s basically me having a conversation with myself and the painting and trying to extract some meaning from what I’ve been doing, so I’ll write down lists that relate to an idea, or I’ll go through a thesaurus and find different meanings of words that get my juices going more.
This one (The Artist, Rearranged, With Pickle) is pretty fresh on my mind. I made this right after the election, which was pretty devastating for a lot of people, myself included. I’m not a political artist, so I didn’t really know how to get into it or be political without being didactic -- I find that kind of art really awful and repulsive a lot of times. And who am I to tell somebody something anyways? I don’t have any particular thoughts to express, I just know that whatever happened sucked and it wasn’t a good feeling for me or other people in the country and world. I wanted to deal with it in a productive way, so I was questioning myself about how I felt. This piece is about me feeling like I’m being pulled apart, out of sorts, not myself, and unable to do anything. It’s a body that is represented, but it’s a body that can’t do anything. I thought that I could arrange the body parts in an interesting way and just examine the chaos and that feeling. The newspaper included is from The New York Times the day after, and the headline says ‘Trump Triumphs’, and the pickle at the bottom is sort of a funny crescendo into the whole thing. It seemed important to have some reference to Trump, so I thought that the literal news was probably the worst part of it all and the sad, lonely pickle hanging at the edge felt like it anchored the whole thing down. It’s probably a more depressing painting through me talking about it than it actually is. The Trump part gives it a sour tone. So that’s how I went about making that piece.
A lot of your works have yourself incorporated in them and I’m curious how you approach that form of self-portraiture or autobiography?
So much of what I make is about the artist navigating the art world or the world in general. It’s about the artist’s relationship to his or her surroundings. I can only speak for myself, so I just use myself as a reference because it’s convenient and I’m talking about my own feelings, so it doesn’t make sense to paint somebody else.
I think that there are also a lot of similarities with how that relates to portraiture of the past. I’m not an expert, but I know a little about Rembrandt and you can see his relationship to self-portraiture as a documentation of what was happening to him through his life. I haven’t studied a lot on self-portraiture, but I think sometimes I treat it as a prop and think of it quite literally. I might even think of the paintings that don’t have any direct references to me as being more about me than the ones that do. With The Portable Artist for instance, I was thinking about artists in general vs. me in particular, and I was questioning what we needed in order to get along in life and that were crucial to making it work as an artist. Basically I was painting the bare essentials, and it’s funny because there’s only one arm and one leg, but two ears and two eyes, half a brain, a sandwich, a diploma...the little things that you need to make it function.
I’m interested in the scale that you play with and how you exaggerate certain figures or elements -- how do you approach scale and manipulate it within your work?
In a broad sense, the one thing I really like about painting versus other mediums is that you can imagine the impossible. It’s not as though I necessarily push that to the degree that some other artists do, but I like that exaggeration can happen in a way that is so much easier or more ridiculous than it can be in sculpture or photography. Why not exploit that feature of painting to make a point?
The Palm Readerwas the first painting that I was really purposefully exaggerating size and portions of the body. Part of it was for convenience’s sake -- I wanted this very large hand there, and if all of the other hands were the same size the painting would be really crowded. When I made that decision to shrink the other hands, it turned out to be really funny so it had this added bonus of being hilarious and absurd. I started to exaggerate proportions with the paintings after that.
In 24 Hour News Cycle, my head is comically large in the painting and my body is emaciated. The title gives away a lot of the painting, but I felt like my head was swollen with information and then my body was being ignored and malnourished. I have another, Phil’s Pedicure,which is supposed to be Philip Guston getting a pedicure. I was thinking about art heros having huge egos, so I thought one way to show that was through him having very large feet. I like that you can exaggerate a painting and render something impossible. I feel obligated as a painter to exploit those aspects of the medium.
Can you talk about the scale of your pieces themselves?
Right out of grad school I had this relationship with scale that I think probably a lot of young, overly confident, ambitious artists have, which is that bigger is better. I think the earlier paintings I made were bigger than they needed to be. I’ve been finding that for very practical reasons I’ve settled on a handful of sizes that are easy to deal with, by which I mean they are easy to get onto the subway or to put into a car.
My wife photographs with medium format film. I remember years ago when she first started using that format, I looked at the negatives and immediately thought they were so much more pleasing to the eye than 35mm, and I guess I just assumed that the reason why was because of the proportions or something. It’s definitely more than that, but I just thought that the proportions were so nice that I started incorporating more off-square sizes into my paintings.
How do you approach color in your work?
I never thought of myself as being really good with color. I think my tendency is to paint very drab, dark, old-fashioned colors because that’s how I learned and it’s always been my go to. I’ve always had a very limited palette of colors, and it’s only been in recent years that I’ve added colors that are a little more obnoxious or saturated or unnatural, if there is such a thing. I really consciously force myself to use colors that are ‘unnatural’, in the sense that skin color doesn’t have some of those pinks that I use or the weird ochre colors, where the person might have some sort of liver issues or something. I try to add more high-key, saturated colors in order to force myself out of a rut or my go-to palette. Usually it makes them more interesting. It’s a very conscious thing.
For example, the blue jeans that I paint -- my instinct is to go to a very muted, greyish blue because that’s what jeans actually look like in real life. But that is so not interesting in a painting. In real life it’s fine, but in a painting it looks so much more interesting when the blue is more unnatural. It’s an approximation of life; I’m not painting life, so it would be strange if I exaggerated how things work or appear, but keep a very natural color palette.
I also love awkwardness, and I think it’s a really crucial thing for composition and colors. I like colors that are awkward or peculiar, or things that get too close to the edge. I like it when things are almost touching the corners or sides of the paintings but not quite. It’s frustrating and it draws attention to itself, almost like something is trying to burst out of the painting but is restrained and crowded into the picture frame. In comics, one thing that makes the drawings so dynamic is seeing characters burst through the image frame.
What are you working on or thinking about at the moment?
I have a love for ketchup, which is a very Midwestern thing. On a recent trip to Wisconsin to visit family, I went out with some relatives to get burgers and my uncle had his burger and he had brought his own bottle of ketchup with him to squeeze onto each bite. It killed me. I love ketchup, but that is the next level of obsession. I was thinking about ketchup as a theme and I bought a ketchup bottle and I wanted to make some molds of the bottle and cast them, not knowing exactly where it was going to go, but playing around to see what might happen.
I’ve been thinking about getting back into sculpture a bit more, or trying to incorporate some sculpture into the next series or show. Last summer I had this desire to make tombstones, but nothing ever really happened with that. I was having trouble conceptually figuring out why tombstones, and what about them interested me and how they would operate. In painting, I work out the problems that arise as I’m facing them, but with sculpture I feel like I can’t do that because it’s not as malleable as painting is. Painting feels like it’s wet clay and you can push it around as much as you want. But sculpture...I could make a bunch of ketchup bottles, but if they don’t have a real reason for existing or how they interact with one another, I would feel like I’ve wasted a bunch of materials and time and then wouldn’t know what to even do with them. So I feel like I have to have a need for them before hand prior to setting out and making them. But I do like objects; I like how they operate differently than paintings in a space and how people act with them. I’ve thought about ways of incorporating them into the paintings, but there hasn’t been this burning desire for that yet. But the ketchup bottle is probably something I’ll put more time into and will think more about.
I also have started to paint a series of sandwiches because it was kind of related to ketchup and I also do paint a lot of sandwiches, so it still made sense. I finished one, Turkey Club, but the second one became confusing and wasn’t going how I wanted. I’ve decided now that it’s going to be some type of German sandwich. I don’t know what that really means, but I’ve just started painting German things into it, like the beer stein and the pretzel, the bratwurst and sauerkraut, and then two German painters I appreciate and a gigantic pickle. I guess I was thinking about these sandwiches as being something nourishing. I think that good art has nourishment, it has something that will keep giving to you. It’ll sustain you and can inform you too, so it’s like bad paintings don’t do that -- maybe they’re sugary sweet and ultimately leave you depleted, but a good piece of art is a stick-to-your-ribs type of meal and it’ll leave you full afterwards. I’m painting that literally, so it’s about nourishment and color being nourishing, and then it’s served on books which goes back to the nourishment of the mind. I might keep making more of these sandwiches and try to get really ridiculous or wacky with them...I can’t just make two. I loosely have my mind on this show about deli sandwiches and ketchup or condiments. I’m not sure if that’s interesting enough for me or anyone. I thought about casting ketchup bottles and having them lie on top of the canvases, which I think would be funny.
What are you looking at right now that is informing your work; anyone, anything you’re consuming that you’re thinking about?
I try not to focus too much on anyone in particular. I don’t want them to creep too much into what I do. But there are so many wonderful artists out there and I’m fortunate enough to know a lot of artists and I appreciate their art. I really love Nicole Eisenman’spaintings,Bechmann and Otto Dix are really great. I like Dana Schutz, Amy Sillman...but I try to vary what I look at as much as I can. I’ve been a bad person lately in that I haven’t really been out to see much art, but I need to change that. A lot of the stuff I see are friends’ shows. There’s so much great work out there right now and there’s so much going on in the arts at any given time. But there’s nothing in particular that I’m thinking about looking at right now.
What is your studio practice like?
I have a full-time, 9am-5pm job Monday through Friday, so I get into the studio in the evenings on the weekends. I have a lot of friends and family that I want to see, so I’m negotiating time here and there. It can be tricky. I work on no more than two paintings at once, but usually one at a time unless it’s going really bad and I just need to look at something else, which does happen frequently. But I try to just focus my energy on one because I’m already a pretty scattered person, so I think if I got into more than that then the whole thing would just come crashing down.
What is the biggest challenge in painting and how do you deal with frustrations with your work?
The biggest challenges are that I don’t like repeating myself and then I also don’t want to make something that has already been made, both literally and also in a way that brushes up against something else that already exists. I try to resist going too far down a road that somebody has already been down. That’s really hard, maybe even impossible, but I want to stay away from tropes and avoid carelessness.
Working on something that is not a literal reference means you’re making it up as you go while trying to make it look realistic at the same time. The frustration is hard to describe, but it comes down to me being picky about how it plays with that realm of realism and what leeway I have to play with it. Sometimes you just fuss with it until you get it right, and other times it’s just a really frustrating battle. Those frustrations come with the territory. I’m not just painting for viewers, I’m painting because it’s pleasing to me and myself. As painters, pleasing ourselves should be the first thing because if you don’t care about it, then nobody else will.