Joshua Hagler


“Art is like a kidnapper in a Stockholm Syndrome scenario. On the one hand, it captured you against your will and makes life impossible.  On the other hand, you love art and wouldn’t know how to live without it”

AT: Where are you from and how/why did you start engaging with art?

JH: I was born in a small town in Idaho in the U.S. and moved around the country ever since. I live in New Mexico now. I drew all my life.  Adults thought I was good at it.  I made up stories for the drawings.  It gave me a way to imagine other worlds while getting some positive attention.


AT: When did it become serious?

JH: It’s harder to remember when it wasn’t. Play is important though.


AT: Are there any person who has been significant in your breakthrough as an artist?

JH: My wife Maja Ruznic. Maybe also the poet W.S. Merwin and composer Arvo Part.


AT: What is your first approach to the work? How would you describe your practice?

JH: My approach is highly varied. For me, that’s very much the point.  I try to respond to my past limitations and move beyond them.  I am thoughtful about what I consider to be worth making, what’s worth leaving behind when I’m gone, what’s worth saying, or not.  There has been a shift in the work to become epistolary, that is, to aim an intention in a specific direction, to a specific person or place, whether in the past, present, or future, as one might a personal letter to someone or something living, gone, or not yet here.  These intentions are layered, physically, into the picture.  In subtracting these physical layers, something is revealed to me through the process and material.  Something is “said” back to me.  So it’s a kind of call-and-response ritual, a private language.  I think of my approach as a kind of self-examination to see where I am in relation to the world as I know it, and to try to understand where my effort belongs.  The adjustments are continuous.

Between Earth and Here, 2021, Mixed media, 106×182 in

AT: What do you aim to reach with your work?

JH: That’s a question I ask myself all the time. The answer might be fairly irrational.  I’m trying to reach the past and future at once, I think.  Intuitively, this is a desire to make a fractured world whole by repatriating myself to a past I’ve mostly forgotten, yet carry with me in my body.  And it’s a desire to confront, or to be confronted by, something larger than myself.  Through meditation I’ve become more comfortable with the idea of death.  I like the Leonard Cohen song “The Goal,” which was released posthumously.

I move with the leaves
I shine with the chrome
I’m almost alive
I’m almost at home

No one to follow
And nothing to teach
Except that the goal
Falls short of the reach


AT: What are your favourite tools and materials for working?

JH: I have a 20-year-old palette knife called Crustipher Palletteknife who’s been with me since the beginning. He’s loyal and rarely complains. He’s the only tool his age I haven’t lost.  That’s how deep the love.


AT: What do you feel while you work? Do you usually think about the final outcome beforehand?

JH: For many years, I carefully researched and planned my work so that there was an end-goal in mind, both in terms of an individual work and an overall body or exhibition. Little by little, I let that go. I might have a sense of what I could end up with, but it’s only an approximation. I still often begin with specific imagery for specific reasons but I let that imagery and reasoning erode through the process.

So my feeling for the work and the studio has entered a rather joyful paradox, I would say.  It’s as if the more I care about painting, the less I care about the picture.  The less I care about meaning, the more I care about the experience.  The less I care about messaging, the more I care about accuracy (the thing which can be only itself).  The more I care about my subject, the less I care about appearance.  I never panic anymore.  That’s pretty recent actually.  There is a terrible feeling that used to overcome me when I thought I was too far off the mark, and I would begin to paint faster and faster the way one might drive faster when lost, trying to get to the destination.  It would drive me nuts when I failed.  I still fail; I just don’t really mind when I do.  The failures just get recycled later and become valuable as an early layer in future works.  Nothing really goes to waste.

We have a three-month-old daughter.  There have been some medical complications so, at best, I’m in the studio two hours a day for now.  When I’m in there, I waste no time.  I care less than ever whether the paint hits its mark.  Maja calls this the drunken hand.  It’s such a relief to get into the studio now.  Sometimes I just burst into tears for no reason!  I put on the Arvo Part and get to work!  Every moment counts!

The Epistle of One Arriving from Among the Many Departed, 2020, Mixed media on burlap, 89 x 97 in

AT: How do you understand that a work is finished?

JH: I’m struggling with that right this minute. I have a painting that might be done, but maybe not. A painting that isn’t finished will sit around and antagonize you.  If you’re not antagonized, maybe it’s finished.


AT: Where does the inspiration for the work come from?

JH: The late poet Lucie Brock Broido used to say that her poems were troubled into their making, and I’ve quoted that line in too many interviews already, but only because it’s felt really true to my work as well and for so many years. It gives another dimension to the idea of inspiration, what it is, what it really means to be inspired in a way that could necessitate the hand. Art, at its root, I think, wants to visualize the unknown, and maybe especially because the unknown is so frightening, art has had the power to give us a place to be with and to find value in it.  If the unknown can be visualized, it’s given space to belong, and we’re given space to locate ourselves somewhere within it.  So, for me, that encompasses just about everything in life.  I’m inspired by our baby, of course, but if it weren’t for her troubling and, ultimately, unknowable circumstances, I don’t know that she would come into the art as much as she does, as I’m not sure I’d need her in the picture in less frightening circumstances.


AT: Are there any artists who influenced your works? Why?

JH: I’ve responded to this question many times over the years, so I think I might take the opportunity to talk instead about the role the poets have influenced my work.


AT: How important is the role of social media for you?

JH: It’s a love/hate situation. In a perfect world, social media wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t be on it. I use Instagram still, while I’ve got off the rest.  Its main benefit is that it’s at least somewhat effective in circumventing the class impediments that continue to bother me about the art world.  Now because everyone feels sort of forced to be on it, after a while, they might notice your work whereas if you had sent a portfolio to a gallery in the past, it would have gone straight into the garbage.  So, to be honest, Instagram has been instrumental for me over the past few years in terms of gallery representation, exhibitions and sales.

Nocturne, 2020, Mixed media on canvas, 95 x 88 in

AT: As an artist, what is your point of view about the contemporary art system?

JH: The art world is a dangerous place for art and artists. Production is conflated with investigation, identity is with brand, success with historical significance.  The result is something which tends to be casual, flippant, redundant, predictable, didactic, and easy on the minds of those who buy it.  What powers the art world has nothing to do with art, and it’s important, I think especially for young artists, to know that early on, so that your perspective and motivations aren’t tied to other people’s need for social and economic advancement.


AT: What do you find to be the most challenging or daunting thing about pursuing art? What is the most rewarding part of working as an artist?

JH: Art is like a kidnapper in a Stockholm Syndrome scenario. On the one hand, it captured you against your will and makes life impossible.  On the other hand, you love art and wouldn’t know how to live without it.  The other thing that’s like that is a baby.


AT: What do you do besides art?

JH: Did I mention the baby? I write a lot too. Currently at work on a screenplay. Poetry is something I spend time with as well.


AT: What are your goals and expectations for the future?

JH: I think, to a degree, art has transcendent potential, but culture industries don’t. There are things to look forward to and to achieve outside of an industry.  However, when this question comes up, it’s assumed that achievement is something that the artist wills onto that industry rather than something which the industry confers onto the artist in a kind of quid pro quo in exchange for promulgating a narrative the industry wants to believe about itself.  There is an exploitation of the artist in that process, so that as one gains, one also loses, but that often goes unnoticed for years. So as my expectations and internal imaging of how things could be or ought to be has collapsed, and I’ve had time to understand my own response to that crisis, I’ve become more open and receptive, especially to those things I can’t readily explain.  The art has benefitted from this collapse, it turns out, and that, in turn, has helped me to trust in the mystery of my own work and life—what it’s for, what it means.  So the only goal now is to make something that brings on yet another shift in consciousness, one that marks time by dividing what came before from what comes next.  I should always look forward to understanding the world differently than I did before, even—or especially—when the ground gives way.