The Hero’s Journey of Joshua Hagler

What is the best thing that I love about my work? Perhaps what feels most meaningful to me about making art is that it’s one method of becoming radically free and sane in a world that offers neither of those things to most of us.

What is my idea of perfect happiness? I can gratefully say that I experience perfect happiness at some point almost every single day.  For instance, I wake up most mornings with the sunrise.  I read and drink coffee.  I write a little.  Sometimes I can hear a distant rooster.  Sometimes there is a fox or jackrabbit just outside the glass doors.  Sometimes the quail come running over the pieces of mesquite I’ve been piling up.  I love how cocky and pleased with themselves they are.  For at least one hour out of every twenty-four, the world that I can see and touch is fully itself before I begin my exercise of frustration with meaning.

What is my greatest fear? I face constant insecurity, so it’s a tie between homelessness and obsolescence.

What is the trait that I most deplore in myself? That I still need outside acknowledgement to feel that what I do has value, and that I give meaning to what I imagine is lacking.

Which living persons in my profession do i most admire? I admire artists whose work is soulful and difficult, who steer clear of redundancy and market-based motivation in favor of deeper feeling and genuine discovery.  There are many such artists and the list would be too long to include them all, my memory too unreliable.  I think it’s enough to say that some of them are famous, others are not; some are my friends, some have disabilities, some are my former students or studio assistants.

What is my greatest extravagance?  Mornings.

On what occasion would I lie? When I think about honesty in art, I realize that, actually, it’s a discipline to learn how not to lie.  We almost automatically imitate, either visually, or in terms of how we assert our work through the various postures we strike.  When we are very young kids, I think we are honest about what we make.  But as we age, we grow insecure, feeling that who and what we are isn’t good enough, and it feels too vulnerable to retain that honesty in making.  Learning how to tell the truth is also learning to be observant of how we imitate what we’ve seen and heard along the way, and to be committed to authenticity.  I often say that the hardest thing about teaching is getting the students to value what they do naturally.  Once we can do that, we begin telling the truth.

What is the thing that I dislike the most in my work? The art world.

When and where was I the happiest, in my work? Right now at the RAIR Program in New Mexico.  For one year, I’ve been awarded the time and space to focus on my work without distraction.  The pace has slowed.  I collected hundreds of bones from a farm today to be used in a large-scale installation.  The farmer explained how he can tell a freeze is about six weeks away based on waves of crane migration, for which he keeps a log.  I’ve been out to the Bitter Lake wildlife refuge to watch the thousands of migrating cranes gather there.  I am writing, painting, experimenting with new media and methods, researching, and thinking less than usual about outside perception.  I spend a little less time in unproductive thought and have what I need to be as lucid and alive with the work as I’ve ever been.  I have love in my life and a deep sense of purpose.

If I could, what would I change about myself?  My obsessiveness.  I’m working on it.  Obsessively.

What is my greatest achievement in work? I am a first generation college graduate, meaning that no one in my family before me has a college degree.  I moved to San Francisco in 2002 with $500 and an Oldsmobile Cutlass that liked to overheat.  I didn’t go to art school as such, but got a BFA in Visual Communications (graphic design) from the University of Arizona, which I paid for through a mix of scholarships and various jobs. The first time I ever went to an art museum was when I was hired as a weekend security guard at the university museum to augment my weekday jobs.  I was extremely naive when I left school and probably had never even heard the phrase “contemporary art.”  I wanted to write and draw comics, and I did for awhile.  

I set up this context to explain why, to me, just having been able to do this more or less full time for the past eleven years is a big deal to me.  Ironically, if I knew then what I know now, about class, education, art world aristocracy, etc. I probably never would have tried.  I don’t take full credit—I got some lucky breaks along the way—but I’ve been as resourceful as I think anyone could be given the circumstances.  Each year that I can continue doing this really does feel like a miracle, and it never happens comfortably.  The residency here in Roswell, for instance, came along in the nick of time when I would have had to give up my studio in LA.  I’ve bought another year.

What do the words ‘The Financial Freedom to Create’ mean to me? What you create adjusts to your means, and your creative discoveries come out of those constraints.  I know adults with disabilities who create far better work with little than someone like Damien Hirst has ever created with everything.  One creates a space, however small, where the mind is somehow free.  This is not a dumb comment about how money doesn’t matter; I am passionate on the issue of class and wealth disparity.  It’s a comment on how you cannot wait for outside resources to make you free or you will lose hope and give up.

Where would I most like to live? New Mexico.  Or Flores, Guatemala.

What is my most treasured possession? Eyes, brain, hands.

What is my most marked characteristic? Ha!  I don’t know, let me ask Maja…okay, she says this (through the bathroom door) that “out of respect to some sort of principle, I like to look at a problem or question or issue from every possible angle and avoid obvious conclusions.”  To understand what she means is to know that it’s not necessarily a compliment!  I think other people have put it in the form of a question: “Why do you have to make everything so difficult?”  In other words, my most marked characteristic is that I’m a giant pain in the ass.

What is my most inspirational location, in my city? There are two: Bitter Lake Wildlife Refuge and Bottomless Lakes State Park

What is my favourite place to eat and drink, in my city? Pecos Flavors Winery

What books influenced my life and how? Oh man, another list…maybe the way to shorten this is to skip the question “how” and trust that those who have read them will implicitly understand.  Those that stick out immediately as having shifted something in me at the time I read them: The Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus, The Trial Franz Kafka, Twilight of the Idols Fred Nietzsche, The Sacred and the Profane Mircea Eliade Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away Flannery O’Connor, The Roadand Blood Meridian Cormac McCarthy, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Collapse by Jared Diamond, Collected Poems by Mark Strand, Nausea Jean-Paul Sartre, the Bible (in the sense of how its effect is permanent), As I Lay Dying William Faulkner, books by and about Anselm Kiefer, individual poems such as “Too Many Names” by Pablo Neruda, and “The Descent” by William Carlos Williams, and as for those things that have deeply affected me recently: to hear many of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poems read by him, The Parallax View Slavoj Zizek, Theory of Religion Georges Bataille, The Devil Finds Work James Baldwin, the short story The Devil and Tom Walker Washington Irving, 19th-century Sioux myths about the “Great White Legs”  But if I’m most honest, it’s probably never really an entire text that influences my life, but short moments within, and to that extent, the list grows considerably.  I think what’s most true is that I am deeply influenced by what I read all the time. 

You Only Die Once. What music would I listen on my last day? “I Cover the Waterfront” by Billy Holiday.  I’ve made this known to everyone close to me.  If I could, I would outfit every friend and family member with a copy so that the song is likely to be close by on that absurd and fateful day.

Who is my hero or heroine in fiction? Hazel Motes, not because he’s an example of someone I want to emulate, but rather he reflects the more uncomfortable truths about my own predicament between the sacred and the profane.

Who are my heroes and heroines in real life? The poets and artists who are genuine in what they do, in direct challenge to mainstream cultural values.  My thoughts are especially with women these days.  I think of someone like Malala Yousafzai as perhaps the most needed voice of our time, and someone who through example, makes me aware of where I’m most spiritually impoverished and need to grow.  The women in my life who I love such as Maja who also happens to be the most important voice in my daily life.  My mother and my grandmother, both of whom I need to call.

Which movie would i recommend to see once in a lifetime? It would depend on the person to whom I’m making the recommendation and whether I’m recommending they see it at least once or only once. “Dead Man,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and the 80’s kids movie “The NeverEnding Story” are probably the three films that actually spoke to me the strongest at the time and continue to come to mind routinely.  The Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will” and the 1914 KKK propaganda silent film “Birth of a Nation” should be seen only once because they’re boring but instructive in understanding some of the origins of thought very much alive today in conservative America and the West in general.

What role plays art in my life and work? It plays all the roles.

Who is my greatest fan, sponsor, partner in crime? Maja Ruznic.  This whole thing isn’t possible without her.

Whom would I like to work with in 2018? I would like to make something in response to a question or challenge posed by any of these people, to create some kind of dialogue, and if it were possible, to make it in service to things they hope to achieve in their own work: Cormac McCarthy, Christian Wiman, Joshua Lawrence, Jason Lahman-Goldstein, Sufjan Stevens, Slavoj Zizek, Charles Simic, Ruby Sales, Krista Tippett, Brian Greene, Kip Thorne, Stephen Hawking, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Dan Carlin, Josh Wagner

Which people in my profession would I love to meet in 2018? Everyone above who I haven’t met as well as Anselm Kiefer and Leon Kossoff.

What project, in 2018, am I looking forward to work on?  I’m working on a solo exhibition called “Lethe,” which refers to the river of forgetting in Greek mythology.  When one drinks from it, one forgets his or her past life before being reborn.  In addition to new paintings, I will exhibit a large-scale installation, which grew out of a mental image I received from reading about the Wilson Price Hunt expedition in 1811, just five years after Lewis and Clark.  River routes played an important role in the early stages of American Westward Expansion.  The installation involves a lot of learning and experimentation on my part involving doors, bones, canoes, and a call-and-response audio component.  This project is a major part of my solo exhibition at the Brand Library and Art Center in Los Angeles this summer.  It will be the largest space I’ve yet been asked to fill, so the challenge is considerable.

Where can you see me or my work in 2018? In terms of what I’ve committed to so far: My solo exhibition “Lethe” at the Brand will open in late June and will be on view through August along with a smaller concurrent solo show here in New Mexico at the Roswell Museum and Art Center.  I’ll have individual works in a group show at the Torrance Art Museum just south of Los Angeles opening March 31st I believe.  Other potential museum and gallery shows later in the year include LA and Dusseldorf, which should solidify soon.

What do the words “Passion Never Retires” mean to me? It sounds like a slogan for selling luxury cars.  Or Viagra.  Definitely products for men who want to prove their virility.  What to do and how to be on most days when delusion won’t maintain and it’s clear the universe is indifferent to one’s appetites and whimsies is the better question, though perhaps less apt for slogans.

Which creative heroes should Peter invite to tell their story? Maja Ruznic,

How can you contact me?

Public: Website—, Instagram—haglerjosh

1.5-minute Vimeo video about my work: 

My graphic novel “The Boy Who Made Silence” on Amazon:

12-minute Youtube video about my work:

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