It's pissing rain outside, Seattle's normal weather pattern having returned to sodden gray winter skies, and there's only so much cheer that holiday lights can bring to a season wreathed in 24-hour gloom. Yet there is a bright spot: the new collection Shag: The Art of Josh Agle (Chronicle, $40). Opening this coffee-table treat seems to project color upward and out, like a portable aurora borealis. As an illustrator, Shag—his nom de pen—has contributed to Wired and Entertainment Weekly. Born in 1962, his signature style looks back to a half-remembered, half-imagined, and thoroughly glamorous Cold War era of martinis and basement bars, rumpus rooms, Tiki torches, and lava lamps (the latter may be the genus of his molten palette). All the women look fabulous. All the men are cool. The drinks never run dry. Though you can't hear it, Mingus is probably playing on the hi-fi. Half the fun of these pages is mentally supplying your own soundtrack to Shag's Polynesian bars, ski resorts, and hipster nightspots; the colorful '50s and '60s album art of Jim Flora (see The Mischievous Art of Jim Flora, Fantagraphics, $28.95) is another obvious influence.
While Shag is moored in the fantastic Technicolor past, his work isn't dogs-playing-poker kitsch. To begin with, midcentury modernism is back: the furniture and architecture framing his tableaux is all being produced again—and not inexpensively—for the Dwell and Nest set. And kitsch is static, something passive we can comfortably look down on, while the essence of Shag's popping colors is dynamic. His paintings are too bright and vivid to invite ironic condescension. They also have narrative elements, like film stills from The Incredibles, suggesting a flow in the action that can't be contained, only frozen, by our gaze.
In them, the ghost of Frank Lloyd Wright haunts a beatnik party. Dr. Zaius passes out drunk on the floor of a monkey bar. Napoleon lives on in Carnaby Street–era London. Robert Mitchum and Harry Belafonte belly up to the bar in Trinidad (and, Oh!, what stories they might tell). A tiny hillbilly fiddle player lives in a cage at the bachelor pad of an eye-patch-wearing swinger—is it the Hathaway Man, perhaps?—with a very Space Needle–esque structure glimpsed out his window. Everyone's always having a party, as if catching their breath between adventures (skiing, seducing, space flights, stealing jewels, reading poetry, racing with the Shriners in their tiny cars, etc.).
The 200 paintings collected here, 186 in full color, make leafing through this volume kind of like an Advent calendar in reverse: Each page carries you farther back in time until you finally reach the birth of the cool.