Sunday, October 24, 2010

Patrick Nagel, Playboy and Ebony Magazine.

Patrick Nagel has without doubt had the most impact on the visual style of my art. His clean, clinical execution, aggressive use of space and color to create stunning erotic compositions that were then sprinkled with sophisticated design elements combined to produce art that easily defined a generation and made the man an icon to fashion, erotica, advertisers and gawkers like myself.

Patrick Nagel
Patrick Nagel made his presence known in a rather unusual place - underwater. I was an avid artist from my earliest memory but had no real interest in art other than the fact that it afforded easy A's throughout junior and high school. My art teachers begged me to go to art school (one offered a scholarship) but alas, I declined. After a horrible stint in college attempting to pursue a career in medicine (I lasted a year at the University of Florida), I ended up in Houston, Texas, endured two years in that hell hole and joined the Navy to escape. By the way - art had abandoned me. Aimless, I volunteered for submarine duty and in 1983, 600 feet somewhere beneath the north Atlantic Ocean squirming like sperm in what could easily be described as a iron cock the length of a football field, Mr. Nagel appeared from the pages of Playboy Magazine.

Like many before and after, I was immediately taken by the stunning graphics that resided in the midst of Playboy's advisor column. So moved was I that I rounded up every issue I could find, cut out the pics and catalogued them in a journal that I kept. I studied the lines and compositions like a biblical scholar pouring over the dead sea scrolls. I was mesmerized and for the first time in my life, I actually wanted to be an artist! I would spend many days and nights (both the same on submarines) sketching his creations and then applying the style to my own creations. When I was not onboard, I would reproduce large Nagels on the walls of my efficiency apartment (yes, directly on the wall - and no, I didn't get my deposit back). Even the bottom of my Murphy bed had a huge Nagel on it. The style was easy enough to duplicate, but it was the innate combination of design, color and composition that made a Nagel a Nagel and I wanted more than anything to unlock that mystery. Unfortunately, by the time I left the Navy in 1987, Patrick was deceased (he had a heart attack at the age of 38 in 1984) and the art world was left wanting. By then, I could pull any image from the pages of Elle Magazine and create what I felt was a genuine Nagel.

After the Navy I started working at an art gallery and on the side would create my version of Nagel's to sell at mall art stores. I was soon getting commissions and started to adapt the style to feature black women. I wanted to be an illustrator and more importantly, wanted to be associated with a magazine the way Nagel was with Playboy, or Vargas with Esquire and Rockwell with the Saturday Evening Post. Since erotica was the natural style for the work, I sent a few images to a black erotic magazine, Players, out of Los Angeles. They responded favorably and offered a paying gig that I readily accepted and began supplying them with work that was by then a variation between Nagel and Vargas. The collaboration didn't last long as they published but with no contract they refused to pay on time and we soon went our separate ways. By then (around 1990), I had learned all I could learn from Nagel's style and since it was not my own (I was growing tired of people thinking that was all I could do), I retired the style but kept with me the crisp and clean look. The last time I painted anything in that style was a portrait of my then girlfriend, now wife, Cathy (I let her help me paint it). 

Cathy's Portrait

So, beyond that, how did Patrick Nagel get my art career started? I told you that like him, I wanted to be associated with a magazine and noticed that Ebony Magazine had little to no graphics in their pages. So I decided to do like Nagel and paint some images (not erotica!) and stuck them in some presentations of Ebony's advisor column which had no art. I mailed them off and a little over a month later, received a message after a lunch break to call John Johnson, the CEO of Ebony Magazine. I was on my way....or so I thought.

It took an hour for me to call Mr. Johnson, that's how nervous I was. In that time I had imagined every question he could possibly ask from inspiration to salary and yes, I would be happy to relocate to Chicago for a job in the art department. Unfortunately, the first question out of his mouth was one I didn't see coming. "Mr. Quashie, what the fuck are you trying to do to my magazine?" And the conversation went downhill from there. Over the next few minutes (it felt like a lifetime), the man unleashed on me and told me how he hated artists, how I knew nothing about magazine publishing, how he started the magazine and built it into the world's best selling black publication and most important, his magazine was number one because they dealt with 'issues relevant to black America.' He hung up shortly thereafter and I found the deepest hole I could find to hide in.

I remembered a cover of an Ebony Magazine a few years back that had 'Prince and his intriguing women.' Really. A picture of Prince and the women he was fucking! Now that was an issue relevant to black America. I was so incensed at the hypocrisy that I painted one of my first large scale paintings - my response to John Johnson - and titled it, 'EBONY - Issues (Ir)relevant to Black America.' I sat around with friends and literally had a page of teaser articles that were simply designed to make fun of the rag. 

I photographed the piece, placed it on a notecard (I don't remember what I wrote inside - knowing me, probably 'Fuck you, ass eyes!') and mailed it to John Johnson. No, I did not get a response, but that didn't matter. What mattered was that it felt good and for the first time in my life, I finally figured out what this art thing could be used for. I had literally found my voice (off pitch and untrained as it was), but a voice nonetheless. In that moment I also found my creativity and what triggered it...anger. I was Bruce Banner with paintbrush. From that point on I would give up trying to paint work that matched your drapes and carpet and focus on topics that pissed me off and I would my art to frame my response. From 93 - 96 I slashed and burned my way through art until I burned out in 96 and quit...but that's another story for another post.  

1 comment: