Joshua Hagler is known for his large-scale paintings depicting psychologically charged scenes centered on human figures, often in states of tension and conflict. Lately, he has been watching a lot of Westerns. These films have troubled and inspired him, leading him to the creation of a new traveling series called “The Adopted.”
The dark visions in “The Adopted” were initially unveiled in an exhibition at La Sierra University’s Brandstater Gallery in Riverside, California. Each painting is sparked by specific quotes or scenes in Western movies that captured Hagler’s attention. He watched these films through the lens of colonialism, noting in particular the dynamic between whites and Native Americans as well as the casting decisions that sometimes put white actors in Native American roles. “I am interested in examining a certain cultural anxiety expressed through a desire for a simpler and more deeply felt experience of being alive,” he has said, “as well as a self-conscious need to reconcile historical atrocities with mainstream progress narratives.”
Hagler responds with paintings that merge abstraction and figuration on heavily worked surfaces marked by smears, cuts, puddles, and drips of paint. These abstract passages overlap with expressively rendered figures and scenes. In an especially charged canvas, titled Hidasleep for a million years before the Brother goes Fugitive and only for Fugitives does it stir and call (2015), the artist focuses on two men—seemingly a white man and a Native American—locked in a fight. We see them on the ground, the white figure on top, ready to plunge a dagger into the Native American man pinned beneath him. The grisly scene plays out on a dark-hued, rocky landscape, interrupted by smeary spots of burnt orange.
“I want the paintings to have the feeling of vague recollection, a memory that starts to form but disappears,” Hagler has said. He admits that fully reconnecting with the past is impossible, yet there are degrees of acceptance. “The colonist who is barely or not at all conscious of his identity as such is at the heart of what the work is about.”