Aaron Bagley is in a sweet and desperate position. He has absolute freedom as an artist. Not tied down to any one version of himself, he creates collages from magazines, paintings of clouds, abstract paintings, comics featuring a character named Stereoman, miniature-art shows in diorama form, early-morning noise-music performances, and an ongoing massive exhibition consisting entirely of postcards sent through the mail to people who have requested them using secret passwords. This last project, the mail project, has a meta-component, too, a black book he keeps updated with the names of everyone who has ever requested a postcard, and lists of which ones they've received, with any feedback they've given noted down in Bagley's scrawl. When people send in enough requests, they receive—free, all of this is free—an entire 15-page sketchbook full of ink drawings.
The black correspondence book is a portrait of Bagley's very personal relationship to his self-generated audience. Under certain names in the book all that's listed is the first postcard Bagley sent with only a stretch of white space underneath, meaning that the person never responded—and meaning that if a response comes, Bagley is poised to fulfill and record it.
"At least if I don't get those gallery shows, or get into New American Paintings"—a curated publication that Bagley's wife, Jessixa, was included in this year for the first time—"people will still know that I existed," he said. "Jessixa is at the emerging stage. I'm barely even there."
Barely even there. That's the catch to Bagley's freedom. You can do anything when nobody's looking.
At the same time, Bagley has been appearing—in a quiet but insistent way—all over the place. In the last two years, he has had solo shows at Cornish College of the Arts, Fancy, Joe Bar, and Faire Gallery/Cafe, and he's been in group shows at Suite 100 Gallery in Belltown and the former Capitol Hill art space OlivoDoce.
His little dioramas of bite-size paintings and sculptures in palm-size galleries, made in collaboration with Jessixa, are the most elaborate objects for sale in the art vending machine at the Hideout. Full disclosure: He's also had art on the cover and been an occasional illustrator for The Stranger. This summer, his pensive watercolor of a pregnant man accompanied a story I wrote.
Given that he's everywhere, you'd think it would be possible to synthesize his style, to describe in a few words what to expect from a show of his. But Bagley, who graduated from Cornish in 2004, isn't narrowing down his interests and honing his style the way many art-school grads feel they should in order to get galleries and attention. He's not shaping a career. He's too busy shaping his constant creative impulses into drawings, paintings, performances, and projects.
"I've always kind of felt like he's the real deal," said Jessixa. "He's hungry for making his artwork. If he's not working with his hands, he's always thinking about something feverishly."
In some ways, Bagley is a technician. He's a trained oil painter—one of his large portraits, of a cloud leaching color, made an impression when it appeared on The Stranger's cover, and recently he's been working on layered abstractions that mix controlled and unstructured gestures. He's also a talented draftsman. "We all thought that if there was a life-drawing major at Cornish, he would succeed at it," said Alexis Hilliard, an artist friend.
All the same, Bagley is a conceptualist at heart, too. For a sculpture assignment once, he lined up a "piss spectrum." He'd tailored his diet to get every shade of yellow.
"I was a big fan," said artist and Cornish professor Bob Campbell. "He was just a very open, experimental guy."
Bagley says he's worried. He's worried he won't ever settle down into a recognizable commodity. He's worried that giving away his art for free, even only in the form of printed postcards—one of my favorites depicts Kate Moss with a watercolor 'fro, rising out of an upturned Rauschenberg-style stained couch—makes it seem worthless. "I'm worried I'm not Tom Friedman–clever, Paul McCarthy–shocking," he says.
This mood does not, however, shut down the Bagley operation. The to-do list that hangs over the desk in his apartment says, "Homeless signs, More abstract paintings, More pants." He is starting a project that will include homeless signs. He plans to buy them from homeless people. And do what with them?
"I only have a rough outline of what I want to do," he says.
A week later, he's bought his first sign, for four dollars, from a woman who rides his bus. He's considering what's next.