“I think I was 4 years old when I drew my first dick,” Anthony Hassett says with a chuckle. “I think it was my teacher’s dick.”
That first phallic doodle paved the way for Hassett, who is currently exhibiting his latest body of work, Quién es?, at The Capitol Coffee Co. through July 1.
“I like spaces like this—cafés, cultural centers—all these peripheral places where it’s just ordinary traffic, people coming and going,” the artist says of the low-key locale, which he favors over established galleries.
“I don’t like the idea of approaching galleries,” he explains. “For example, a prominent gallery here in town a couple of years ago said they wanted to see my books, so I brought them over. An hour later, they called me and asked me to come get that ‘crap’ outta there.”
A quick tour of Quién es? might explain why. Consisting of Moleskine Japanese pocketbooks laden with provocative images—think nun with a gun and anal- sex-engaging football players—housed in cigar boxes, es? leads up to a tableau comprising 12 depictions of a modern “axis of evil” (ranging from the Ayatollah Khomeini to Michelle Obama), all pictured with cigarettes hanging from their lips.
“A lot of my images are offensive—you know, they’re meant to be provocative,” Hassett says bluntly. “In the United States, I often feel that there’s a lot of complacency. And it’s not that I’m working to be provocative or that the art is supposed to be transgressive—although that’s the kind of art that I’m often attracted to—but I feel that I’m drawing what I’m seeing.”
Hassett expands, “I’m not making anything up. Most of the imagery that I put in my books comes from images I see in the world.”
That innate curiosity has often led him to peer behind life’s proverbial curtain.
“It’s a part of the world that we like to conveniently edit out. We have an obsession in the US for sanitizing our realities, and I actually don’t,” he says. “I have a different philosophy. I like to think that it’s better to know all of the horrors of the modern world and still retain your spirit and still be able to function, act and be creative.”
Titled The Cigarette After, the series, Hassett says, has a double meaning. “As a smoker, people are constantly harassing me; I’ll be walking down the street smoking and a jogger will run by me and go—cough, cough—and make a very dramatic moment out of it.”
He heard the Dalai Lama smokes and, after a quick sketch in one of his notebooks, the idea took flight.
The other concept behind the grouping, he says, evolved from the act of uninvitedly flexing political muscle. “It started to become about power—and the false projection of power—and the sexual: the idea of having a cigarette after sex,” he says. “To me, the smoking series represents the cigarette that power has after it successfully screws the people.”
The imagemaker cites Gandhi as a particular example.
“A lot of people think of him as a saint, and all that is true. But in the last couple of years, it’s come out that Gandhi was having a gay relationship with a German bodybuilder,” Hassett points out. “This was never said. Gandhi could not have been considered a saint had this been known—which to me is absolutely ridiculous.”
Put more succinctly: “The Cigarette After is having a smoke after you, basically, screwed the people with this false idea of who you are.”
The modern media world also influences Hassett: Some of his pieces are direct iterations of images he encounters online.
“I turned off my Google SafeSearch mode years ago,” he says. “I realized that if I took of the filter and punched in something like ‘high school,’ I would get, you know, cheerleaders; cheerleaders having sex with animals; gay high school sex; mixed together with real, academic photos, and I thought, ‘This is insanity!’ All of the borders are down with this imagery onslaught.”
He says people internalize—both consciously and semi-consciously—thousands of these images a day. “The time we’re living in is so beyond belief…and we’re all bored by it.”
Sipping his coffee, Hassett is quick to point out that he’s not “making a moral statement about it,” but rather offers a reflection “on the outrageousness of modern existence.”
Immersed in the theme, his approach in hanging the show is also directly inspired by the Google image result grid.
“I tried to have my own algorithm, like Google does; I intuitively let the books arrange themselves,” he says. “And they often become thematic around the news cycle for the two months it takes to make a book.”
As for his own dreams of mass recognition, Hassett remains grounded. “My main thing is drawing. That whole other dimension of showing it is like ‘whore’ to me.”
Asked if he hopes the coffee shop exhibit garners gallery attention, his answer is true to self: “I don’t really care. I don’t give a fuck.”