“I’m an aggravationist,” Charles Bragg chortles. “I watch people’s behavior like a lion looking for a limp. I find that halting step plentiful in this society, and I have fun translating that into pictures.”
In fact, the 50-year-old California artist is a spiritual descendant of Bosch and Brueghel, Hogarth and Daumier, all of whom lampooned the foibles, the pomposities and just-plain-foolishness of the human species. The bulbous-nosed, flaccid-faced figures that peer from Bragg paintings, graphics and etchings suggest that mankind’s future is bleak. All to be expected, Bragg might add. In a series of oils and etchings titled Creation Suite, picturing his version of Genesis, the artist leads off with In the Beginning There Were Mistakes, showing a bearded Creator puzzling over a tree with serpent roots and pendulous breasts for fruit.
Given an aggravationist’s limitless opportunities to offend, it is not surprising that some find Bragg’s work profane, obscene or at least subversive—he claims an overly vigilant FBI once started a file on him during his anti-Vietnam War protest days. But Bragg and his art are thriving. His oils bring up to $25,000, and his limited-edition prints fetch up to $1,500 each. His first book, The Absurd World of Charles Bragg (Abrams, $25), has sold out its 11,000-copy first run in less than four months.
Part of Bragg’s appeal is that his sardonic wit is invariably leavened with comedy. The targets of his satire range eclectically from the military to churchmen, from politicians to doctors. But he rarely singles out an identifiable individual for mean-spirited mockery. “I deal in ideas; the humor serves to remove the pain and indignation,” he says. And far from being a misanthrope, he insists he likes people precisely because “they are flawed and varied.” As such, he points out, the human race will never become boring.
The son of vaudevillian parents, Charlie Bragg came by his sense of humor naturally. He was born in St. Louis, where his parents were booked at the time. Most of his early years were spent on the road in a house trailer. During his teens he attended New York City’s elite High School of Music and Art, where he was far more interested in baseball and in a schoolmate named Jennie Tomao. They married when he was 18, and she, 16.
The newlyweds headed for Hollywood, via Detroit, with the Bragg clan. But the family ran out of money, and Charlie took a job in a Chevy plant (“I hit axles with a rubber hammer. If anything fell off, I was supposed to chalk an ‘X’ on it”). After five years, including a forgettable stint as a stand-up comic, he finally earned enough to pack his wife and two kids in a Cadillac to finish the drive to California.
Years more of hardscrabbling went by before Charlie and Jennie established themselves as artists in the San Fernando valley (she specializes in landscape paintings). “Our styles were once similar,” Jennie says, “but then Charlie got brainy and wanted to say something.” Being an antiwar activist during the raucous ’60s made him a hero to his children. “It was exciting to have parents who were so liberal,” daughter Georgia, now 28, remembers. “I knew I was supposed to rebel, but I couldn’t.” Son Chick, 29, himself a budding painter, agrees.
Ironically, Bragg’s anti-Establishment lampoons have led to prosperity and a spacious Bel Air house with pool, sauna and tennis court. Close family friends tend toward the comedic and include Jonathan Winters, Jo Anne Worley and Pat McCormick.
Still, Charlie revels in acting like a menace to polite society. He calls himself “the Bel Air Bolshevik,” and deadpans, “When my neighbor Charlie Bronson hears laughter coming from my house, he lobs a grenade into my yard.” Currently, Bragg says he’s finishing a new series of etchings on the Seven Deadly Sins. “Last week I majored in lust,” he quips. “Now I’m into gluttony. Next, I’m looking forward to studying sloth.”