CORVALLIS – As Philip Slagter approaches age 70, the artist says he's wary of beliefs and the way they can close your mind off from other possibilities.
It's only on the subject of his daughter, who died four years ago at age 17 in a car crash, that he expresses confidence in a spiritual idea.
"A lot of people think we're here on this planet as a physical being and that maybe we can be lucky enough to have a spiritual experience," he said. "I'm a proponent of exactly the opposite idea: we're a spiritual being that gets to have an earthly experience. That experience is to learn and is to teach."
It took him more than three years to come to that realization: that he and his wife had taught Dao all they could, and perhaps her final lesson to him was that he could either find a way to live again or let himself die. His theory, which gave him an enough strength to work again, is "an interesting take, but it's what works for me," he said.
Those "years with the most wonderful human I've ever met are more than most people ever have."
Slagter, who's shown his work in New York and Los Angeles, only recently began painting again.
In earlier phases of his career, he favored abstract expressionism. Later, he painted somewhat whimsical pop surrealist work like "Montana Home Invasion," in which birds peck at a tiny human house sitting atop a tree trunk, that he's shown in Missoula galleries.
His current work is an information-age lowbrow melange, over-stuffed with visual information from other cultures, world history, conspiracies, pop culture and kitsch.
He began reaching out to galleries, and has work on display in Missoula at the Radius Gallery, which he thought would appreciate the contemporary style, and upcoming solo exhibition in Los Angeles at La Luz de Jesus, the "birthplace of pop surrealism," which opened in 1986.
Director Matt Kennedy said Slagter is a skilled technical painter who can maintain a precise level of detail while working on a large scale, which can sometimes thwart other artists.
What's more, Kennedy said Slagter's re-emergence coincides with interest from major New York galleries in lowbrow, a genre of which he is part of the original generation.
"It's good to be able to reintroduce somebody like that," he said. "Who doesn't love a comeback?"
The L.A. showing will be somewhat of a homecoming for Slagter.
In 1990, Slagter sold a stockpile of about 300 works to a private collection of Richard Carlson and Nancy Reges, two prominent figures in the city's art scene. They were used for a mid-career survey at a gallery at the Pasadena Community College, but by the time the show opened, Slagter was gone. He used the windfall to travel to Thailand, where he lived for five years. There he met his wife, Gulap, and had Dao. They returned to the Los Angeles area in 1996, and when Dao was approaching middle-school age, they moved to a scenic property in Corvallis.
Slagter grew up in Indiana, and wanted Dao to have the same contentedness he feels from a rural upbringing rather that put her through the public school system in California.
"I know that no matter where I been in this world, there's a spot I can go back to where I can find peace if I want to," he said.
Slagter, who studied commercial art in college, fell back on his muralist skills to support his family.
In 2007, he spent a year in Macau working with a small crew on a ceiling mural for the Venetian casino. It was "250,000 square feet of sky" for an interior designed to resemble the city of Venice.
"When you look up, you really think you're looking at the sky," he said.
While there, he was earning enough to agree to what he believed was a steep but temporary increase in his mortgage payments. He's since been ensconced in a lengthy battle over the foreclosure and sale of his house, which he says is now pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
He's served as his own counsel, a constant drain on his time to work.
His ability, or desire, to paint completely eroded in 2012.
On a Monday morning that February, Dao was driving to school on the Eastside Highway when her vehicle drifted off the road and struck a fence, killing her.
Slagter said he was awoken by the police bringing him the news.
He equated the effect to post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I didn't laugh and I didn't do anything. I didn't go fishing, I didn't hike. I did nothing, except sit down for more than three years," he said.
"It destroyed my body. Literally. When I finally decided I needed to stand up and start having a life again, I couldn't walk. My spine had twisted," he said.
"It took me about three and a half years before my brain even realized I had to start a new life," he said.
Slagter's work is packed with religious, political and pop cultural imagery, and references from the cultures of the places he's lived and traveled: China, Thailand, Kenya, South America and more.
Kennedy described it as a "historical mash-up that reflects different eras of kitsch" that Slagter is able to render authentically, whether the style is graffiti, anime, '50s cartoons or hyper-realism.
Slagter said if he has to be labeled as anything, he'd call himself a Bernaysian pop surrealist, after Edward Bernays, author of the 1928 book, "Propaganda" and a pioneer in the ways public opinion can be manipulated.
Despite political imagery, Slagter reiterates that he's not a political artist.
"A political artist is a propagandist. A propagandist makes a political statement that he wants you to believe. I don't want you to believe anything except what you learn on your own," he said.
Regarding his content, Slagter said he's "looking at what people are believing, and what people are being subjected to in a Bernaysian sense."
"I don't believe it, but I don't disbelieve it," he said.
Slagter is particularly interested in Bernays' theory that you should begin by taking a concept that people trust and believe in, and then interweave the desired new ideas.
He said "Drowning" from 2011, is "pretty complex and it's hard for you to find any images in it that you can identify with except for possibly the female figurative reference," he said, pointing to an anime-inspired nude in the right half of the picture. He frequently uses imagery of naked women from anime, the popular Japanese genre that he calls a form of societal propaganda akin to pornography in the U.S.
That's the entry point for the viewer, who can then explore the myriad imagery throughout the rest of the canvas, roughly 5.5 by 9 feet.
Chinese carp, a symbol of good luck, surround the figure, who seems to be in shock and falling downward.
The source of the jetstream of imagery is a tiny plane with insignia from World War II German aircraft and modern Israeli ones, which is piloted by Uncle Rich Pennybags, aka the Monopoly guy, who was modeled on J.P. Morgan.
The detritus that plane left behind, in a zero-gravity, comic-book-like flow crossing the full upper half of the canvas from left to right, include Ebola and fluoride molecules, nuclear radiation symbols, and a mixture of blood and oil that if you look carefully spells words from the final verse of the "Hail Mary": "now and at the hour of." (The omitted last word is "death.")
Other elements seem to threaten the anime character and other sympathetic figures.
"The militaristic figure that's stabbing the dove of peace is taken directly from one of the murals in the Denver airport," he said, referring to the cryptic paintings at the Denver International Airport, a subject of numerous conspiracies about their somewhat ominous content.
Elsewhere you can find a black monster wrapped in the Union Jack, Tibetan medical diagrams and chakras, an Asian "superboy" and the sideshow performers "Lobster Boy" and "Lobster Girl," arranged in an dizzying tide of references that he's woven together in an all-over compositional style reminiscent of a former abstract expressionist.
"Taking a Selfie With Suami Ku Lele” and "Texting Words of Wisdom" have irreverent allusions to current technology. In the latter, a serene Madonna figure types away on an iPhone.
He has several other new series of work, including one that hearkens to his youth. To learn more about artists he admired, like Van Gogh and Gauguin, he would repaint their self portraits, albeit in his own style. Right now, he's working a recreation of a Van Gogh in his current mode. He gave Vincent his ear back. Near his shoulder, Mickey Mouse sits atop Pluto, with a cloned human ear growing off his back. Mighty Mouse hovers between them, his hands gesturing toward both ears.
Slagter said it's an interesting thing to "start a new career, a new life" at age 70. He's back to his old working routine: starting between 3 and 5 in the afternoon and painting until sunrise, a habit he picked up in Macau.
"I'm just trying to have fun painting again. I might be here 30 years, or 10 years, or a week or a hour," he said with a laugh.