Dialogue: Jensen Karp of Gallery 1988 on Cultivating Pop Culture Art for a New Generation

Dialogue: Jensen Karp of Gallery 1988 on Cultivating Pop Culture Art for a New Generation

Jun 27, 2011

Crazy 4 CultLast week Titan Books published a book that belongs on every movie geek's coffee table: Crazy 4 Cult: Cult Movie Art.  This is no mere collection of random fan art from the Internet, however.  It's 176 pages of original pop culture-themed artwork pulled from several years' worth Gallery 1988's Crazy 4 Cult art shows.  Don't know about Crazy 4 Cult or Gallery 1988?  No worries, our chat with gallery co-founder Jensen Karp will make everything about his radical approach to curating art for a new generation crystal clear.

Movies.com: How often do you do solo shows versus Crazy 4 Cult-type events?

Jensen Karp: This has been probably our busiest month ever. We opened four shows in a month, which we've never done in seven years. We did E3 event with EA for the American McGee Alice game. We opened a show for Scribe, a graffiti artist from Ohio, here in Melrose, and then we have a show with this guy Ben Strawn from Arkansas-- that goes up tonight – and then we have We Hot American Summer in Venice, which was super fun. We pretty much have shows every other month and then the group shows are every other month as well.

Movies.com: What was your motivation for opening the gallery and how'd you figure out how to run one?

Karp: Well, we opened it seven years ago. I had just come out of the music industry and sort of found myself saying, "Well, I didn't really like that, so I gotta find something else." I got together with my friend Katie Cromwell, who is my co-owner in the gallery. We'd been to adult, stuffy galleries and treated like crap. None of the pieces spoke to us, I watched as the guy tried to convince people to buy things. It was just a bad feeling.

So we talked it out and thought, "What if we focus on the 20-30 artist who is a first time buyer and created a pop culture gallery that spoke to your "low brow" interests with "high brow" techniques. We all have friends who are spending $700 on speakers and $300 on a purse, but $10 on a Scarface picture or a cat hanging in there painting. You know what I mean? Just crappy, Bed, Bath & Beyond stuff.

So we knew there was an opening for stuff that spoke to a younger generation but didn't talk down to them. And that's kind of how the gallery was born.

The Parking Ticket

("The Parking Ticket" by Scott Listfield)

Movies.com: Do artists come to you or do you seek out artists?

Karp: We celebrated our seventh year at our Melrose location – we just opened up our Venice Beach one – but for the first two years we went out and found people. We basically had to convince people to show in this new gallery and this new idea of letting pop culture be their inspiration. But now that it's been seven years and we do at least fifteen shows per year per location, it's sort of a round circle. We have a harem of regulars that we work with, but every show we try to make it at least 20% new artists. Those are by commission or people we find on the Internet via tumblr and social media, things we use pretty heavily to find a lot of new people.

We don't ever say, "Hey, we're doing a Crazy 4 Cult, send us your pieces," because that comes off as very fan art. We see people who are working artists and who are inspired by the same things we are, so we ask them to contribute and then we get exclusive pieces for the gallery.

Movies.com: How do you find that line between fan art and what's good for the gallery?

Karp: We always say we don't show fan art, we show artists who are fans. We try to show as many people who make their living making art for galleries. Someone like Kirk Demarais, who is featured heavily in the book, he's the artist who did those family portraits that have become kind of famous on the Internet – the Shining family and the Johnson's from The Jerk – He's a guy who just came up to me at Comic-Con! I was there working for Mattel on a Hot Wheels thing and we had announced that we'd be there with Gallery 1988 and now I know the story that he was just a guy who waited for an hour to meet me. A lot of time when I get those kind of submissions, they're not great, so I was like, "Oh, great, here we go." But then he pulled out the picture of The Shining family and a picture of the Fargo family and was like, "This is the greatest thing I've ever seen! You've got a spot in anything we ever do!"

So you know, sometimes magic strikes like that. Sometimes we'll get an email. There's a guy named Matt Owen who we've worked with to create the images, these two screen prints, for our upcoming [Crazy 4 Cult] show. So we've taken submissions that way, and we take submissions from artists all year. Not solely from unseen artists or people who work solely in pop culture, but people who want to create unique, original art.

Movies.com: Would you say there's been a legitimate resurgence of movie-related art in various mediums or is it just that movie websites put more of a spotlight on it?

Karp: I'd agree. I also think there's been a shift. The gallery came from the idea that that shift had to happen. We saw it coming from the artists in our age group who were working in the underground. These people who were influenced by Picasso now find that they're influenced by Quentin Tarantino. It's just the way things were going. The availably of the Internet-- television and movies and everything becoming more accessible. We know a ton of artists who listen to director's commentaries while they're painting. It's a different world.

We saw that they felt more comfortable dealing in those things. And when we were talking to artists, we weren't talking about [classical art], we were talking about what movies came out that Friday. So when you're trying to find encouragement – and part of our job at the gallery is to curate and inspire and encourage and help these artists create a business – what better way to do that is there than to paint what you're passionate about? That's what the concept for Gallery 1988 was. And that's what you're seeing now; the resurgence of pop culture art. Our generation isn't buying into the crap, we're not buying a painting of three yellow dots as an investment. We're buying art because we like it. And I think that's the shift that we at Gallery 1988 saw coming. Seeing three or four of these themed shows pop up every year world wide is just a testament to that shift.


("Dawn" by Chet Zar)

Movies.com: Are you still surprised by the reaction to or value of some of these pieces in your gallery?

Karp: Oh, absolutely! Every time. Every month I am. We just did a show in Venice to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Wet Hot American summer. That's Katie and I's favorite movie and we promised each other that if we got to 10 years, we'd do a show based on it. We got to 7 years, but the movie was already 10, so we did it anyway. And we kept joking about how, "Well, that show's not going to do anything." It was just a promise to each other, we didn't think it was going to do anything.

And we packed the gallery for three hours opening day. David Wain came, Ken Marino came, Joe Lo Trulgio came. Paul Rudd called in, he's coming in next week. Chris Meloni bought a piece. Katie from the movie came in. It's in the Huffington Post, it's been referenced in so many different articles, we've sold out pieces. It's been incredible and it's all because people have been waiting [for something like this]. They're used to getting talked down to, but this is a different world and we're fortunately sort of at the forefront of it.

Movies.com: You guys have the pop art world locked down, Mondo here in Austin has the original movie poster art locked down, but other than you guys, are there any names in the game I should be paying attention to?

Karp: There aren't very many established galleries. There are these pop-up shows that'll do a one-night thing. CBS did something for Twin Peaks here recently in LA, and it just kind of came and went. I think one of the reasons we've gotten the attention we have is because of where we are and being on Melrose and La Brea for seven years. It's a tough thing. We've tried to sell apparel sometimes and it's never done well. But people come in here for pop culture art and paintings and so that's what we're sort of known for.

I've seen people try it – like I said, there's more and more popup shows every month – but it just doesn't seem to have the same effect and I think that's a testament to the artists we show. They take it very serious. I dare anyone to tell us what we're doing isn't art at this point.

Movies.com: I just watched the 'Day in the Life of Jensen' video, which focused on something you've termed "artvertising." Is that something that other, older art galleries would stick their nose up at you over?

Karp: I hope so, that's what we're trying to do. The goal is for people to think it's not a good idea. I hope that's what happens because clients have not stopped coming. It started a few years ago when someone at Disney was smart enough – and I'm proud to say his name was Louis Fernandez, who works in consumer products at Disney – to walk in and realize what we were doing. We had these lines that were getting bigger and bigger and he just said, "Dude, every month you put on an advertising campaign. Every month! And some people won't understand why it's important, but I do." And we've worked together for three years. We worked on Cheshire Cat, we worked on Chicken Little and all this stuff. We were eating Ramen at the time, so it was nice to have someone who could fund us. They never made us challenge any artist or change anything we were doing. They gave us these commodities and we were breathing new life into these properties. Next Matel came calling and we worked on He Man and Hot Wheels. We worked on Lost, the final season. We did all the viral marketing. We were in charge of the entire poster campaign and the scavenger hunt.

Movies.com: Oh, really?

Karp: Yep, there was no one else working on it. We came up with the video concepts with Paul Scheer making the videos. I was flying to all of the cities. It was really a one-man show because I had to do everything myself. And a lot of that has to do with what we're doing having never been done before, so I'm not going to rush out and hire a bunch of employees to do it.

Re-Animator Art

("Re-animated" by Charlie Immer)

Movies.com: How many people do you employ?

Karp: We have the two owners and two full-time employees. We pick up people every now and then, producers for viral campaigns and stuff we do. We just got out of the EA thing that you saw in that video for Alice Returns. We worked with Paramount on The Fighter and we're working with them again on some fun stuff. We're art directing and creating a lot of apparel and art for movies. It's important that studios see what we're doing with the book and with Titan. What used to be threatening to people, that got that, "Oh, God, is that a painting?" reaction is now like, "Can someone paint that? Because that would be awesome because we have a DVD coming out!" To utilitize it in the right way... they don't live on forever, the voice of lithographs doesn't really exist any more because our attention span is the Rebecca Black factor-- we'll watch it for three minutes and then stop.

Using Twitter and Tumblr for art is kind of a new concept and I think that's something we look forward to now. We're working with Adult Swim next year. We're working with Tops on a project at the end of the year that we're very close to announcing, but it's with the grossest trading card set of all time, so I'm pretty sure you can figure it out. We're helping reverse some of these things; some of these properties that were just waiting because people didn't know what to do with them. Some of the movies we work are like, "Really? You want that?" And I'm like, "Yes, I've been dreaming of that!"

So that's what artvertising is to me. If we can create heartfelt, community-based artistic campaigns for companies, that's a goal we can get behind.

Movies.com: Have you guys been doing more stuff that ends up in front of the camera? More art direction work?

Karp: Mostly for that work, they hire someone who does that specifically, but the direction they get is "use cool art," and so then they come to us. We did 17 Again, we did some art in Tom Lennon's house for that. We did the show House, so every once in a while you'll see us show up, but it's not something we're focused on the most. It's great for those guys, and it's awesome for us when they buy a couple prints, but I don't think we'll be set dressing in full any time soon.

Right now we're just really excited about the book. We're kind of like the Internet's best kept secret with Crazy 4 Cult, but now we can be seen in these pages and you can actually physically have this book on your coffee table. And it's four of my favorite shows we've ever had in one book. It's been amazing to have Kevin Smith involved – he's been involved since day one – to write the forward. It's been an honor for us and we're just excited.

We're going to be working with Titan again on the Loop 2 book, which is a big deal for us because we've been playing Loop since 7 years ago. It's just exciting to get the word out, because you and I have known what we've been doing for a while, but hopefully a lot of people and a lot of prospective clients will see what we can do for a property they see as dead.

Clockwork Calvara

("Clockwork Calvara" by Jonathan Bergeron)

Movies.com: Do you have a property you'd love to see? Is there any one movie that, over the seven years, you've been like, "How come no one has done this?"

Karp: Well it was Wet Hot American Summer. That was my dream. I have another one that's a dream, but I've just started talking to the production company about that, so I don't want to talk much about it because I don't want to ruin it. But it's another movie that came out a couple years ago that is a gem for me. It's one of those movies that takes a couple years and a couple showings to really love, and I think it's something that could be easily celebrated by a certain group of people that got it.

I've always sorted of wanted to celebrate Quentin Tarantino. Not with posters, because those have been done, but with original art. Just do an original artwork show honoring Quentin's work. We actually talked to him a couple years ago about doing it, but he was just swamped with Inglourious Basterds at the time and it's not something we'd want to do without his involvement, even if it's just from afar, we just want him to know the show exists.

We did something with the Beastie Boys tribute show. We did something with Stan Lee. A lot of my childhood dreams are coming true. This upcoming thing with tops is something I would have dreamt about as a kid. Those type of things I'm really looking forward to, but what we as a gallery would like to do is work with studios on movies that need that, you know, punch. They're re-tumblred and re-Tweeted, but the studios don't always get that. Some of the stuff in the book, with Repo Man and They Live, they don't think they have a possibility to get revenue or even get eyes, and I think that's what we do best.

Movies.com: Do you have any plans to expand outside of the two locations in California?

Karp: No, no. We hope to do more popup shows, but we've never wanted to be a company with a ton of employees, it's just not who we want to be. We've thought about it a bunch of times and we've been approached by various companies wanting to buy us out and all this crazy stuff, make it all on more of a larger mall level, and that's just not what we want to do.

We hope to start popping up in some new cities for some month-long shows for some weird ideas we've been kicking around. But again, it's really just two people who own it, two people who work here. We don't ever pretend to be a well-oiled machine, we just put together these shows. For now the Internet business is what we really focus on. We try to get shows up on Gallery1988.com by the next day, which takes a lot of work. We're focused on making sure that everyone has the opportunity to buy these things. We're getting 8 million hits a month on the website, so we're really focusing hard on the website.

I think we have some good stuff coming up. At the end of the year we have a Bill Murray tribute coming up. On July 29th we've got a Pee Wee Herman tribute. We're just going through it and hopefully you like the stuff.

Categories: Interviews, Geek
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