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Art Snob: Gallery 1988’s “We Made Them Do It”

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Few art galleries in the “geek game” hold the distinction of being around for a decade, and fewer still can claim to be one of the first to offer nerdy pop-art to a burgeoning fan-base; Gallery 1988 in Los Angeles is the only one that can be proud of both distinctions (and the honor of taking A LOT of my money over the past few years). Started 10 years ago by former rapper and current podcaster/comedy writer Jensen Karp (and his partner Katie Cromwell), Gallery 1988 has quickly cemented itself as one of the premiere sources for geek art (as well as just fantastic art in general).

Known for their “Crazy 4 Cult” show, 1988 has had exhibitions based on movies, video games, TV shows, comedy, and much more. Their newest show, “We Made Them Do It,” is a unique collection of pieces based on properties “not popular” enough to otherwise see the light of day. Love 3 Ninjas but can’t find a way to display said love to visitors? Huge Who’s the Boss? fan in need of some Tony-themed paintings? This is the show (and the gallery) for you…

I went by the gallery the other day, checked out the art, convinced myself I already own too much and have zero available wall space, and then got the chance to sit down with Jensen for a quick chat about the show and about Gallery 1988 in general.

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Matt Cohen: For folks who aren’t familiar with Gallery 1988, how would you describe the gallery?

Jensen Karp: We opened it 10 years ago now, and the concept was, my business partner Katie was working in sort of stuffy art galleries in Los Angeles, and we used to think it was crazy how people treated us. When we’d go into this places, they’d treat us like crap, thinking we had no money and that we didn’t understand it, when it real life it was three red lines on a canvas for $25,000. We thought there was a middle ground between the two, which is, we still want to be artistic, we still want to be unique and have the same pride about what we have on our walls that we did about our Nikes, or something like that. We looked for 20-30-year-old artists who coincidentally have the same interests as us, which is a lot of pop culture; movies, video games, TV; That was the result in the gallery, so we’ve got affordable artwork, both originals and prints, all done and influenced and inspired by some of your favorite moments in pop culture, as well as just pop-art in general.

MC: The show that really put you guys on the map was your “Crazy 4 Cult” show, of which there have been quite a few iterations, and all have some kind of cool celebrity involvement or endorsement. How did that show come about, originally?

JK: When we had opened the gallery I was a film student at USC, and my goal was always to have an art show based on cult films, so it was sort of an idea that I had that I really didn’t think could come together. We started selling artwork to people who lived in the neighborhood, some of them known people and some of them not, and one of them was Scott Mosier, who made of all Kevin Smith’s movies with him. Scott was sort of asking me what was next at the gallery, and I was, like, “What an opportune time to tell someone you have an idea about a cult movie show.” He freaked out, and I was, like, “Clerks will obviously be a movie we’ll reflect,” and he said, “Let me ask Kevin about it.” Three days later, he was telling me Kevin was into it, Edgar Wright was into it, Richard Kelly was into it, and it just sort of spawned into this bigger beast than the small idea I pitched Scott Mosier.

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MC: And it became a book as well, right?

JK: Yeah, we’re entering our seventh year with the show now, and we have a second book coming out in October that just sort of collects all these pieces that are based on classic cult films.

MC: You curate shows based on films (like “Crazy 4 Cult”), and video games, TV shows, comedians; We’re here at the “We Made Them Do It” opening, and this show seems to be a little different than your typical show. It seems like you guys actually picked the properties you wanted the art based on; Is that true?

JK: We just think it’s funny; ten years ago, we were sort of laughed out of the nation for what we were doing. We were made fun of by every gallery and kind of looked at like the ugly stepchild, and now it’d be hard for you to not find a gallery doing the exact same thing in every city. We hate predictable stuff, we can’t stand the idea that people are just doing the same thing over and over again; So, our idea was to do a show called “We Made Them Do It”. It works on two levels; one is that we made all these galleries turn into this, but also, we made each of these artists create something inspired by a piece of pop culture, whether it be a movie or a TV show that probably has never had art before. You see a lot of Alien art, you see a lot of Big Lebowski art; That’s not what were going to see at this show. We’re going to see stuff based on movies and TV shows that maybe might be a guilty pleasure to some, but to us they’re just pleasures. I don’t see any difference between those things.

MC: What is the normal art submission process for a show like this? Do you hand pick all the artists specifically? You usually pick the genre/properties as well, right? There’s like a list of things they can work within, correct?

JK: In this case it’s half and half. Half the time the artist (decided) what to do; In real life we “made them do” something. Half the time we let them pick, and we sort of curated their picks. In the case of all of our other shows, we take submissions all year long; it’s just 3 or 4 jpegs or a link to a website, and that all goes to Gallery1988Melrose@gmail.com. We add about 10% new artists per show, so over the 10 years, we’ve gotten hundreds of artists in our Rolodex. Now we add to it for every group show, just to make sure that we get new blood in here and new people; it works as almost a cycle.

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“Wheeze the Juice” by Aaron Sechrist based on Encino Man

MC: In this show there’s everything from Sharknado prints, to Short Circuit, to Hitch and She’s All That; Though all the art is pretty damn awesome, do you think there are any stand-out pieces that people should definitely take a look at, to get a “flavor” of the show?

JK: Yeah, I love so much of it. I’m obsessed that there’s an Encino Man print in the show. We have an American Gladiators print. There are three pieces by an artist named Kiersten Essenpreis, who we’ve almost been the home for; She’s worked with us almost exclusively over the past 5 or 6 years, and she did pieces based on what she knows are three of my favorite movies of all time, The Burbs, Dragnet, and Defending Your Life, which are three of my absolute favorites ever. Those have a really close place in my heart. I mean, there’s a hand-done cross-stich of Donna Martin in her graduation gown. We basically just found the ante of what was going on in pop culture art, and we just upped it to a terrible place.

MC: You’ve mentioned the fact that there are now “pop galleries” in pretty much every major city in the country. Having been around as long as 1988 has, do you find the new art-movement flattering? What is your take on the collectable pop-art/poster scene as a whole?

JK: Yeah, we find it cool; the only thing I think which is not cool is that there are a lot of galleries who just literally go through our list of artists and ask them to their shows. We don’t like having our business plan stolen, and our actual artists taken from us. I think it’s awesome when I see shows that have brand new names in them, or it’s a theme that hasn’t been beaten to death; Those things, we are inspired by. Everyday we’re hoping for that more and more, but the problem is there is only so many Wes Anderson movies you can turn into art. There’s only so much that one artist can make in a year. A lot of galleries don’t think about the idea that these artists can’t be THAT readily available all over the country. You’re 25 years old and you have 55 pieces made in a year; this will not be a long-term career. It might be happy for these galleries to be doing it in months, but you’ve got to be reaching for a solo show, or a smaller group show. There’s a process you want to go through and because of all this sort of “Hurry up and get the money,” a lot of that isn’t able to be done.

MC: After having done it for so long, how do you find a way to stay fresh and original, and to keep coming up with new show ideas?

JK: Four or five years ago, we made the decision to really focus on pop culture directly. We’d always been doing it for 10 years, but we really wanted to become the #1 destination; we put it on our website and sort of went forward with that. Now we’re sort of hitting a point where it’s become a little beaten-to-death, so we see it as a new idea. First, we’re always going to have relationships with people like Edgar Wright; we have a show with him in August, almost 100 artists doing pieces on his movies, with his involvement. Those things we’re always going to do. We kind of see the next evolution, the next step for this, is creating pop culture art that is almost becoming culture itself. The guys from Tron, I wouldn’t want to make a print with just the two guys standing there. We want to make something that’s artistic on its own, and when you look closer, you go, “Oh man, is that Tron?!”.  We’re trying to create something that’s maybe a little more subtle but still shows your fandom, but also sort of transitions. A lot of us are becoming older, and we can’t put up a pin-up from Blade Runner in our house. We have to find that next step, and I think we’re consciously trying to make that next step and also make the work more readily available. For a couple years there, we were sold out of everything. No one could buy anything. Now we’re sort of creating a culture where you can be more relaxed, and actually buy some of the work that you want to hang on your walls.

"You Could be a Star Tonight" by Glen Brogan inspired by America's Funniest Home Videos

“You Could be a Star Tonight” by Glen Brogan, inspired by America’s Funniest Home Videos

MC: You’ve currently got two galleries in Hollywood/West Hollywood right now (both on Melrose). I know you guys are notoriously tight lipped, but other than the Edgar Wright show, are there any shows coming up that you can talk about? 

JK: We’ve got the Edgar Wright show… [looks around the gallery] See, I don’t even know these games; I’m so bad at it. The point is that we don’t ever announce shows until about 30 days before, and that’s something we’ve been doing for 10 years, because we think its probably best to hold them as announcements. In that process, I’ve totally convinced myself to also forget them, so I don’t mess up. I know we have a show with Dave Perillo and Tom Whalen again, which is a huge deal. I’m really excited for a bunch of our group shows that we have at the end of the year, and we’ll be bringing “Crazy 4 Cult” back in some capacity, so it should be really fun.

MC: Where can folks not located in L.A. check out the art, buy some prints, and support the Gallery?

JK: We put up absolutely everything the day after the opening, which is something we’ve had as a store policy for years. It all goes up on Gallery1988.com, and it’s right there on the front page. It’ll say “view available artwork.” All of our backlog is in there, too, under “Inventory”, so you can see all the prints and all the paintings, and we ship anywhere.

MC: Dream show: in terms of “We Made Them Do It,” what’s the one show you’d personally love to see, but know it wouldn’t be a commercially or financially viable show?

JK: It’s a good question; This (“We Made Them Do It”) is very close. For the record, the show that we’re standing in right now is extremely close. I tried to get Katie to do a Saved by the Bell show about four years ago, and she talked me into making it a guilty pleasure TV show. We had Mr. Belding at the opening; Rhat is very close to what I’d want. In my perfect world, I’d buy anything that has The Burbs in it; it’s my favorite movie of all time. So I guess the least commercial and most personal show would be The Burbs, but I don’t know why anyone would come.

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Jensen, getting the gallery ready for the big opening night.

Check out some of the offerings from “We Made Them Do It” and be sure to head to Gallery 1988 to view and/or purchase art from the show. The show is at the G1988 West location, and will run through August through August 15th… so, ya know, go and stuff.

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