Interview: Gallery 1988 Goes Crazy For Cult Art – From LOST to Wet Hot American Summer

You may not know art, but you know you like, right? Luckily, Gallery 1988 based in Los Angeles is both of those things. For the past half a decade or so, the Gallery has been curating exhibits on subjects ranging from LOST, to Wet Hot American Summer; as well as the perennial favorite “Crazy 4 Cult,” which is launching a new coffee table style book this week. So even if you can’t get any of the sold out art, or travel to LA, you can still pick up Crazy 4 Cult: Cult Movie Art on June 21st from Titan Books.

To find out more, we talked to Gallery 1988 founder Jensen Karp about the inspiration for the exhibits, what an MTV Geek themed gallery show would look like, and a sneak at what’s coming up next:

MTV Geek: First off, let’s talk about Gallery 1988 – what was your inspiration for this? A distinct lack of classical art featuring ALF? Or something else?

Jensen Karp: Yes, we basically opened the gallery with the idea of “Let’s create ALF art.” Well, not just ALF per se, cause that would be insane, but we knew that all the adult, stuffy galleries not only didn’t speak to my generation, but they actually talked down to us. We wanted to just open a space that spoke to our interests and pocketbooks, and YES, ALF does both. We’re the only art gallery in the universe that has hired Mr. Belding to host a show focusing on the anniversary of Saved By The Bell and we couldn’t be prouder to be that pop culture destination.

Geek: And Crazy 4 Cult in particular… How did that come about?

JK: We had this idea for Crazy 4 Cult for quite some time, especially as my college education at USC is in writing and I’m a serious cinephile. But it really was just an idea floating around until I decided to pitch it to Scott Mosier, who was a buyer at the gallery and a friend, and also the guy who produced movies like Clerks and Mallrats. He loved the idea and asked if he could tell Kevin Smith, who he promised would LOVE the concept. Kevin not only loved the idea, but he told Edgar Wright, Quentin Tarantino and Richard Kelly about it and, next thing you know, we have one of the most talked about art shows, without even booking one artist in it. Kevin and Scott went on to host all the Crazy 4 Cults, and it’s become a mainstay in the Los Angeles art scene where 1000’s of people line up to see it on opening night.

Geek: There’s a fine line between actual art, and kitsch. Which side do you think Crazy 4 Cult falls on, and how do you walk that line?

JK: We are actual art by leaps and bounds. We don’t show “fan art.” We show artists who are fans. The Crazy 4 Cult book features artwork from Shepard Fairey, Colin Christian, Luke Chueh, Greg “Craola” Simkins and Amy Sol – who in their own right are each some of the most sought after young gallery artists working today. We’ve been an art gallery for over 7 years in Los Angeles, and have watched as many of the artists we’ve shown early in their careers, go on to sell pieces for over $50,000. We’re an art gallery, just one that likes to have fun, so I understand how many people might be taken back.

Geek: In general, how do you think the line between “high art” and “low art” has changed since you started the gallery?

JK: When we first opened in 2004, we were easily the laughing stock of Los Angeles galleries (might still be). There were no “affordable” galleries back then focusing on the young buyer, so that’s obviously changed. We noticed that artists were no longer solely inspired by Matisse and Rothko, they were influenced by the Coens and Bill Murray. We wanted the artists to create what was on their mind, and lucky for us, it spoke to our interests as well. We knew, in a Field of Dreams type of way, if we built it, they would come. We don’t ever claim to be the Guggenheim. We claim to be an art gallery where you’ll have a lot of fun and feel comfortable. And we are that.

I don’t need to explain why you should buy a canvas with three yellow dots on it as an investment. We know we’ll catch your interest and you’ll want to buy something, because we really do have every price point possible for you to make your walls feel unique. But yes, it feels like the world has caught up with our philosophy that art is really as important as what it means to you specifically. And we sell to people we speak to with pop culture art. The cool slash not cool slash cool again thing is that there are now 3-4 movie culture themed art shows popping up every month worldwide and we’re stoked to have been the first.

Geek: Okay, general question time: what makes something “cult?”

JK: We have this debate every year, and we’ve broken it down to three things that make a movie a cult film. 1. The movie tanked at the box office, but has found life, and economic success since. These are movies like Office Space, Warriors, Mallrats and Donnie Darko. 2. A movie, successful for not, that has created a second, or third, life amongst fans, in a cult-like manner, it was not solely intended for. Movies like Wizard of Oz, Edward Scissorhands, Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Room could fit into this category. And 3. If something has lived on, through ancillary products or references, it can be a cult movie. Movies like Back To The Future can be considered a cult movie, since NIKE recently released a shoe inspired by Back To The Future 2 and you hear about theaters showing the whole trilogy back to back to back.

If the movie can continue to create and maintain a rabid fan base in an organic manner decades later, it’s cult. Other movies like this would be Goonies, JAWS and The Shining. But then again, we just kinda made that up, so what do we know?

Geek: When you’re talking to artists about a show, how do you approach them? How do you find them? Do you do coaching, or is it just, “Someone is already doing Ghostbusters, so stay away from that.”

JK: We’ve been an art gallery for over 7 years now, so the core of these shows are made up of artists we’ve been showing since day one. And every year we’ll add 10-20% new artists to the group shows and just keep snowballing. Most of our favorite artists who participated in Crazy 4 Cult 1, are now so busy as gallery artists that they can’t even participate anymore. So it’s a bit of a revolving door for shows like Crazy 4 Cult, and that’s what makes it exciting.

We supply each artist with a list of approved movies for that year and it changes slightly every year. We sometimes have to watch what we call “The Edward Scissorhands Effect,” as a lot of artists all gravitate toward the same movie. But after 7 years, artists have caught on and understand what to make in order to stand out.

Geek: Is there anything you won’t let people do a painting of? Anything that was just too dumb, offensive, or ridiculous? Or is it all fair game?

JK: It’s all pretty fair game. Our artists understand that the goal of trying to sell your art, is selling the art. So they keep in mind that someone will have to hang the art in their house for that to happen. Not many people will buy a picture of Milton from Office Space having sex with the bunny from Donnie Darko, so they don’t make it.

Geek: Aw, and I had my wallet out for that one already… Beyond Crazy 4 Cult, you’ve done a number of focused shows, on LOST, currently Wet Hot American Summer, and more… Is there anything you’re dying to do, that you haven’t gotten to do yet? Is there anything you wouldn’t do?

JK: Oh, man. There’s so much lined up for those type of shows that we’re keeping secret. But for Wet Hot American Summer, we worked with David Wain directly to create that art show and celebrate the 10-year anniversary. And for LOST we worked for a year with the creators and producers of the show to create a full campaign for their final season, even outside of the gallery – so those are really the highlights of my gallery career.

But we’ve been hired by Mattel to work on He-Man, and Disney to create a show based on Cheshire Cat, so we’ve had fun with tributes and worked in marketing at the same time. We call it “artvertising,” cause we’re corny. But next year, we’ll be working with Adult Swim to honor their shows and with Funny Or Die for our second installment of “Is This Thing On?” where 100 artists depict their favorite iconic comedians.

As far as themes we wouldn’t do? Probably racism. That seems like a weird theme though. I wouldn’t trust anyone who pitched that to us or wanted to create art for it.

Geek: And now, the reason we’re chatting: Why a book? Why now?

JK: Kevin Smith has been involved in the show since its conception and he always had been in my ear about doing a book. He knew most of the world has not been able to come down to Los Angeles to see the show in person and envisioned a beautiful book where people could see a lot of the pieces in one place. Titan had a relationship with Kevin, as they published a few of his books in the past, and after Kevin brought it up to them, a year or so later, I’m standing here next to the finished product. Most of the pieces in the book sold immediately or have been sold out for years, so it’s great to be able to see them again. And we knew after 4 years of the show, we’d have a great selection of pieces to curate from for a book. And who says no to a book opportunity?

Geek: Do you think the book will expand the reach of the Gallery? You’ve certainly been successful with viral marketing, so other than, “Hey cool! We made a book!” what does putting this art in a different medium do for you?

JK: The book will definitely expand the reach of the gallery. We’re well known in the states, but I mean Titan is from some place called the UK (I’ve lived in LA for 31 years and never left, so excuse my lack of geography knowledge). We’ll be worldwide now, which is awesome. And having ALL those pieces in one hardcover book is undeniably cool. Maybe with one painting or print you could say, “Not for me.” But there is just so much talent and awesome work in this book, I think we’ll be able to reach some people who don’t think art is up their alley. It’s a great opportunity and having a book is also that moment where you ask your parents, “Do you finally get what we’re doing?” and they kind of say yes.

Geek: I’ve taken a look through the book – and it’s great – but what were the challenges in taking the exhibits and translating them to book form? Were there rights challenges, or was it all under parody laws? Or something like that? NOTE: I am not a lawyer.

JK: The book is a TRIBUTE done to honor every movie depicted. We would never allow a piece that degrades any of these films to be displayed, as that’s just not our goal. We’ve been lucky enough to be contacted by studios like Paramount and ABC to work hand in hand with them, so if someone doesn’t “get” how breathing new life into their “forgotten” films or properties can be utilized to their benefit with the invention of the Internet, I’m not sure I can explain how it’s beneficial ever.

Geek: Since this is for MTV Geek, if you were to do an MTV Geek themed show, who would you recruit? What would the art look like, do you think?

JK: For MTV Geek, I’d love to do a show that pays tribute to all the forgotten VJs of yesteryear from the channel. I would love for NC Winters to do a beautiful portrait of Ian Robinson, or Olly Moss to do a print inspired by Jesse Camp. I would commission an artist to do a plush of Downtown Julie Brown and create posters of Matt Pinfield’s face to be passed around Twitter. And if I can get Eric Neis to host, DREAM COME TRUE. Please past this along to the higher ups. Thank you.

Geek: Well, not to sell myself short, but you’re definitely starting at the bottom with that request. I’ll see what I can do, though. To wrap up, what’s coming up for Gallery 1988?

JK: We open Crazy 4 Cult 5: I’m Getting Too Old For This Sh*t on July 8th at our Melrose Ave. location and have a book signing with a number of the featured artists in person on July 10th. Beyond that we have shows with artists like Jay Ryan, Dan McCarthy, Alex Pardee, Daniel Danger, a Pee-Wee Herman tribute and a very special collaboration with Topps breathing new life into what is probably your favorite GROSS trading cards of babies ever. But that’s all top secret until it’s announced on gallery1988.com (ad).

Crazy 4 Cult: Cult Movie Art hits bookstores June 21st from Titan Books

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