Gallery 1988 opened in Los Angeles in 2004 and quickly earned a unique reputation. Rather than catering to the traditional art crowd, the gallery specializes in art inspired by pop culture. It’s the sort of thing that might be dismissed as fan art were it not for the fact that the work is so impressive that it transcends the label. The most successful series to emerge out of Gallery 1988 has easily been Crazy 4 Cult, an ongoing series of art inspired by cult movies like Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, Blue Velvet, The Goonies, They Live, and The Big Lebowski. With a rather incredible book compilation Crazy 4 Cult: Cult Movie Art having just hit shelves, Collider got the chance to speak with Gallery 1988 founder Jensen Carp about the origins, reception, and future of the ongoing series. Hit the jump for all the juicy info nuggets.
Filmmakers like Kevin Smith, Guillermo Del Toro, and Edgar Wright have been known to pass through Gallery 1988’s doors to purchase paintings and flipping through the pages of the new Titan Books collection it’s easy to see why. 8-bit images of Office Space characters, faux-Sears family portraits of families from The Shining or Back To The Future, or even a graphite image of Elliot flying by the moon with Giger’s Alien in his bike basket, the work is all incredibly creative, yet deeply rooted in pop culture-stained minds of the artists. Jensen Carp specifically founded Gallery 1988 as a means to get this style of art out into the world and to say he succeeded is a wee bit of an understatement. Gallery 1988 and Crazy 4 Cult have practically become brand names with major studios and networks even approaching the Carp to create original and blissfully photoshop-free marketing material. Read on to discover how Jenson’s strange and wonderful little pop culture art world came to be.
I guess the easiest way to start would be if you could tell me a little bit about how Crazy 4 Cult came together?
JENSEN CARP: Yeah, we opened the gallery about a little over 7 years ago now and when we opened, we wanted to focus on a 20-30 year old demographic for first time buyers of art and first time displayers. We wanted to provide an alternative for unknown artists who were showing their work in stuffy adult galleries. And the one thing that we noticed pretty quickly was that the common ground for all these artists and the buyers is pop culture. While a lot of these artists refuse to be inspired by the masters like Picasso and such, they are now totally influenced by a new crop like the Coen Brothers. We have artists who listen to podcasts while they paint pretty commonly. So we knew that the influences were different and that they were passionate about these pop culture influences, so we encouraged them to do it. And one of the things we noticed is how much movies played into it. I had this idea for an art show where 100 artists portray classic cult movies, but I didn’t have the confidence that anybody would show up or be as excited about it as I was. Then I pitched it to Scott Mosier who was a producer on Clerks and Mallrats and had become a friend of mine through the gallery. He was like, “let me pitch it to Kevin Smith. I love the idea, let me run it by Kevin and see what he thinks.” The next day called me and said, “not only does Kevin love it but Quentin Tarantino loves it and Edgar Wright and Richard Kelly.” All these people Kevin had told about it loved the idea and all of a sudden we had one of our most popular shows without even booking it yet. So we were quick to put artists into the show and that’s how it all started 5 years ago now.
Were you surprised by how quickly Crazy 4 Cult caught on?
CARP: I’m a major cinephile so at this point I look at it as, if there’s a show that I’m excited for, no matter how questionable it is, it’s probably going to be popular. We just did a show in Venice that celebrated the 10th anniversary of Wet Hot American Summer, which is my favorite movie. I kind of expected no one to do it. It was almost like a bet between my partner and I. We always said that if we were still open after 7 years, we would have to do the Wet Hot American Summer anniversary show. It was almost like we were forcing ourselves to do it. And then we had a couple hundred people come to the opening and sold tons of pieces. Paul Rudd bought a piece and Chris Meloni bought a piece. David Wain, Joe Lo Truglio, and Ken Marino came to the opening. It was nuts. So, you can never tell what will catch on.
In recent years the rise of geek culture has lead to a greater acceptance of this sort of thing, so I was curious if you’ve noticed any sort of increase in the appreciation of what you do even just during the gallery’s 7-year run?
CARP: Totally. When we opened we were basically considered the ugly redheaded stepchild of art galleries. No one expected us to be around 7 years later, let alone have a book out. I think the best thing is just to focus on your interests and know your role. We never thought we were the Guggenheim and we don’t want to be. We opened the gallery to sort of stick are noses up and people who have been sticking their noses up at us, which are art galleries that are super stuffy and adult. They don’t expect us to have any money or interest and they were wrong. We cater to a certain type of…I don’t even want to call them geeks anymore because it’s becoming so mainstream. We’re just a group of people who are passionate about pop culture and are sick of being talked down to by the merchandising, honoring, and tributing. We want to be able to honor these properties, movies, and TV shows in the same way that we feel unique and individual for liking them.
Why do you think this idea and these sorts of cult movies resonate with so many artists?
CARP: I think I’ve learned that a lot of these cult movies have an outsider point of view and I think a lot of our artists share that outsider point of view. None of them are creating paintings that people are used to. It’s not fan art obviously because it’s better than that. It’s artists who are fans. I think when you work with subjects like David Lynch or the Coens or Repo Man or John Waters, you’re dealing with artists in their own right. Like Tim Burton movies when Tim Burton was still Tim Burton, he was an artist himself. So a lot of the time these filmmakers mean a lot to these artists because they are one and the same. They’re in the same profession. You don’t see a ton of people making Michael Bay pieces or anything like that. The artists gravitate towards other artists.
Do you have any specific criteria for the movies that you want represented in the series?
CARP: Yeah, we stick pretty closely to a list that we make every year. It deviates only by about 5 or 6 titles a year. This year we added Scott Pilgrim and Birdemic. Last year we added The Room. So there are certain things that we add every year and then we take off things. I know we took off Wizard Of Oz this year purely because it’s been used so much in past shows. It’s also a cult movie with a weird definition as far as the Pink Floyd thing and the idea that merch is still coming out. There are a lot of culty things to it, but we wanted to focus more on the fringe cult movies. So there are small changes. We also make sure that not everyone goes to the same movie. We call it, “the Edward Scissorhands effect.” So, we’ll keep track of that. This year it’s weird, we open the fifth installment on the 8th and it’s crazy because we have 5 Little Shop Of Horrors pieces which is so insane to me because that’s never happened before. It’s been on the list every year and I think there’s one in the book, but this year we have 5 for some reason. I don’t even know how that happened.
How do you gather the work for these shows? Do you just send off a list of movies to certain artists and see what they check off?
CARP: We normally give them a lot of freedom. Our whole goal with the gallery is that we want the artists to be a passionate as possible, because if it’s not passionate, it’s not right. So we give them a list of about 120 movies and they hit us back with what they want to do. It’s very rare that we turn anyone down. On the Wet Hot American Summer show we had a lot of stuff coming back with Chris Meloni and the can. So immediately we emailed out to everyone and said, “if you haven’t done you’re piece yet, we have a lot of the can.” Then when you saw the final show, it kind of evened itself out.
Are there any movies that haven’t been picked from the list yet that you would really like to see taken on?
CARP: Well, I used to say Wet Hot American Summer, but now? It’s weird, we don’t put everything on the list and we actually encourage artists to go off list. Some midnight movies and that sort of thing we’ll turn down just because not a lot of people know them. But for me, I would love to see someone do an Albert Brooks movie. He’s not necessarily an obvious cult figure, but he’s one of those guys who stayed true to what he does and never chased the money. I know he’s about to be in an Apatow movie, so maybe he’ll start showing up again in movies for our generation. That would be an awesome. A Defending Your Life piece, or Modern Romance, or Real Life, that would be great. It’s not on the list so it would be me really reaching, but that would be the one for me now that we’ve done the Wet Hot American Summer show. It’s funny, a couple of years ago this artist Pooch, who I would love to have in the gallery again, was going to be in Crazy 4 Cult. He does these very intricate rollercoaster paintings and I was like, “what would he even do?” Then he emailed me and said, “hey man, I want to do this movie, you probably haven’t heard of it, called Nothing But Trouble. They have a rollercoaster in it and I’ve always wanted to do it.” I actually love that movie with John Candy and Dan Aykroyd. He ended up not being able to do it because of the timing, but that’s one that I’ve always wanted to see and I’d love to get him to do it for us. That’s one of my favorite bad movies that would be a good one.
Has any particular piece stood out for you or the public as representing what this is all about?
CARP: In Crazy, a lot have. If you go on the internet, so many people use these as their avatars or use them as the background of their blog or their twitter and don’t even know where it came from. That happens a lot. But in my case, I only have one Crazy 4 Cult piece hanging in my house, which is Greg Simkins’ Edward Scissorhands/Nightmare Before Christmas mashup. It’s in the book and it’s from the first year we did it. And it was one of those things where when he came in to deliver it, it was the blueprint for what I imagined the show would be. Exactly an artist who took his style and used sources of inspiration which might not traditionally be known as sources of inspiration for a gallery painter. Greg is known to sell paintings for $20,000-$30,000. So to have someone who is a traditional gallery artist totally understand the idea meant a lot to me. That’s the one that hangs up in my house.
Looking at this work really makes me nostalgic for a time when that much effort and style was put into movie posters and other marketing material. I was curious do you have any interest in creating this kind of work for actual movie posters or merchandise?
CARP: We actually have done that. We did the marketing campaign for the final season of Lost. All the posters and the thought-provoking merch, that kind of thing. Then we went on and worked with Paramount on The Fighter. I know we’re minutes away from being the mainstream poster, we’re coming close. It seems like we’re on the cusp. I think the best we can hope for is for studios to use an art poster as an option along with a photo poster. And then with the smaller studios, I’m sure we’ll see some of them using more artsy posters and try to get the message across that way. But yeah, we’re working again with Paramount right now. We’ve worked with Comedy Central. We worked with Disney. The good news is that studios and TV networks understand the importance of this type of marketing and understand that this type of work is bringing new life into old properties. They aren’t intimidated by it and that’s the strongest thing you can say about the project. They see the importance of this. And by the way, it’s not a very expensive venture to get involved with so they get excited. Hopefully there will be more of those in the pipeline.
You’ve done a few specific themed shows like Saved By The Bell or What Hot American Summer, so I was wondering if you have any other specific pop culture obsessions that you’d like to build a show around in the future?
CARP: Totally, totally, we haven’t fully announced this yet so I guess you can go ahead and do it. I don’t care. We usually hide show until the last minute. On July 29th we have a show called, “I Know You Are, But What Am I” and it’s a Pee-wee Herman tribute. The work is awesome. Then we are working with Adult Swim for a show with them at the beginning of next year. We’re also working on a old school videogame show near September. We have a ton coming up. It should be pretty fun.
How did the idea of a book compilation of the art come about?
CARP: Well it was Kevin Smith, whose been a blessing to the gallery. I mean, he’s a guy who was just passionate about the idea as me and thought it was a good idea even in the beginning. He bought a bunch of pieces and did press for us the first year. It was insane. He was the first person who said we had to put all the pieces in a book. A few years went by and we didn’t have a chance because we were so busy. Then we ended up at Titan because they’ve put out a few of Kevin’s books. They were the first people to contact us and we love how it turned out. We think a lot of people may have seen some of these images before on the internet, but seeing them all together in a coffee table book is amazing. There’s so much stuff in it that you can’t even really appreciate it all in one sitting. So we hope to get some new audiences through the book. We did a show last year with Funny Or Die that was a tribute to classic comedians and hopefully the book will open up the audience for shows like that and make them as popular as Crazy 4 Cult has been. There are some amazing shows that go on all year long and they’re all based in the pop culture realm.