The concept of a gallery that specializes in pop culture-themed artwork makes perfect sense today, but in the early aughts, very few people believed it would work. Galleries were, and for the most part still are, places for the "cultured." You had to speak the language and carry a big checkbook (people still wrote checks back then) to operate in that pretentious world of five-figure sales and exclusivity. Rapper turned art dealer Jensen Karp (aka "Hot Carl") and his business partner Katie Cromwell created Gallery 1988 to counter that world where they and people their age didn't belong.
Fast forward nine years and G1988 is going stronger than ever. The gallery hosts several themed art shows a year at their two locations in Los Angeles and have built relationships with many artists, as well as the directors, actors, and studios that produce the work that inspires them. There have been many other galleries over the years that have tried to copy what Karp and Cromwell have built, but not all pop culture galleries are created equal.
Gallery 1988 holds an annual art show called "Crazy 4 Cult" where a laundry list of artists create works inspired by their favorite cult-classic films. In 2011, they released their first book of artwork from the shows, published by Titan Books. This year's "Crazy 4 Cult: Cult Movie Art 2" book drops October 15 and is packed cover-to-cover with amazing work by over 100 amazing artists. We spoke to Jensen Karp about the new book, G1988's place in the art world, and exciting plans for the future.
Interview by Andrew LaSane (@laptop_lasane)
For our readers who may not be familiar with the gallery, can you give us some background on G1988 and Crazy 4 Cult?
Gallery1988 was born out of total frustration that existing galleries, back in 2004 when we opened the first location, were completely ignoring people in our age group. They were focusing on selling 20k canvas pieces of like a yellow line and pretending it was the only type of art in town. We knew there was a young emerging group of artists that catered to people like us, especially those working in pop culture. So my business partner, Katie, and I decided to take the chance and open the first pop culture focused art gallery in the world. We hold art shows that are inspired by TV shows, movies, pop icons and video games. We've been lucky enough to work hand-in-hand with TV shows like LOST & Breaking Bad, and create a marketing campaign for last year's Academy Awards. One of the first shows we really put together, on a larger scale, was Crazy 4 Cult, an art show where 100 artists created paintings, prints, sculptures and plush - all based on your favorite cult movies. Whether it's Repo Man, The Big Lebowski or Edward Scissorhands, some of our gallery's coolest pieces have come from this show. The exhibit yearly has a line around the block and people waiting for hours just to come in and look at/buy art. And Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier (Clerks, Mallrats, etc) have been involved in the show for years, as we are now approaching the 7th annual. And Titan is now releasing the second collection as a book. All pretty awesome progression for us, and completely shocking still.
"I wanted to create a space where artistic merit could be seen without outside influence or "notes."
How long after the first book did you guys start planning this one and what is the selection/omission process like?
I think Titan was talking sequel right when the first one came out. We have 6 years of this show in the can, so basically every two years we'd have a pretty bonkers book. Basically, we curate each show from the large group we show all year long. We add about 10% new artists each large group show like this, and those additions are based on submissions and just learning about new artists. Then we work with Titan to curate what ends up on the book pages. It's a tedious process, but it always turns out so awesome - it's worth it.
What distinguishes G1988 from all of the other galleries that have drifted into your lane?
Well, we were the first. That helps. We've been around a decade now and started when we were laughed at for being pop culture. Now it would be hard to find a major city without someone who stole our business plan. Also, we work directly with the properties and talent affecting pop culture daily. For LOST, we worked daily with Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. For Breaking Bad, we worked with Vince Gilligan. For The Avengers, we dealt with Joss Whedon. And the fact that we worked with the Oscars, who approached us to come up with whatever we wanted to do to promote their broadcast, shows that what we're doing is leaps and bounds beyond just "fan art." And I think that really is the difference.
Do you have personal relationships with all of the artists featured in Crazy 4 Cult and other G1988 shows or do you meet them all through submissions?
I'd say about 30% of the artists are from submissions. The rest are just from curating and learning about new artists. Some have been with us since day one. That's always the best part of the Crazy 4 Cult book: If you like an artist you can just go to our website and see the other work we have from him/her, because they're part of our roster. But we have relationships with all the artists in the book for sure. Even if it's a blind submission, we don't just wait for them to come in the mail, we establish a relationship, so the artist knows we're not just a place making dough of their work. We're working for it too.
I think Kevin Smith was a big fan of gallery from the beginning, right? And he loves to talk and write, so getting him to do the intro for the first book must have been a fairly easy sell. Was it harder to get Seth Rogen on board this time around? And why him?
Yes, Kevin has been a vocal supporter of G1988, even before we knew we'd stay in business. He was always a big fan and convinced us to just keep doing what we're doing. I had known Jonah Hill since he was a kid and he had become a fan of the gallery in the early days. He has some classic Crazy 4 Cult pieces in his collection. Martin Starr had started stopping by our shows at the same time. Both of those guys ended up telling Seth, because they thought we carried work he'd love. And so he stopped by and they were right. He's always the best cause you can hear him laughing at the pieces in the gallery from a mile away. And also in his office, he has a painting from us that depicts the T-1000 from Terminator 2 having sex with Eazy-E and it's a called "Fuck The Police." SOOOO, he's a lifer. When it was time to pick a foreword, he was the first person that came to mind. He was super into it and got it done fast, and it was so funny. We're lucky and stoked to have him on our team.
What is one thing you learned from your rap career that you’ve applied to running an art gallery?
Probably to stop rapping and get a job. But actually, I think it's to believe in artwork directly from the artist. When I was rapping in the early 00's at Interscope, the project had 400 cooks in the kitchen. Everyone had an opinion. The reason I got signed and that ridiculous record deal is because of songs I made on my own, and then everyone had an opinion once it was getting ready for the public. I wanted to create a space where artistic merit could be seen without outside influence or "notes." It's art at its purest and since I was so far from that in my rap career, I knew if you let that happen for very creative minds, success would follow.
How extensive is your personal collection of G1988 art?
Shockingly not very deep. I've always sort of seen my house as a place for just a few of my favorite pieces. I have to go into the gallery numerous times a week to work, so that's the place where I see all the great pieces. A secret though - if an artist makes a piece based on the Tom Hanks comedy, The Burbs, I have to buy it and put it up. I'm opening a real can of worms here, but that's the truth.
Since the first trip to New York was so successful, are the plane tickets already booked for G1988’s return to the Big Apple?
YUP. Actually, you get the exclusive. The traditional Crazy 4 Cult show is coming back to NY in the second week of December. In LA, we're opening a "Crazy 4 Cult presents..." show, where artists all did pieces based on villains from these movies, but the NY installment will be the traditional exhibit you see in the book. We're really excited to bring it back to the East Coast - even if it will be FREEZING.