On a recent Saturday in Los Angeles, one could attend a Pee-Wee Herman art show at Meltdown, a pop-up Nicolas Cage art show (a port of an earlier Nicolas Cage art show put on in San Francisco), and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles art show at I Am 8-bit (not to be confused with the official Nickelodeon-sponsored Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show held a week earlier at Nucleus*). There have been *at least* three Bill Murray art shows that I’m aware of, not counting any Ghostbusters-specific art shows, of which I have entirely lost count. The word that often gets used to describe these shows is tribute. “Well, it’s a tribute,” I remember Jensen of Gallery 1988** saying when discussing the legality of one of their bajillion pop-cult shows, as though invoking the word and its reverent connotations was an instant fair-use forcefield. The thing is, well, this is a tribute:
And here’s another:
If you love the Bible, these candles might be totally awesome. But to a non-believer, a tribute means nothing. They are offerings to the thing being depicted, to reaffirm the faith of the maker and those in the pews. Smash-cut to the present, and our tributes take the form of a bunch of paintings crammed into in a gallery, that seem to exist only to say, “Hey, we all saw this one movie and think it’s cool, right?”
I wonder, sometimes, if I accidentally started this whole thing—back in college, I put on an exhibit of artwork inspired by Edward Norton. I wonder if people saw that show, or the early 8-Bit/Cult shows, and thought, “All you need is a theme. Pick a thing you like, get people to draw pictures of it, BOOM, art show.” But theme is nothing without concept. Edward Norton was the theme of that 2002 show, but the actual concept was that it would be funny to see a room filled with Edward Norton art. Funny because there is no fucking reason a room should ever be filled with art of Edward Norton; it was a joke on the expectations of an art show. It wasn’t (sorry, Edward Norton!) about how cool a guy Edward Norton is.
A good show concept, in my mind, should bring out the personality and sensibility of each artist. It should almost be a problem that the artist has to engineer his or her way out of. One of the most popular things I’ve ever painted was done, oddly enough, for a group show. No One Wants to Play Sega with Harrison Ford:
The theme of the show was “8-bit video games.” Now, I had seen pieces from the previous year’s exhibit and they were mostly depictions of Mario, Link, etc. However, I never played Nintendo. We had a Sega Master System. I knew if I drew Sega characters (this was pre-Sonic, so I’m talking Alis, Opa Opa, etc.) no one would have a clue who they were. So my challenge was to somehow use the system itself, and the image became about the actual experience of playing video games, of not having the popular system, etc. I ended up making a better piece, a a piece with emotional content, because the idea of the show made me place constraints on myself.
Being a massive hypocrite, I have continued to curate my own pop culture shows in recent years. I put together a Jurassic Park show, with the stipulation that there could be no depictions of dinosaurs, only humans. Which meant artists had to get a little creative, zeroing in on particular aspects of the film and its stars. Putting that one constraint on the art, I feel, moved the show away from advertisement/celebration/fan wankery and into the realm of weird commentary. Erin Pearce, for example, dressed beetles in the clothes of the main characters:
John Larriva drew a Michelangelo/Ian Malcolm parallel:
And Jeff Ramirez made us look, really look, at a gorgeous movie star’s face:
Earlier this year, I based a show around an X-Men coloring book. Each artist picked a page from the book and made a new piece in some way inspired by it (I should mention, the book was terrible):
Good ol’ Jeff Ramirez again:
This concept, to me, was about the transformative leap. You could see, there on the gallery wall, each artist making a connection and running with it. If you happen to like X-Men and/or think Gambit is stupid, hey, that’s a nice bonus, but it’s not central to the enjoyment of the art.
I’m not saying any of this to poo-poo group shows in general. I also don’t want to come off like I’m saying, “Wah wah, my ideas are better!” What I’m trying to demonstrate is, Yes, pop culture is neat, and you don’t have to shy away from it as subject matter. It gives us a huge shared vocabulary to draw from (example: the title of this essay). But wouldn’t it be great if we tried a little harder to do something with that vocabulary? It is my experience that if you give an artist a challenge, they will absolutely rise to it.
*I tend to like the shows Nucleus puts on, because they have a curatorial or museum aspect. For example, if they are doing a show related to a property, they will involve creators from the property and include concept art and things like that. Not surprisingly, it is run by people with art backgrounds.
**Did you know: a number of Gallery 1988 group shows are paid commercials. Artists are being used to advertise Lost, or make chickens hip in anticipation of Disney’s Chicken Little.
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I wanted to address this publicly- it’s a comment left on Liz Prince’s facebook regarding my being an “asshole” to fans. Liz’s response was perfect, but I’d like to reiterate a few points in case there are others out there who harbor the same misconception. The person in question called me an…
Even the Mona Lisa is falling apart.
(Source: nearlyvintage, via edwardnortoness)