Art Becomes Pop Culture at Comic-Con

Headspace Series, "Darth Vader" by Luke Chueh.

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Luke Chueh has developed a following for his darkly humorous, and oftentimes emotional, paintings featuring anthropomorphic creatures. The most famous of these is a bear who has been depicted holding a broken record ("The Soundrack (To My Life)," 2004) and playing its own head like a drum ("Drum Head," 2011). Over the past decade and change, Chueh's bear has essentially become a part of pop culture. At the very least, it's part of a sect of the cultural landscape that reblogs and retweets while offering likes to Facebook pages and Instagram posts. At the same time, the Los Angeles-based artist's work is also reflective of pop culture. For the past two years, he has been releasing installments of a series called "Headspace," which explores Chueh's own influences. In it, he bear takes off his head to reveal another identity, one that may be rooted in TV or film or art. To date, Chueh has taken on G.I. Joe, as well as Banksy and Mark Ryden. At San Diego-Comic-Con, he unveiled "Headspace Series-- Darth Vader" and "Headspace Series-- Boba Fett," two prints based on famed characters from "Star Wars." The prints were originally available through West L.A. boutique/gallery Giant Robot at the convention and sold out quickly.

"'Star Wars was a massive influence on me," says Luke Chueh as we stand on a San Diego sidewalk, outside of a Comic-Con party. For one thing, Chueh shares a first name with the protagonist of the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker. Moreover, he was born in 1973, the perfect age to latch onto the blockbuster film franchise of the late 1970s and early 1980s. "I do my best to try and celebrate its importance to myself in my artwork when the time seems right," he says.

At Comic-Con, the time is always right for references to "Star Wars." The same can be said for any reference to major film, comics and television franchises that have seeped into the consciousness of late-20th and early 21st century audiences. At Huckleberry's booth, a limited edition Shag silkscreen print drew upon the world "Batman" that hit TV screens in the 1960s. There were only 150 prints available and each was priced at $500. They sold out at the convention.

Headspace Series, "Boba Fett," by Luke Chueh
Headspace Series, "Boba Fett," by Luke Chueh.

Art inhabits an unusual space at San Diego Comic-Con. In many ways, the convention is entirely about art, as comic books, TV and film couldn't exist without visual artists. Additionally, certain genres of art -- from fantasy to pop surrealism to designer toys -- have long had a home here. Several Los Angeles galleries built temporary homes on the show floor. Gallery 1988, the Melrose Avenue outpost for art heavily influenced by pop culture, used the convention as the final stop for its touring exhibition celebrating the 30th anniversary of the film "Ghostbusters." Culver City's Century Guild is a regular at San Diego Comic-Con. The gallery's artist roster includes horror master Clive Barker. They also boast works from Doc Hammer, an oil painter who is better known as writer for the animated series The Venture Bros, and Dave McKean, whose comic book credits include "Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and covers for "The Sandman."

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Moreover, artists from across the world will display and sell their works in the exhibit hall. Vancouver's Camilla d'Errico, who works in both the comics and gallery worlds, sells small paintings along with books, prints and other merchandise. New York-based Tara McPherson turned up here the week prior to her big show opening at Merry Karnowsky Gallery in Los Angeles. The guys from Gargamel, a Japanese group, brought their cult-favorite monster, or kaiju, figures. Art at Comic-Con takes on various forms, from paintings to sculpture, one-of-a-kind pieces to mass-produced prints. While the art will always be overshadowed by big movie previews and the mad rush for Hasbro exclusive toys, it has an important place here.

Art by J*Ryu
Art by J*Ryu.

J*Ryu, a Los Angeles-based sculptor whose work is often whimsically macabre, has been coming to Comic-Con for seven years. This time around, he was able to get booth space, which he shares with his girlfriend and occasional collaborator, cosplayer Vampy Bit Me. They have a bit of an advantage over first-time Comic-Con vendors. Vampy is one of the best-known cosplayers (people who dress in costumes based on comics, films, etc.) in the country with a major following on social media. J*Ryu, admittedly, doesn't focus too heavily on social networking, but he has garnered a fan base in designer toy circles, a group of collectors that often shop at Comic-Con. Despite that, vending as an artist is no easy task. You have to somehow get the attention of people who aren't so much walking as they are riding the wave of people that travels from one side of the hall to the other. It's packed and artists here, J*Ryu notes, are competing for attention with household names like Marvel comic book characters.

For years, J*Ryu had avoided obvious pop culture references in his work. "I think conveying an original idea is a lot harder," he says. This year, though, he's been dipping his toes into a pool of his own personal interests. Amongst his offerings at SDCC this year was a limited edition sculpted mirror inspired by the anime "Sailor Moon." It's a colorway version of a work that appeared at an exhibition in Los Angeles earlier this year. He and Vampy also collaborated on large pendants modeled after the hatchling character in the "Metroid" series of video games. It's, essentially, a tiny version of a prop they made for one of Vampy's costumes.

J*Ryu and Vampy Bit Me
J*Ryu and Vampy Bit Me.

"Even though I don't do pop culture too often, I'm still a fan of it," says J*Ryu. "In my personal work, I try to stay away from it because it's hard enough to get jobs and opportunities. I don't want my career to be predicated on something that is not mine."

San Diego Comic-Con attracts some of the highest caliber artists in their respective disciplines. The ones who succeed are those maintain their own voice, whether or not they have tapped into some cultural touchstone. Shag can take on the 1966 "Batman" series because the reference absolutely makes sense in the context of his retro-cool aesthetic. Luke Chueh can handle one of the biggest movies ever made because, when mixed with his own characters, it creates a piece that is as autobiographical as it is culturally relevant. J*Ryu can lend a gothic edge to "Sailor Moon" and turn the reference into something that works with the supernatural characters that appear in his other figures. Comic-Con is for a special kind of artist, one who can embrace pop culture as well as penetrate it.


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