I first became aware of Jensen Karp as the co-founder of Los Angeles‘ Gallery1988, which opened its doors at the corner of Melrose and Labrea in 2004 and has managed to retain it’s position as the go to venue for pop-culture related artwork, worldwide, ever since. One particular standout for G1988 that has proven enormously successful is their annual Crazy 4 Cult cult movie-inspired group exhibit, which has yielded 2 separate books of collected works from the art show’s various installments. The most recent version features a foreword by actor/writer, Seth Rogan, with filmmaker, Kevin Smith–a co-host of the yearly exhibit–penning one for the previous volume. Eventually, a second gallery location was opened, expanding their ability to showcase both established and emerging talent, whether through solo exhibits or group shows, incorporating themes that range from videogames and stand-up comedy to film and literature. Karp –also a marketing executive–has further used his gallery as a platform to collaborate with such clients as Disney, Mattel, Paramount Pictures, and EA sports. And while this may all seem fairly prolific, it’s not even the tip of the iceberg, as far as everything that Jensen has, or has had, his hands in professionally. In fact, before he achieved any success in the underground contemporary art world, the 33-year-old bespectacled So-Cal Jew was better known by his emcee moniker, Hot Karl, under which he was signed to a million dollar recording contract with Interscope records. But, if you were to travel back even further into Karp‘s history, you’d discover an entirely different obsession and influence that he’s held close to him since childhood: professional wrestling.
Hip-hop, pop-culture, art, and pro-wrestling have regularly intersected throughout Jensen‘s career, with him never fully abandoning one interest for another, but rather finding ways to incorporate them organically into each other. He was still a film student in college when he was first lauded for his lyrical prowess, after winning LA radio station, Power 106‘s infamous “Roll Call” listener call-in freestyle rap challenge an unheard of 45 straight days in a row. His album–which is said to have included features by artists like MC Serch, Kanye West, Redman, DJ Quick, and Fabolous–was ultimately shelved due to the typical screwball industry jive (watch a short doc on the whole situation here), and Karp went on to do some ghost writing, among other things. 2006 would find him embarking on a 7-month stint writing for World Wrestling Entertainment and he would later go on to host Afterbuzz TV‘s post show recap podcast covering WWE’s Monday Night Raw. For a 12-month period between 2010 and ’11, the art dealer hosted the now-defunct hip hop podcast, Hype Men, and now currently co-hosts the program Get Up On This on Kevin Smith‘s Smodcast Internet Radio with writer/director, Matthew Robinson (Invention of Lying), who was also his co-author on the book Just Can’t Get Enough: Toys Games & Other Stuff From the 80s That Rocked. One of the more recent additions to Karp‘s ever-fattening resume is his management of female Canadian rapper, Nova Rockafeller, whose video for her song “Problem” not only features a quick cameo by Smith and Jason Mewes (of Jay & Silent Bob fame) reenacting the bear-suit felatio scene from The Shining, but poolside professional wrestling, as well.
Tomorrow night, Friday, March 7th, Gallery1988 will host the opening for an exhibit of brand new work by North Carolina artist, Bruce White, that will help to bring things full circle for Jensen Karp to a degree. White–a tattoo artist by trade–has really given new life to the art of black velvet painting with his meticulous attention to detail and ability to capture nuance, emotion, and depth in a medium that, more often than not, can come across as abrasively overt and one-dimensionally kitsch. VelvetMania will showcase a series of brilliant one-of-a-kind paintings by White depicting 40 classic pro wrestling figures from the 80s and 90s, and the idea of melding these subjects with this medium makes so much sense that it’s ridiculous. But, while Bruce‘s works are commonly influenced by pop-culture and nostalgia, it turns out that he has very little history with the professional wrestling world. It’s true that he’s painted Andre The Giant before, but it was of him as the character Fezzik from The Princess Bride. He also painted a velvet of “Macho King” Randy Savage as a nod to the wrestler’s appearance in the NES game WWF Wrestlemania Challenge for G1988‘s “Old School Video Game Show- Level 2” in 2012, but it turns out that the creation of that piece was actually instigated by Karp.
Jensen elaborated on that situation, explaining how that Randy Savage piece actually became the catalyst for VelvetMania coming to fruition.
“Bruce has ZERO knowledge of wrestling. NOTHING. Which made it even more fun. I first convinced him to do the Macho King for a video game show. Then we made a deal, if it sold within 10 minutes, then he had to do a full show of my favorites, and here we are. He had to learn about each one through YouTube to even get their essence, which made it even cooler. I sent him about my favorite 50, and he picked 40 after research“
Whatever it required for him to get there, Bruce White definitely managed to capture the essence of each one of the wrestlers that he took on perfectly. From the work alone, you’d never know that he didn’t grow up watching Summer Slam or pretending to cut the hair of neighborhood kids with comically over-sized shears after sedating them with a sleeper hold. These paintings look pretty fucking amazing.
In the midst of getting everything together for VelvetMania‘s opening tomorrow night, Jenson Karp managed to find time to answer some questions for us, via email, about the show that he’s so enthusiastic about, and wrestling in general. [Further specifics about the exhibit and opening can be found at the bottom of the post, below the interview.]
Gallery 1988 has a history of celebrities showing up for the openings, especially for the exhibits in which they are featured, or that relate to their own work. Do you anticipate any pro wrestlers stopping by for this one, or is that sort of thing generally a surprise when it happens?
It would be a total surprise. As much as we’ve gotten a ton of press in this show, we haven’t heard from any wrestlers about the paintings. Someone told us they would try and get Piper if he’s in town, but yeah, would be a total run-in surprise.
Is there one specific match from your youth that really made an impact and stands out for you?
I remember everything from Hacksaw Jim Duggan. Especially his matches from Saturday Night’s Main Event. He was always able to mix comedy, drama and just good wrestling together. I was so emotionally connected to him, he felt like part of my family. I remember a Main Event match where Duggan fought Hercules, and I FOR SURE thought he was going to win. Then Andre the Giant interfered and I Was deviated. I slept at a friend’s house that night, because my family didn’t get the channel that showed it, and I basically had to hide that I was crying. I was 23 years old. I’m kidding. I was in elementary school, but I still had to hide it.
Did you ever used to engage in any living room or backyard style wrestling as a child and, if so, did anybody ever get hurt?
In many, many ways. My father and I would living room wrestle, to the point where we both had personas and stuff. And I’d test moves out on pillows throughout my childhood. Then I was a counselor at a day camp in my hometown, and we had a full on federation for the kids. We had matches and interviews and it became a big deal at the place. I was the main heel and I eventually broke my friend Josh’s nose during a match, which sucked but was also crazy authentic.
From what’s been revealed, this really does seems like a tribute to the classic figures of the sport, from the logo on down. What do you miss from that era?
I mean, everyone misses things from their childhood, just like how kids these days will eventually miss the days of CM Punk and John Cena. But I just feel like the pageantry, the pride and the workmanship of yesteryear means a ton to me. The entrances and the colors. Wrestling nowadays involves a lot of shades of grey, both literally and figuratively. And that’s a great gradual step. It makes sense. But I also miss the ridiculousness. I mean, Liberace performed at a WrestleMania.
Your Wikipedia page states that you actually wrote for the WWE for about 7 months back in 2006. What was the most surprising aspect of that position? Did you enter into it hoping to apply the same type of storylines that you had in your head from childhood?
It was a real experience for me, and although the job was not something I Wanted to hold for very long, I would never take back the experience. I was most surprised at how incredible the wrestlers were at memorizing lines. I could hand them a script 30 minutes before a match, and they’d recite it exactly word for word, when it was go time. I haven’t been hit in the head hundreds of times and I couldn’t do that. I entered into it with a comedy background. I had studied comedy and writing and expected to be able to bring a little alternative comedy to the place, and that wasn’t the best fit. Guys like Paul Heyman were begging the brass to let me run with something, and I got some stuff in there, but I think they were always nervous that my left of center humor was “weird.” I didn’t need to repeat the past though, no.
If you could have written for any classic storyline or rivalry, what would it have been?
I had a GREAT time writing for Goldust. He was always so up for anything and we had a similar sense of humor. He just was so ridiculous and over the top. I think my dream would’ve been to be able to write for him when he was having that strange Tourette’s Syndrome storyline. It still makes me laugh.
I recently came across the Iron Sheik “Very Animated” video that you were the supervising producer on and it’s amazing. Could you tell us a little bit about that project and how it came about?
Yeah, I was the Creative Director at JASH, a YouTune channel from Sarah Silverman, Tim & Eric, Michael Cera & Reggie Watts, for a little over a year, and during that time, I pitched the “Very Animated People” idea, which is basically to take a story from a larger than life person and animate it. It’s not a brand new idea, and I’m not sure anything can be better than the Dock Ellis one that is out there, but Iron Sheik was the first guys I reached out to. He gave us like an hour of telling that Hacksaw story and we cut it down to a few minutes. We had a well-known animation house go to work and you see the results. I’m proud of it. He’s a funny guy and surrounded with a very cool and trustworthy team, which was nice to see.
We’ve already seen a great painting by Bruce of Mr Perfect and it made me think about how, in 2003, Curt Henning overdosed on cocaine, like so many other pro wrestlers have. Miss Elizabeth even OD’d on pharmaceuticals and vodka in Lex Luger’s home. It’s become an unfortunate pattern, but also something that really highlights how much these figures have been willing to sacrifice – both emotionally and physically — to entertain us over the years. What percentage of the wrestlers showcased in VelvetMania would you estimate are still alive?
I don’t know that answer actually, but sadly a good amount of my heroes I listed, which is what Bruce worked off of for the show, are deceased. Hell, some of the guys I worked with years ago are already dead. It’s a strenuous gig. But from my time at WWE, I can say that the WWE is very active in reaching out and trying to help ANYONE who stepped foot in their ring. I was there MANY times when Vince [McMahon] would offer money or any help that can be given to a wrestler in need. I was very impressed by their dedication to keeping as much of an eye out as they can.
Without giving too much away, would you be able to divulge one or two of the wrestlers that wound up on the cutting room floor that were also in the running, and if there was anyone that you specified to Bruce, specifically, as being of high priority for you to have included in the show?
I think I let him have free reign. I wanted to make sure there was an 80s era announcer Vince McMahon. Just cause he’s such an unsung hero of the decade. His voice and creative input with Jesse Ventura means so much to all our nostalgia. I think there were a few people that didn’t make the show, but those are secret in case there’s a Velvetmania 2.
I’d imagine that you’ve incorporated a wrestling reference or two in your raps over the years. Would you mind either giving us a quick verse, bar, or metaphor where you have done that, or even supplying us a fresh one, if you’d prefer?
Um, I think in an old song, I said I was the “Classy Freddie Blassie of the rap game, knocking out pencil neck geeks with a cane.” That might be as obscure as I got.
Total heel. I always gravitated towards the cool guys, and they just were always the bad guys. But honestly, writing for the baby faces was way more fun.
Demolition. It’s a close call, but Ax and Smash had a better theme song.
If you could see anyone square off in the squared circle against each other, who would it be? (This could be a head to head match, tag team, or even a Royal Rumble. They don’t even have to be wrestlers – Muhammad Ali did fight Superman in a comic book back in 1978.)
Who do you feel is/was the most overrated wrestler and who’s the most underrated?
As much as I love Hulk Hogan, he was crazy overrated. Even in the NwO when he was a cool bad guy, still he just was way over the top. Underrated – Ted DiBiase was such a good actor and wrestler. I got to write with him at WWE and everyday I couldn’t believe how close I was standing next to him. A legend.
Most ridiculous character or storyline in wrestling history?
Eugene was someone I always wanted to write for, but that was just insane.
Greatest finishing move?
What sort of character theme do you think you’d have yourself, if you entered the industry?
I just couldn’t come up with an answer for that. I never imagined myself in the ring
I was at a bar one night where I was being coaxed into a pact where we would all have to agree to get a tattoo of a classic wrestling figure. One of the people pushing the idea already had a tattoo of Frasier and another one of a cooked chicken in a foot race with a bottle of Zima, so things were looking serious. I think that I tentatively agreed to Koko B. Ware, but it never actually went down. If you were in a similar position and had to pick one wrestler to get tattooed onto your body, who would it be?
I think I’d get Hacksaw, purely cause I loved him and it would give me an excuse to just get a piece of wood on my arm.
If you could redesign the WWE championship belt, what would you do to it?
I never understood how they don’t have a real light up one. Like Chris Jericho’s jacket. That would be fun.
“VelvetMania” – Solo Exhibit by Bruce White
A Celebration of Old School Wrestlers Painted on Black Velvet
Friday, March 7th
Gallery 1988 (West)
7308 Melrose AvenueLos Angeles, CA 90046
(West of La Brea)
Phone: (323) 937-7088(323) 937-7088
Opening is ALL AGES w/NO COVER
Exhibit will be on view until Saturday, March 29th.
The gallery is open from 11 – 6pm from Wednesday – Sunday.
The first 15 people in line get a signed/numbered giclee print of the Ted DiBiase painting featured above.