1xRUN Thru Interview
CPOP Archives Presented by Tom Thewes
1xRUN: Give us some background on CPop – How did it get it’s start and what was the initial goal of the gallery?
Tom Thewes: ©POP Gallery held the title as the pre-eminent Detroit pop-culture showcase for over a decade. It was a launching pad for some of the world’s most influential and important visual artists of the last 20 years, home to some of the Midwest’s most exhilarating exhibitions and events, one of the world’s first galleries dedicated to a then brand new “lowbrow” aesthetic and the sacred hall where pilgrim hipsters came to worship at the feet of their culture clerics.
In 1995 ©POP was humbly and appropriately born as a small but trendy shop in Royal Oak, a tony suburb of Detroit, and housed within the cloisters of a renovated old church. Here the original impetus was selling rock and roll poster art and Kustom Kulture and vintage visual memorabilia. Soon ©POP burst rather ceremoniously into public and media awareness when world-renowned allegorical cartoon surrealist, Robert Williams, was chosen for the gallery’s debut fine art exhibition, “Grab Yer Ankles, Detroit”. A media-frenzy ensued, instantly embossing the familiar “cpopyright” logo into the Detroit cultural psyche and quickly ©POP became THE gallery in which to be shown or be seen. ©POP exposed and promoted the unbelievable range of visual talent fermenting in this “New Munich” and soon local first-timers with names like Niagara, Glenn Barr, Mark Dancey, Tristan Eaton and many more soon-to-be nationally famous Motor City artists would find their first successful exhibits in the basement of an old church. By 1997, some of America’s leading cutting-edge art and culture journals such as “Juxtapoz”, “Your Flesh,” “Art Alternatives” and “Details” trumpeted the gallery and the artists who were emerging from this suburban, “underground-zero” into national prominence.
As the ©POP Owner/CEO, I still fiercely believe in the fundamentally powerful relevance of this group of artists who used the visual vocabulary of popular culture (cartoons, rock posters, advertising and graffiti) to communicate and express themselves in a way that broke through the worn ivory tower elitism of pervasively over-intellectualized art institutions. In 1999 I began to implement this grand vision for ©POP as the leading proponent of these brave underground art rebels by renovating a three story former trophy shop, bar, post office and den of iniquity located in Detroit’s Mid-town Cultural Center, into a world-class exhibition space and multi-discipline focal point for this pop-culture revolution. The newly improved cultural showcase opened to much fanfare and excited expectation with a “Grand Re-Opening” exhibition entitled, “© Stands For…” which included all of the ©POP regulars plus names like Mark Ryden, H.R. Giger, Robert Williams, Eric White, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Isabel Samaras and many more. As an urban pioneer during a time when Detroit remained a post-industrial wasteland and the last great American city to experience it’s renaissance, the gallery cemented the foundation for a cultural domino effect which developed an impressive “gallery row” on the south end of the Detroit’s Cultural Center that still continues to grow with more galleries and cultural venues every year.
Setting the bar high led to more than 20 exhibits a year for the two-floor gallery with such names as Shag, Shephard Fairey, Ron English, Mars 1, Bask, Becka, Tes One, Yumiko Kawikawa, Tristan Eaton, and Iggy Pop. Some of the most legendary group shows in the city’s history like Carnivora, ©POPportunity, BombPop and Vinyl Klash 2 helped build ©POP’s mythic status, as patrons came from every continent (except Antarctica) to visit this iconic space.
1xRUN: There were many ground breaking exhibition at the gallery, what would be a few moments that stand out?
Tom Thewes: Of course the grand reopening show in the Detroit space was definitely a number one stand out. It was an incredible gathering of artists who were or would become in the next few years some of the most influential and important creative talents at the beginning of the 21st century. Almost every living artist that had work in the show was present. Robert Williams gave a little talk, Mark Ryden wasn’t yet a Joe Coleman/Charles Manson wannabe and there was an overwhelming feeling of camaraderie amongst the artists.
Yet there were so many great shows and so many crazy stories. For me personally the second BombPOP show that Bask curated is very close to my heart in memory. So many of the amazing graffiti and street artists exhibiting came into town from all over the US and a few from Europe, to hang out and paint live during the opening. The line up included CYCLE, EKLIPS, Ron English, ERNI, Shepard Fairey, DENZ, Logan Hicks, MAC, MEARONE, JOKER,CRASH, DAIM, CLAW, BASK, POSH, SCRIBE, SEAK, Jeff Soto, Oliver Stack, TOTEM2, SUB, SLICK, Miss Siloette, SHOK and me. Watching these guys work was a true inspiration for me and that experience led to the work I am involved in now. This crazy thing happened new the end of the night when a bunch of b-boys and b-girls came and threw down a break dance competition complete with dirty sheet of cardboard and a monster boombox right in the middle of the gallery.
I think the group shows we had were by far the most exciting. Because each artist attracts their particular friends and fans the crowds are much bigger. I think the largest was for Niagara’s “Fun House Art Show.”The line to get in the door seriously went around the block and it was a very icy and snowy early February night. Hanging out with Iggy Pop and Ron Ashton was a trip. Iggy really knows his German Expressionism. It’s interesting how many really great visual artists are also musicians and this show had artwork by some of the greatest punk rock stars in the world.
“Vinyl Klash 2” definitely has to go down in infamy as another crazy gathering of incredible talent. Tristan Eaton organized a huge group show of toy art and again almost all of the artists came in for the opening. The exhibition was in the early days of custom toy design and the art blew my mind and two of the best pieces were done by Tristan’s brother Matt. They also had this goofy idea to have all the artists do a live “painting” demonstration on big 20″ blank Dunnies with paintball guns. We set up a firing range, got sloppy drunk and wasted a boatload of vinyl critters. The idea was to auction the pieces off after they had dried. Unfortunately, Tristan hadn’t tested the process and we didn’t realize that paintball paint is designed to be extremely easy to wash out of clothes and so it never dries. By the end of the night all the paint had oozed down to puddle on and over the freshly painted white pedestals and shelves on which they were displayed and we had to refund payments to a number of heartbroken patrons.
I have to include “Carnivora” in this list as well. Every gallery in Detroit does a car-themed exhibition in January because of the annual International North American Auto Show which happens here that month and which historically premieres the new models for most of the world’s manufacturers for that year. We had Les Barany to curate the show. Among many others he represents H.R. Giger as his North American agent and knows many wonderful and uniquely dark creative talents here and overseas. Outside of the states people have a slightly different attitudes toward the concept of automobiles. In many poorer or socially stratified countries cars were often only affordable to the nobility or the wealthy entrepreneurial class. The exhibit made a very powerful statement especially to Detroit natives and American automobile enthusiasts. We even published a book to catalog explain and commemorate the exhibition.
I’ll never forget the first show we had with Shepard Fairey either. A bunch of us went out bombing with him around town a few nights before the show and I had the distinct honor of throwing an extension letter over a barbedwire fence and holding it for him so that he could scale up to the main ladder of a water tower. He later said that it was the longest free climb of his career.
There were also times of quieter moments that I think are more important looking back now. The “Sweet Tooth Review” exhibit with work by Matts Bandsuch and Gordon (voted best exhibition of the year back when local media cared about such things) and “Persons Of Interest” with Tes One and Bask were both awesome tours de force of talent with two perfectly counterposed visual and contextual approaches that each worked to highlight the wonderful qualities of the other in a way that added potency to both artists’ work. They were curatorial masterpieces.
1xRUN: The gallery was one of the first places to see ground breaking art in the city of Detroit, how do you feel C-pop influenced the local art community?
Tom Thewes: Well CPOP wasn’t just the first place around here to see the kind of work we championed, it really was one of the first galleries in the country dedicated exclusively to this specific genre. We worked hard to highlight local artists who worked in this vein and bring them to the attention of a broader national and international audience through aggressive marketing and media connections. Also, by bringing in well-known artists from outside Detroit we hoped to raise the professional esteem of our local artists through mutual association with these more renowned names and these outside artists were exposed to a regional Detroit patronage which boasts one of the highest per capita income levels in the nation and the most blue-chip art collectors per square mile of any area in the country. I think we made a difference for many of our artists by giving them a leg up on their careers and it seems like we impacted the attitudes of the Detroit art community enough to have a number of galleries like Inner State, Lift and River’s Edge carry on the good fight we did our best to begin.
Tell us about this collection you’re releasing on 1xRUN? Where did these prints originate from and give us a bit of background on them.
Tom Thewes: I chose this first batch of pieces for one 1xRUN to highlight a few of the foundational artists of the movement as well as the powerful contribution of Detroit creative talent. Aside from Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Robert Williams (who apprenticed with Roth) is truly the godfather of the genre. He proved his genius both as painter and as intellectual spokesman for this group of artists through his writing and his publications like “Art? Alternatives” and Juxtapoz magazine.
Stanislaw Szukalski was a very strange Polish born Eastern European artist of the early 20th century who lived until 1987. He influenced a number of the artists in our movement through his incredible Art Deco styled work through which he illustrated his extremely eccentric conception of world history and western civilization. This pairing of artistic skill and antiestablishment thinking mirrored the priorities and attitudes of Williams and those who follow in his footsteps. Robert was a big fan of Szukalski and he and Rick Griffon helped carry out the artist’s final wishes by transporting and scattering his ashes over Easter Island.
Anthony Ausgang is a shining example of the first generation of Williams’ aesthetic heirs. He bases his work in the culturally defining medium of the cartoon as well as the groundbreaking work of the early 20th-century punk rock aesthetes known as the futurists. Anthony’s work helps to legitimize and substantiate the CPOP genre as he draws serious connections between this new work and the work of a previously established and legitimate artistic movement. This conceptual artistic evolution is one of the reasons I believe so firmly that the work we championed is so culturally relevant and vital as a mirror for our contemporary societal experience.
Peter Pontiac‘s artwork was a great part of “Carnivora,” our show that underlined the importance of Detroit’s contribution to the world of transportation and industry. I printed these giclées for the artist for that show. For me Pontiac’s work represents another key contributing aspect of CPOP’s underground art components. Along with rock and punk album and poster art, Kustom Kulture art, cartoons, pinup art, and psychedelic art, The underground comics movement which started in the 50s and 60s was a foundational element for the CPOP aesthetic. Pontiac which was a disciple of R. Crumb, the eccentric guru of the bunch and he used his psychotropic substance-riddled punk rock lifestyle as the basis for his work.
Finally, Niagara is the reigning queen of CPOP art internationally and she hails from the environs of Detroit. As punk rock diva and frontwoman for the band Destroy All Monsters, she became a subculture icon. So much in fact that today her face is the logo for a very successful change of Asian fashion boutiques called Hysteric Glamour whose product line was largely based on photos of her band and images of her art. Her work is a direct descendent from another significantly American contribution to art history, namely the work of Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and others known as pop art. Pop Art is the aesthetic seed for the CPOP genre and so Niagara holds a vital role as a foundational block for the movement.