With E3 ready to take over downtown Los Angeles this week, it makes sense that Giant Robot would launch "Game Over," its popular video game-themed group show, at GR2 in Los Angeles last weekend. Previously, the exhibition took place at the art gallery/boutique's now-defunct San Francisco outpost. With more than 130 pieces in the show -- including the game L.A. Riots Study, pictured above, where you can play as Rodney King -- "Game Over" brought together art-world veterans with up-and-comers to explore the art of the video game. Saturday night's opening brought in a crowd so large, people were spilling onto the sidewalk in front of the shop.
"We've always treated [video games] like an art form," says Eric Nakamura. The Giant Robot proprietor has had a lifelong relationship with video games -- he grew up playing an Atari 2600 and spent some time in the early '90s working for a magazine simply called Video Games. That influence has long been present inside the Sawtelle Boulevard art gallery.
Now the rest of the world is catching up with Giant Robot. The Smithsonian is currently running the exhibition "The Art of Video Games." Paper Rad artist Ben Jones, who talked about his video game influences in a "Cult Stars" interview last year, recently participated in MOCA's "Transmission L.A." event. Meanwhile, group shows based on video games have been popping up across the country with greater frequency.
"Game Over" takes two different perspectives on games. In one respect, it explores the influence of Atari, Nintendo and Sega classics. On another level, though, "Game Over" shows how far you can push the boundaries of art and video games.
Ray Young Chu took the opportunity to present a part of L.A. history through the lens of a video game. In L.A. Riots Study, he pieces together smaller paintings based on the events of 1992 to form the basis of a hypothetical game. The paintings at the top of this complex work represent the characters you can pick to play and who you select dictates how the game will proceed. For example, if you chose Rodney King, your goal would be to stay standing as long as possible.
Chu admits that he doesn't play video games, but his piece evoked some of the most popular titles of the past two decades. "Everyone thinks of Grand Theft Auto when they see this," says the artist.
Meanwhile, Giant Robot commissioned two artists and two programmers to work together on games made specifically for the event. Artist Jeni Yang worked with programmer Beau Blyth on the two-person, arcade-style game Catburger, where feline scavengers compete to build the biggest and best burger. They had two weeks to work on the project. Yang says this was a learning experience, but she enjoyed it so much that she wants to work on another game.
Sean Chao, whose work has appeared at several recent Giant Robot shows, worked with Shelby Cinca on Yeren, a large board game that mimics video game play. In Yeren, a character needs to climb to the top of the mountain to gather a special herb. All the while, he is chased by Yeren, whom Chao describes as "Sasquatch for China." Chao sculpted the figures used in the game. He also created two separate pieces, dioramas that depict interactions between the climber and Yeren and are reminiscent of the opening and closing scenes in many video games.
Still more people, though, looked at the games that influenced them for their contributions to "Game Over." Sarah Lee, a recent Art Center graduate, made her gallery debut on Saturday night with a tribute to Donkey Kong. The New Kong imagines Lee's own gorilla characters inside the arcade classic. Lee cut her teeth on old-school video games, but she is at times influenced by newer titles. "I'll watch my brother playing video games," she says. "I'll say, 'That's cool' and I'll use it as a reference."
Christopher Chan had a hit at the show with his wood figures of Street Fighter characters Balrog, Dhalsim, M Bison, Akuma and Vega. "Street Fighter was probably my favorite game growing up," Chan says. "I never got to play much, but I used to always watch my cousins play."
For Chan, like many others who were immersed in the gamer world as children, it wasn't necessarily the game itself that was inspiring. "I always liked looking at the characters and the mythology," he says. "I think more than playing the game, I enjoyed the world around it."
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Even if the notion that video games can be considered art worthy of museum exhibitions and gallery shows is relatively new, the belief that video games are, in fact, an art form is not. David Horvath, of Uglydolls, mentioned late-1990s rhythm game PaRappa the Rapper as an example. The game's visuals were created by Rodney Alan Greenblat, a veteran of New York's 1980s art scene whose work has appeared in shows like the Whitney Museum Biennial.
"I thought that was art for sure," says Horvath, "functional art."