Joss Whedon Gets a Gallery1988 Tribute Art Show

Jensen Karp of Gallery1988 and Joss Whedon
Jensen Karp of Gallery1988 and Joss Whedon
Liz Ohanesian

The scene in front of Gallery1988 West is instantly familiar. A standstill line wraps around the corner of Melrose Avenue at Poinsettia Place. Cars slow down as passengers stick their heads out windows, asking what's going inside the tiny storefront. .

If you've been to any of the gallery's massive group shows centered around pop culture-properties— whether that's Edgar Wright's films or Ghostbusters— you know what to expect. On Friday night, for the opening of "Joss Whedon x Gallery1988," the jam-packed scene is, essentially, business as usual, albeit one where a teenage vampire hunter, outer space frontierspeople and a really creepy ballerina hang from the walls.

In the hour before the public unveiling, Whedon himself criss-crosses the narrow gallery, checking out paintings and chatting with the artists and press on hand. The creator of cult favorite TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly admits that he responded to the show "like a fan." The characters and worlds that he built are now in the hands of others.

"Just to see them interpreted like this takes them away from me and makes it about something that's bigger," he says, "which is what I'm trying to do."

Alex Pardee stands next to his contribution to "Joss Whedon x Gallery1988."
Alex Pardee stands next to his contribution to "Joss Whedon x Gallery1988."
Liz Ohanesian

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Two years ago, just before the release of Whedon's blockbuster Marvel flick The Avengers , Gallery1988 hosted an art show based on the big-screen version of the comic book characters. Whedon was there and, according to gallery co-owner/co-curator Jensen Karp, the director indicated that he might be interested in an exhibition based on his own creations. "I kind of thought he was joking," says Karp. When Whedon brought up the subject again at a San Diego Comic-Con panel, it was clear that he wasn't kidding. Like a handful of other directors— Edgar Wright and Kevin Smith amongst them— Whedon has been a longtime supporter of the gallery, which has two locations on Melrose Avenue. As for the artists, Whedon's work has been a substantial influence. 

Taking up a large chunk of wall is a collage made up of 34 small watercolors painted by Alex Pardee. The piece references Cabin in the Woods, the 2012 horror movie produced and co-written by Whedon. Pardee says that it's one of his favorite movies of the past decade. "Within two hours, there's a world that's created and I want to be a part of that," he says.

To try and bring a snippet of that feature-length story to Gallery1988, Pardee created a large, complicated piece that makes the most sense to people who have seen Cabin in the Woods. On the side, there's a whiteboard with a list of monsters and the bets placed on them. The watercolors are of monsters, too, many of which were in the movie. These are arranged in a frame— made with help from one of his pals— that resembles elevator shafts. On the gallery wall, above the frame, Pardee painted a cabin. Below the frame, the paint veers into the underground world of Ancient Ones in need of a sacrifice.

There are a lot of Cabin in the Woods tributes inside the show. The Sugar Plum Fairy, a young ballerina with a tooth-filled mouth covering the expanse of her face, turns up repeatedly amongst the paintings and prints. Tucked into a small corner, there's a Cabin in the Woods playset made by Nick Stokes. Artist Kristen Liu-Wong created a an acrylic piece that depicts the layers of happenings underneath that infamous cabin in the movie.

A few of the artists who channeled Cabin in the Woods for the show, like Jason Liwag and Evan Yarbrough, actually have work ties to the film. The former worked on the trailer, while the latter helped make a related game. Moreover, they're just big fans of it. "I'm a huge horror fan," says Liwag. "It has its horror elements, but it takes you somewhere else." Yarbrough, who didn't catch the movie until after the theatrical release, was taken by "how subversive it was."

Embroidery by Ellen Schinderman, inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Embroidery by Ellen Schinderman, inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Liz Ohanesian

The fascination with Cabin in the Woods is surprising, since Buffy the Vampire Slayer is perhaps Whedon's best known work, a trailblazing show that merged the worlds of teen drama and horror. It also lasted for seven seasons, featured a large cast and plot lines that took a lot of twists and turns over the years. With Buffy, there is plenty of material ripe for referencing. Here, though, that realm of what fans often call the Whedonverse is a little quiet, though there are some depictions of heroine Buffy Summers and her pals. (Seth Green, who played Oz in the series, also attended the opening.) There are even a few works that only hardcore Buffy fans would get; embroidery artist Ellen Schinderman re-watched the entire series to make a series of pieces based on various incarnations of the "mutant zombie" that crosses TV screens at the end of the credits.

Amongst the more popular launchpads for the exhibition is Firefly, Whedon's beloved, but unfortunately short-lived, sci-fi series, and the corresponding movie Serenity. Some contributors draw upon the more dramatic elements of this world. L.A. artist Misha captures the emotional heft of the story in a painting that references a Serenity spoiler that had viewers reaching for tissues. Meanwhile, Kelly McKernan painted an exquisite portrait of the brilliant and troubled character River Tam.

Inside the gallery, the drama, humor, horror and action of Whedon's work takes shape in many different media and styles. The stories, the characters, have clearly affected these artists in different, but perhaps equally profound, ways. Though humble in his answers, that's not lost on the writer/director. He's taking in the whole scene, where Buffy meets Firefly and butts up against Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and Cabin in the Woods. That, Whedon says, "makes you feel like you have a body of work."

He adds, "And that's really beautiful."


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