Shortly before the opening of his one-night-only exhibition “Who Is Ken Sugimori?,” the artist known as Johnnie JungleGuts walks into the main room of Chinatown art space Human Resources. He is tall, dressed in My Little Pony pajama bottoms and is surrounded by hundreds of sumi ink-on-newsprint drawings of fictional creatures known as Pokémon.
Pop culture-inspired art shows are a regular occurrence in Los Angeles. Generally, these shows follow a similar template: A large group of artists submit works inspired by something like Ghostbusters or Dragon Ball, fans line-up to get a glimpse of art made in different styles and media and maybe buy some limited edition merchandise.
“Who Is Ken Sugimori?” isn't like that. Johnnie is the only artist showing tonight. The drawings that rise from floor to ceiling were made by him. The fans that are coming today won't be here just to check out the images. They're also coming for Pokémon tournaments, which is also part of the art. “Who Is Ken Sugimori?” is, on the surface, about a single artist's love of Pokémon. On a deeper level, though, this show is about how fans connect with each other.
“I got into Pokémon like most fifth graders did in 1998, fall of 1998, in America,” Johnnie says, his deep voice bouncing off the art-covered walls and obscuring the 8-bit tunes playing through a laptop in the background.
In the world of Pokémon, the little beasts that line the wall are trained to do battle with each other. Their adventures are detailed in anime and manga series. Their images appear on a lot of merchandise. Before all that, though, Pokémon were, and continue to be, characters in a series of video games that launched in Japan and headed to the United States. Johnnie was a kid in New Jersey when the pop culture phenomenon first caught his attention by way of the magazine Nintendo Power. He and his friends became “trainers,” or game-players, and started their own “Pokémon gym,” with Johnnie as the leader. “It was just the most fun part of my childhood,” he says.
Over the years, Johnnie has accumulated bits of knowledge about the franchise. He rattles off a few tidbits about Ken Sugimori, the Pokémon art director for whom Johnnie's show is named, and the creative team. “It's really hard to find out information on how they make the work,” says Johnnie.
The Pokémon on the walls are all identifiable by number. There are more than 700 Pokémon and Johnnie has tried to draw all of them. “I'm a human being,” he qualifies, “so it's very likely that there are some missing or duplicates or who knows.” Saturday morning, he noticed that two Pokémon were omitted from the collection and drew them. Even now, after the show is hung and guests are expected to arrive shortly, he says he would get back to work if he noticed another missing item.
Johnnie points out some of the highlights. There are Pokémon inspired by mythological creatures. Others resemble various forms of plant life. There is one that looks like a candle, another that looks like an ice cream cone. Number 25 is the best known Pokémon, the only one this writer knows by name. That's Pikachu, the yellow and black creature who played a pretty significant part in the anime series. Johnnie points out that Pikachu is designed to look like a mouse and is an “electric-type,” a term that reference the nature of the characters' powers.
“The idea of the electric-type evokes this idea of thunder and lightning and this very natural type of force, but also something very digital and electronic,” says Johnnie. “That's sort of the worlds that Pokémon straddle by being digital creatures.”
The characters on the wall were made to fight, so a big part of Johnnie's show is a Pokémon tournament. Later that evening, a small crowd sits in the middle of Human Resources, hands clutching their Nintendo 3DS devices as they compete.
Several times during the interview, Johnnie mentions the importance of the social aspect of Pokémon. “It was a really social game,” he says of his first encounter with it. That's what got Johnnie playing when he was a kid and what brought him back into the Pokémon fold during college.
Some time after high school, a friend gave him a copy of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl. This reignited his love of the game. There was a problem, though. Johnnie didn't have anyone to play with him. At least, that was the case before he settled in on the campus of California Institute of the Arts, where he studied fine art. In college, Johnnie found a new group of Pokémon trainers. By senior year, they were throwing massive, on-campus tournaments with video projects, costumes and live bands.
Even after CalArts, Johnnie continued sharing the love for Pokémon. A volunteer at Chinatown's KCHUNG radio, he organized a panel on the subject as part of the group's residency at the Hammer Museum in 2013. (He later would mount an ambitious campaign for KCHUNG to win one of the awards in the Hammer's Made in L.A. biennial, which was chronicled in L.A. Weekly.) That led to tournaments at art museums, some of them done guerrilla style. Johnnie notes that, in the Pokémon universe, trainers meet at themed gyms that cater to the different types of creatures. In the real world, Urban Light — those street lamps outside of LACMA — reminded him of an “electric-type gym.” The gardens at the Getty were similar to a “grass-type gym.”
A former boyfriend suggested that Johnnie draw every Pokémon. “As soon as he said that,” Johnnie recalls, “I knew that I could do it somehow and that I wanted to.” He was inspired not just by Pokémon, but by the late artist Mike Kelley, whose Kandor series of sculptures depicted the Kyptonian city from Superman. He has shown some of these drawings at other shows across Los Angeles, but this is the first time that all have been exhibited in the same space.
Later in the evening, the event hits a somber moment when Johnnie dedicates the show to a fellow Pokémon trainer who recently died. As he speaks, the power of friendships built through this game are evident.
After that, a slew of videos from music clips that reference superheroes to fan films, screen on the wall of Human Resources. All of this leads up to Johnnie's video collage/performance art piece I Love Everything. A wild mishmash of pop culture influences, I Love Everything ties together the events of the day.
“I think, some artists, their artwork is impressive because of their talent or their artwork is impressive because of their intellect, their intelligence,” Johnnie says during our interview. “If anything, I'm just interested in enthusiasm.”
It's the excitement that comes along with being a fan that is truly inspirational for this Silver Lake-based artist. “To be a fan of something is so great because you have a sense of wonder, enthusiasm and passion for something in the world,” he says. “I don't think that everyone has that in life and I think that it's something that makes life a lot richer.”
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