When Agit Gallery curator Zero organized “Anime Explode!! (Let's Fighting Art),” which opened Friday night in Koreatown, he had one mission. Zero didn't want the art show to look like an artist alley at a fan convention. That's not an easy task to achieve when the theme is anime.
Even in Los Angeles, where pop culture references rule and theme shows are frequent, references to Japanese animation can be hard to find. If you want anime art en masse, you need to go to a convention and seek out the artist alley.
In those handful of aisles, though, you'll typically see a lot of straightforward representations of the most popular anime characters. That's not what Zero sought. “I didn't want them to just do Goku throwing a fireball,” he says, referencing the Dragon Ball franchise.
Instead, what Zero got was an eclectic array of art inspired by a slew of TV shows and films that were imported to the U.S. and captured the imagination of a generation of young artists. From a papercut nod to Kiki's Delivery Service to a watercolor rendition of the characters from Sailor Moon, the work in “Anime Explode!!” was anything but typical.
An estimated 31 artists were involved, including Zero, who was one of three people to tackle the influential series Neon Genesis Evangelion. (For the record, that was the most popular reference in the show.) Some artists, the curator notes, had never shown in a gallery before Friday night. Others have worked with Zero inside this 6th Street space since its inception last year.
Sasha Palacio is an artist who works primarily in the video game industry and has appeared in several previous Agit Gallery shows. A longtime anime fan, she spent her high school years selling work out of her own booth at Anime Expo.
For “Anime Explode!!,” she contributed three drawings inspired by anime cat-girls. Though the pieces were influenced by the hours she has spent watching Japanese animation, these cat-girls were of her own design.
For Palacio, that's one of the big differences between bringing her work to the gallery and bringing it to a booth at a convention. “People want to see a character they recognize,” she says of the convention artist experience. Here at an art show, she explains, it's not so much about the character, but making a connection, a chance for the audience to find an artist with whom they “share an inspiration.”
That's a big difference between “Anime Explode!!” and a convention artist alley. On the convention floor, art is commerce. It's also a chance to promote yourself in front of a large crowd — sometimes tens of thousands of people show up to the largest events. You're competing for attention with dozens of other artists. Sometimes the fan favorite characters attract eyeballs in a way that original material or obscure references may not.
Working under the name Super Emo Friends, JSalvador is a convention regular and says that those big events are his “bread and butter.” He goes to as many of them as he can and recently returned from San Diego Comic-Con.
JSalvador is known for his interpretations of famed pop culture figures. As Super Emo Friends, he juxtaposes tiny, adorable characters with the underlying sadness of the characters' stories. His style evolved from his own interest in anime. Specifically, he was inspired by how character designs change to emphasize a character's emotions in certain scenes. “They would basically shrink and get big heads and cry,” he recalls. “That blew my mind.” For this show, he referenced Gatchaman, also known as Battle of the Planets. His contribution is actually a print version of a pre-existing painting of his, the first print he's done for this piece.
An event like this provides a different sort of experience for him as a working artist. He won't pull in the sort of revenue that he would inside an exhibit hall, but it's a chance to interact with people in a way that's not possible when he's cooped up in a booth. “At comic conventions, people are just shopping and passing through,” he explains. “The gallery is more of a hangout.”
Agit Gallery's biggest success might not be in the art itself, but in the community that Zero has built inside this venue. Friday night's opening overflowed with people. Some were dressed in outfits that resembled school uniforms. Some wore Japanese street fashion-inspired attire. Others came in full cosplay.
Held one week after San Diego Comic-Con and a couple weeks after Los Angeles' Anime Expo, the crowd was still in convention mode. The works that lined the walls fed into that fanaticism, even if the environment was markedly different.
This wasn't a typical art opening. It was more of a party with art, a means of keeping together a group of people after the big gatherings had ended.
Says JSalvador, “It's nice to be in a setting where it's more about the scene.” Agit Gallery, whether intentional or not, gave that scene a space, at least for one night.