Mondo, Crazy4Cult and the passionate pop-culture poster scene

July 19, 2011 | 1:39 p.m.

Texas poster artist Rob Jones cheerfully cites Drew Struzan’s original one-sheets for the “Star Wars” franchise as “some of the greatest movie posters ever made.” However, that hasn’t stopped him and other film-loving graphics wizards from reinterpreting classic sci-fi and horror pictures with entirely new works of art. Jones, who is rooted in Austin, Texas’ gig poster scene, six years ago persuaded a group of his pals to take a break from indie rock band advertisements to try their hands at producing silk-screen graphics for “Escape From Alcatraz,” “Planet of the Apes” and other cult favorites presented by the local movie theater chain Alamo Drafthouse.

After the eye-popping posters sold out, Alamo boss Tim League sensed he might be onto something big. “For a lot of fan collectors,” he says, “when something cool comes out it sends these ripples and shock waves because of the popularity of the iconography that we’re playing with, but they also respond to the purely aesthetic side of the work.”

'Star Wars' - (Mondo)

'Star Wars' - (Mondo)

The series kicked into high gear after creative director Justin Ishmael spent a year lobbying LucasFilm for permission to create art based on “Star Wars.” When George Lucas’ team finally agreed, British graphic designer Olly Moss crafted an austere portrait series in the spirit of Saul Bass’ midcentury work for “Psycho” and other Hitchcock films. Moss’ “Star Wars” series became the hottest seller on Mondo, Alamo’s online boutique, with all 300 limited-edition prints selling out the day they became available online.

Jones, who won a Grammy this year for designing the White Stripes boxed set “Under Great White Northern Lights,” understands firsthand the appetite that drives demand for tribute art. He owns more than 50 official posters for Al Pacino’s 1980 movie “Cruising,” including dozens of foreign market pieces. “If you love a movie enough,” Jones says, “You like to see as many takes as possible.”

This dig-the-movie/buy-the-art equation fuels Mondo and generates brisk business for a growing number of brick-and-mortar places such as New York’s Bold Hype Gallery, which recently brought together 100 artists for a “Tarantino vs. the Coen Brothers” exhibition. (Mondo will host a poster booth at Comic-Con this week.)

As fine art joins comic books, movies, video games and action figures on the list of geek-friendly commodities, studios are taking note. Mondo now makes posters for new films, including “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and Los Angeles’ Gallery 1988 has orchestrated so-called artvertisement campaigns for “The Fighter” and TV’s “Lost.” Gallery 1988 specializes in fine art that taps into what co-owner Jensen Karp describes as the “nerd apocalypse.” Most Gallery 1988 work distinguishes itself from the fantasy poster genre by skipping over titles, credits and other typographic elements in favor of free-form renderings of memorable movie characters. Karp observes, “Painters used to be influenced by the masters like Picasso and Matisse. Now, a lot of artists are influenced by ‘The Simpsons’ and the Coen brothers.”

'Captain America: The Fisrt Avenger' (Mondo)

'Captain America: The First Avenger' (Mondo)

Art shows pegged to throwback video games, action figures, and movies seemed like a no-brainer to Karp when he and partner Katie Cromwell brainstormed their first Crazy4Cult series in 2006. Karp, who studied film writing at USC, pitched the concept to movie producer Scott Mosier, who in turn told writer-director Kevin Smith. Boosted by celebrity enthusiasts, the now-annual Crazy4Cult (running through July) show features paintings inspired by such pictures as “Clerks,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Blade Runner,” “Jaws” and “Donnie Darko.” Gallery 1988 prices the paintings at an average of $450. Karp says, “We work with a lot of first time buyers and also pride ourselves for being the first stop for a lot of very fast trains. We watched Greg Simkins go from a guy with a day job who wanted to sell one painting for $2,000 to a guy who’s now averaging $15,000-$25,000 per painting.”

Simkins, whose tormented take on Johnny Depp in his “Edward Scissorhands” painting is in the new “Crazy4Cult: Cult Movie Art” book, says: “I feel like I can get across my style and the emotion of a moment while still maintaining the integrity of the film.” Common references serve as coin of the realm for the burgeoning tribute art scene, Karp says. “As someone who’s been going to Comic-Con for the last 12 years, I’d say we got lucky, and by ‘we,’ I mean pop culture nerds. Comic books got cool. Comic book movies got cool. Knowing pop culture trivia got cool.” And yes, nostalgia has become cool. Classic “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” properties remain at the top of the list for Mondo followers, while Karp detects increasing buzz around “Little Shop of Horrors,” and “Big Trouble in Little China.” “It’s fun to breathe new life into properties that people may not have thought about for quite some time, so you’re able to create that reaction of  ‘Oh, my God, do you remember this?’ “

– Hugh Hart

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