Mondo's Big Picture
Gallery's huge success belies the company's humble beginnings, but like the art within, you have to see it up close
Every time you copy an image, you make it worse. From the original to the silkscreen to the poster to the photo of the poster to the JPEG: At every step, quality is surrendered. When local print empire Mondo opened its gallery a year ago, the aim was to put its loyal fans – the print collectors who hunt each limited release – in touch with original art. As Mondo Creative Director Justin Ishmael put it: "It's this weird collector thing that you always want the one that started it."
Opening the gallery on Guadalupe was a gamble. Yet, over the last year, the clean, innocuous space – marked only by the signature curled "M" for Mondo – has hosted high-profile original shows themed around some of the most recognizable properties in TV and movies. Just before South by Southwest, HBO sanctioned an exhibition themed around the fantasy blockbuster Game of Thrones. Earlier, Ishmael and his team secured the rights for collections based around Cartoon Network's cult fave Adventure Time and a major show drawing deep on the Universal Monsters back catalog. The model is simple: Each show features a mixture of original art pieces and limited run silkscreen prints. In many ways, stocking the gallery is just like running a print business. Ishmael said, "If we're doing an Avengers series and we have six or seven posters for the movie, we'd have to pick the artists that would most suit that. It's just doing that three or four times more than we did before."
For Mondo regular artist Daniel Danger, the change is liberating. Pointing around the Game of Thrones display, he said: "Some of these wouldn't make good posters, but they're good art pieces. You can go, 'Well, I wanna make a poster, and it requires this kind of creative direction, then there's the production and the printing and blah blah blah.' The other side is, 'Well, I don't need to worry about that. I'm just going to do this very simple, visual thing that doesn't have to go down this traditional Mondo route.'"
It's a world away from Mondo's established business model and its old home, hidden away in a corner of the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, which Ishmael lovingly called the Hobbit Hole (see "A Place in the World," March 9, 2012). For years, manager Mo Shafeek and his team ran the entire shipping operation out of a tiny office with a half-height door. "It was a juggling act," said Ishmael. "You could only fit so many tubes into the Hobbit Hole. You couldn't stand upright in a lot of areas." Their physical storefront was a bathroom stall-sized space, formerly the ticket kiosk. For a print firm that had secured the rights to high-profile properties like Star Wars and Disney, it could be awkward to present to film producers. Ishmael said, "It was always hard bringing them into the small space. There were iron-on T-shirts everywhere, which wasn't really representative of what we do. Bringing them here with a poster framed, up on the wall, versus seeing a JPEG, it's night and day."
The tight space meant the occasional big name signing – like Olly Moss for An American Werewolf in London – left a line out the Drafthouse door. No small dramatic irony that, on their first day on Guadalupe, there was not just a line out the door, but down the street and around the corner. Some collectors even flew in from out of state. That's the fundamental loyalty to Mondo, and it's never ebbed. Ishmael said, "The Universal Monsters show, we had people sleeping outside."
The downside of Mondo's growing reputation is that producers are trying to jump on its credibility. What happens when they are approached with an idea that does not fit the established Mondo mold? "We can say no," said Art Director Rob Jones. "We've said 'no' a lot of times and to a lot of money." Not that everyone gets what Mondo does, or why fans would camp out overnight for a limited run print. Jones said: "There's still a lot of people who don't understand. 'Why is this poster $40? You can get one at Spencer's for $3.50.'" He put it down to "aesthetic immaturity. It's like being 12 and going, 'Why would I want a movie poster that's not in English?'"
According to Mondo Chief Operating Officer Jessica Olsen, having a full gallery space "makes it easier for us to put on shows like Game of Thrones and the Adventure Time show." However, it also gives the artists more latitude: A poster has to be designed with the printing process and the classic Mondo poster proportions – 18 inches by 24 inches, or 24 by 36 – in mind, and add to that consideration the ever-watchful eye of studios. The original pieces have stretched from oils to black velvet portraits to fine line pen-and-ink. Olsen said, "We pride ourselves in allowing artists a lot of creative freedom, and we're able to do that more with originals than we are with posters."
For Ishmael, the physical space "really opens up who we can work with versus back when we were just doing posters." The gallery has provided wall space to dozens of artists, from underground talents like Jock, who cut his teeth on anarchic British comic 2000 AD, to illustrator icons like Star Wars and Harry Potter poster art legend Drew Struzan and Sanjulian, whose eerie oil paintings graced the cover of a thousand fantasy potboilers. Seeing the original artwork that was reprinted as a poster or a cover, Ishmael said, "pulls back the curtain a little bit on what people can do. You see JPEGs online, and you read on message boards, and everyone's like, 'Oh, Illustrator, Photoshop, everything's computer.' Not so."
For Danger, it was a chance to really show off the detail of his work, rather than be curtailed by the frustrations of online image compression. He said, "My stuff looks terrible as a JPEG. I'm doing all these tiny little lines because it's all hatching. When you take the full image and go down to this big, what it looks like is the image but none of the method. But the method to me is so important."
That digital loss of quality motivated January's "In Progress," which Ishmael called "the kind of show that validates that this is art." It was one of the first exhibitions they planned: Artists sent in sketches, early drafts, and concept art from posters and works featured in prior shows. That was a personal favorite for Ishmael, who said, "I just presume that people are interested in process, and behind-the-scenes stuff is so popular with movies and DVDs. ... You're showing that this is a craft and a process, and not just something that we spit out on a machine."
Some artists, like oil artist Jason Edmiston, send regular updates to Mondo as he's working on a piece. Jones compares the experience of Edmiston updates to watching Bob Ross on the old PBS show The Joy of Painting. He said, "He would freaking paint something and you'd be, 'OK, you're done,' and he'd say, 'OK, I'm going to add some trees.' No, stop it, you're going to ruin it, oh, no, oh, yeah, OK. Same thing with Edmiston. I'll be like, 'Dude, I don't know what else you're going to do,' but he'll add some purple shading on the side of the face and it'll just be woah!"
Sometimes the quality of the work surprises even the Mondo team. Jones and Ishmael knew Jacob Bannon's artwork from his album covers for his band, leading metalcore crew Converge. When they finally saw his giant portrait of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster, with an elaborate frame that Jones compared to "a Spanish torture device," they were both stunned. Ishmael said, "That's a perfect example of seeing the JPEG, and it's that classic image of that silhouette head on. But you look at [the original], and there's layers to it."
Danger had the same experience with Heart & Will, Bannon's portrait of Daenerys Targaryen for Games of Thrones. He said, "Even when I saw this piece online, I thought it was digital until I got here and looked at it closer. It's a thousand times better in person than it is online. You're looking at a JPEG and you don't really know what you're looking at, process-wise, and then you get here and go, 'Oh, it's completely hand-splattered.' It's a little eye-opening."
See Jason Edmiston's process of making The Hand of Ming (above) at austinchronicle.com/photos.
Mondo Gallery is at 4115 Guadalupe. The current show, a joint exhibition between Tyler Stout and Ken Taylor, runs through April 6. www.mondotees.com.