The Pop-Up Museum Craze Infiltrates Comic Con, Where the Line Between Art and Merchandise Has Never Been Blurrier

Taking a cue from the Museum of Ice Cream, exhibitors created photo-ready art "experiences" designed for—what else—selfies. (There's even a ball pit.)

The Dragon Ball Z dragon at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.
The Dragon Ball Z dragon at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

New York Comic Con kicked off its 2018 edition yesterday at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, drawing legions of comic fans to the city’s far West Side. Known for its potent mix of art, collectibles, cosplay, and pop culture, this year’s con also reflected a broader art-world trend, with several booths that were clearly looking to capitalize on the pop-up museum phenomenon.

Even more than at your typical fine art fair, there can be great disparities between exhibitors at the Con. Consider the massive booth of Alex Ross—the official Marvel art gallery once likened him to “the Norman Rockwell of comics.”

His display is visible across the convention center thanks to a four-sided sign suspended from the ceiling. On the other hand, at the tiny tables in Artists Alley, artists man their own booths to sell their wares.

A Ross painting could run you thousands of dollars, compared to $20 prints of digital paintings by Lothlenan, created in Photoshop on a Cintiq tablet. Several of the latter artist’s works are based on art historical masterpieces but feature popular characters from video games and television shows. There’s a version of The Scream by Edvard Munch, starring the cast of Rick and Morty, and Princess Peach from the Mario video games appears in Johannes Vermeer’s The Girl With the Pearl Earring.

Alex Ross's booth at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Alex Ross’s booth at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

The series was inspired by a masters study of Thomas Gainsborough while she was in school. “I got a little bored halfway through and decided to switch things up,” the artist, whose real name is Andrea Tamme, told artnet News. A self-described art history buff, she tries to find characters who are a good match to the Old Masters. Gustav Klimt’s gilded The Kiss, for instance, was a perfect fit for Howl’s Moving Castle because the main character often transformed into a raven-like monster who hoards shiny things.

Artists Alley is a wonderful place to meet artists, and even see them at work. In a scene almost unimaginable at blue-chip art fairs, many of the artists will even make you a piece on the spot, creating custom pen and ink drawings of superheroes and other characters and tearing out the page from their sketchbook for you to take home.

Lothlenan's version of Gustav Klimt's The Kiss featuring characters from Howl's Moving Castle. Courtesy of the artist.

Lothlenan’s version of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss featuring characters from Howl’s Moving Castle. Courtesy of the artist.

On the other hand, the line between fine art and merchandise can be blurry at Comic Con. Euge, an artist and illustrator, has become something of a viral sensation with his creation Puglie Pug, an adorable food-loving dog he invented in 2014. “I just wanted to draw fat, stupid things,” he told artnet News. “Puglie made me happy, and lo and behold, a bunch of other people ended up liking him too.”

Two years ago, the company For Fans by Fans approached Euge about creating Puglie Pug merchandise. The character now has over 21,000 Instagram followers, and a line of stuffed animals, clothing, and other toys and goods that ranges from $4 to $45—plus a $6,000 inflatable version of the dog that towers over the booth.

The author and her brother posing in the Puglie Pug dog house at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

The author and her brother posing in the Puglie Pug dog house at New York Comic Con. Photo courtesy of Sarah Cascone.

There’s also a larger-than-life Puglie doghouse full of inflatable donuts that con-goers can pose for photos in. It was created for “Puglie: The World Is Your Donut,” the character’s first exhibiton, held at Gallery Nucleus in Los Angeles this summer. The dog house was just one of a number of interactive experiences that Euge willingly admitted were inspired by the Museum of Ice Cream.

“A traditional gallery where you look at paintings is nice,” said Euge, “but I want it to be an experience of joy and happiness, and maybe a bit of ‘what the fuck is this?'”

The author and her brother posing in <em>Bananya</em> ball pit at New York Comic Con. Photo courtesy of Sarah Cascone.

The author and her brother posing in Bananya ball pit at New York Comic Con. Photo courtesy of Sarah Cascone.

He wasn’t the only exhibitor looking to cash in on the current craze for pop-up museums and their interactive photo ops. The television network Paramount—formerly SpikeTV—has brought in real school bus decked out in ’80s style in honor of the new television show Heathers, based on the cult favorite Winona Ryder movie from 1988. And anime streaming service crunchyroll had set up a swimming pool-sized ball pit full of some 850 plushie Bananya dolls—a Japanese character of an alien cat who lives in a banana.

Other exhibitors, like Andrew L. Swartz, who makes paintings on wood and resin-coated acrylic works with metallic pigments, are artists in a more traditional vein. He shows frequently at outdoor fine art festivals, but “this is more my crowd,” he told artnet News. “I taught myself how to draw doing anime fan art in high school.”

“Sometimes I feel pressure to do more fan art-related things,” Swartz admitted, “but I try to get inspiration from as many places as I can.” His works range from $200 to $6,000.

Andrew Swartz, <Em>The Silver Cord</em> (2018). Photo courtesy of the artist/Skullgarden.

Andrew Swartz, The Silver Cord (2018). Photo courtesy of the artist/Skullgarden.

Another welcome discovery was artist Anne Kirn, who sells her handmade plush sculptures under the name House of Darkly. Her adorable anthropomorphized tacos and potato chips recall the work of British artist Lucy Sparrow, but Kirn’s been creating these pieces for 10 years.

“I learned how to sew doing cosplay,” Kirn told artnet News. Eventually, the stress of the competition got to her. “It wasn’t a hobby anymore, so I started doing plush.”

Anne Kirn with her House of Darkly booth at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Anne Kirn with her House of Darkly booth at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

The stuffed artworks, which also include cheerful cacti, monsters, and other foodstuffs—”people have a lot of strong emotions about food,” she added—are priced between $12 and $85.

See more photos of Comic Con below.

A costumed guest at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

A costumed guest at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Artist Euge and his booth for Puglie Pug at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Artist Euge and his booth for Puglie Pug at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Costumed guests at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Costumed guests at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

A school bus for the show <em>Heathers</em> at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

A school bus for the show Heathers at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Anne Kirn's plushies at her House of Darkly booth at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Anne Kirn’s plushies at her House of Darkly booth at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Artist Andrew Swartz at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Artist Andrew Swartz at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Costumed guests at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Costumed guests at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Anne Kirn's plushies at her House of Darkly booth at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Anne Kirn’s plushies at her House of Darkly booth at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Andrea Tamme, who goes by Lothlenan, at Artists Alley at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

Andrea Tamme, who goes by Lothlenan, at Artists Alley at New York Comic Con. Photo by Sarah Cascone.

New York Comic Con is on view at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, 655 West 34th Street, New York, October 4–7, 2018.


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