On Friday, March 7, Gallery1988 in Los Angeles will present the opening of VelvetMania — a new art show featuring one-of-a-kind paintings of WWE legends on black velvet. The show is a collaboration between former WWE producer Jensen Karp and renowned artist Bruce White, and represents a collision of two of Karp’s passions: unique artwork and pro wrestling.
Karp, an LA native, went from a major label hip hop career as rapper Hot Karl to a creative role with WWE in 2006. He now owns Hollywood’s Gallery1988 — an art gallery specializing in everything pop culture. WWE.com spoke with Jensen to learn about how he connected with Mr. McMahon and the amazing sports-entertainment-themed artwork that he’s presenting.
WWE.COM: When did you work for WWE?
JENSEN KARP: It was a six to seven month period in 2006 during the Vince [& Shane McMahon] vs. Shawn Michaels & God match. I produced a lot of stuff with The Spirit Squad and I did a lot of the God stuff.
WWE.COM: Did your career as a rapper in any way lead you to WWE, or was it completely separate?
KARP: Completely distant. I got this huge record deal with Interscope and I put out an album. At the end of it, rapping wasn’t really what I wanted to do. It was fun and a great experience, but it wasn’t necessarily a job for me. I found myself in a weird circumstance. I had just graduated from [University of Southern California] for writing and had a background in comedy at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. I had been trying to do stand-up before I got the record deal as Hot Karl, so my agent from when I was a rapper said WWE was hiring. I met with Stephanie, and next thing you know, I’m moving to Stamford.
WWE.COM: What are some of your favorite moments from your time as a WWE producer?
KARP: One of my favorite memories that I’ve ever had in my life is being on the private jet with Vince. I loved working for Vince so much. I really did. At one point on the jet, for some reason, he just turned around and asked a bunch of us what our first matches were, which was a crazy moment for me. I had seen Adrian Adonis fight Hulk Hogan at the Sports Arena in LA. It was one of the first memories I had growing up, and it was sort of a big deal. The cool part was Vince remembered the date of that match and told me it was a big deal to him as well. He had so many stories for why he knew everything about it. Just to see that it meant as much to me as it did to Vince was once of the craziest moments I’ve ever had in my life.
WWE.COM: How did you end up starting Gallery1988?
KARP: I was a fan of pop culture and I didn’t understand why so many 20 to 30-year-old artists weren’t able to sell pop culture artwork in pompous traditional art galleries. If an artist is influenced by Nintendo and integrates it into paintings, I don’t see a difference between that and a canvas with a yellow dot that you’re selling for $50,000. Who’s to say what’s art?
WWE.COM: How has the gallery grown since its founding?
KARP: We have an annual show in New York City called Crazy for Cult where a hundred artists create pieces based on classic cult movies, whether it’s “The Big Lebowski” or “Willy Wonka.” We worked with “Lost” during the final season of the show, and “Breaking Bad.” Next month is our 10-year anniversary. We deal with so many first-time buyers and first-time gallery artists. It’s all about paying tribute to pop culture and showing the creativity that is spawned from creativity. It’s been a really fun ride.
WWE.COM: Has the gallery had pro wrestling pieces prior to VelvetMania?
KARP: Zero, nothing, not one. I take WWE very seriously and I respect the business and the company. There are so many things I would never do, because it doesn’t feel like it’s the exact right tribute.
WWE.COM: So how did VelvetMania come about?
KARP: We had a show two years ago that was inspired by classic video games. Bruce White wanted to do that show, but he just didn’t know what to paint. Bruce is world-renowned for his velvet paintings, because his technique is so incredible up-front. It just looks so real. His technique is a secret in the trade. Other velvet painters want to know how he does it and it’s not really public knowledge. So, he’s not really a guy that could paint Mario. It’s not realistic enough.
WWE.COM: And you thought painting Superstars would be a better way to go?
KARP: Well, he said, “You know, one my favorite video games were those old wrestling games like Royal Rumble and WrestleFest.” After that video game show, he created this small “Macho King.” It was an original painting on velvet. It was incredible. I told him we would do a full wrestling show if it sold within 10 minutes, and it did, so he was pretty much stuck in the deal with me [laughs]. I sent him my favorite wrestlers and now you sort of see what the results are.
WWE.COM: The ones that have leaked on the Internet are guys who are really recognizable, like The Ultimate Warrior and Bret Hart. Who are some of the more unique Superstars in VelvetMania?
KARP: I didn’t want to go with a lot of the jokey ones. There are a couple in the show where you’ll go, “Oh my God, that guy’s here?” But we’re not trying to go with the ones that you laugh at all the time. We really paid tribute to the people we really like with these paintings. They’re all original, one-of-a-kind and all in black velvet. We’ve been calling them historical portraits, which they are. There’s so much love in each of them. It’s almost a hall of fame if you grew up watching in the ’80s and ’90s. But we do have Giant Gonzales and Zeus.
WWE.COM: What’s your personal favorite piece?
KARP: Well, my favorite wrestler of all time is “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan. I loved him so much growing up. I wanted to bring my comedy training to my time working at WWE. Jim Duggan inspired me so much, because I learned you could pull on heartstrings, be funny and also be a tough wrestler. He was still around on the roster when I was at WWE, and he was so kind and polite. I told him he was my favorite when I was a kid, and he seemed to really revel in it.
WWE.COM: Who are some of the current WWE Superstars who might make for good black velvet artwork down the line?
KARP: Guys like Koko B. Ware are great, because he’s got this great colorful bird on his shoulder. But at the same time, guys like Mr. Perfect are just him being him. That attitude comes off of the canvas so well. When you see people nowadays like Bray Wyatt and The Wyatt Family, you know what you’re in for. And that’s what was so cool about these ’80s and ’90s nostalgic wrestlers. When you look at a Curt Henning painting, you might not know much about him, but you know he’s cocky, and that cockiness comes through the velvet painting. Guys like Bray Wyatt and obviously Daniel Bryan are personalities that can jump off the page.
VelvetMania opens at Gallery1988, 7308 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA, tonight at 7:00PM Pacific time with the reception running until 10:00PM. The paintings are for sale, and will be on display through the end of the month.