Kirsten Anderson and Joey Remmers at the opening of “Kingdom Animalia”
Now a stronghold of the New Contemporary art scene, Roq La Rue was founded by a young Kirsten Anderson (full disclosure: Kirsten Anderson is the Editor at Large at Hi-Fructose) in Seattle in 1998 when the idea struck her while working at an art supply store. Since then, the gallery has evolved from its DIY origins to a nationally-recognized art space that showcases work from artists like Josh Keyes, Travis Louie, Femke Hiemstra, Ryan Heshka, Madeline Von Foerster and many others. Kirsten Anderson is credited for proliferating the now widely-used term “Pop Surrealism” with her book Pop Surrealism: The Rise of Underground Art, published in 2004. We spoke with Kirsten about how she has seen the art world evolve in recent years, the origins of Roq La Rue, her wildlife activism and her personal art collection.
Roq La Rue circa 2000
Roq La Rue interior at its new location
What initially drew you to the fine art world? How did you get involved in the gallery business?
I’ve always been drawn to the art world and felt “of” it. My parents were artists and we always had art books lying around and we were brought to museums and such. Art was treated as very much one of the worthiest of things. Getting into the gallery business was a very weird act of serendipity. I was working in an art supply store just kind of lazing around and someone asked me out of the blue, “If you could do anything in the world what would you do?” And I just said “I’d open a gallery.” I had no thoughts previously about it. I had just started reading Juxtapoz and was absolutely in love with everything I saw in the magazine and I wished we could have that art in Seattle. Within two months of saying those words I had a gallery. I found a cheap space in a building that was about to be torn down in 6 months so I got it for next to nothing, I got a mentor in local art legend Larry Reid who I begged for advice and I was given $5000 by my stepdad to make things go. My plan was to be open for the summer and see how it went. 15 years later, with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, we are still here.
You’ve said before that there wasn’t much of an alternative art scene in Seattle when Roq La Rue was founded in 1998. Did moving to another city like LA or New York ever call to you?
Well, there was definitely an alternative art scene in LA, but that’s about the only place it was. Over the years, it spread like crazy but LA is ground zero. I wrestled with moving for a long time, I questioned if the gallery could reach a larger audience perhaps if I were in LA or NY, and I knew I could command a great artist roster. But, to be honest, with the internet being such huge part of my sales, I decided it would be best to stay put. I really love the Northwest, and being here affords me the ability to be extremely discerning about what I exhibit, and I can take more chances, as well. I sell the same as my gallery peers in those cities, and I think that my discernment plays a big role in Roq La Rue’s value to artists, as well as collectors.
Ryan Heshka and Femke Hiemstra
How has the gallery changed Seattle’s art world landscape, so to speak?
Well, originally I was the red headed stepchild here — which was fine with me. I felt the art scene was quite conservative and really attempting to take itself more seriously than warranted. Over the years I think the Roq started to get accorded a certain grudging respect as we kept on hanging in there, and then a sort of admiring disbelief as we started to really sell work. Now Roq La Rue has grown into an established entity, considered a serious, career-launching gallery as opposed to the little scrappy punk upstart we were in the beginning. (This is, of course, about our place in the “art world”, we thankfully always had a big audience with people who were into alternative art and subculture scenes.)
As far as locally, I think there is the thought that if work is “untraditional” or cartoony then I’m sort of obligated to show it, and there is resentment when I don’t, because Roq La Rue is the main thing going up here in terms of any kind of New Contemporary/Pop Surrealism scene. My interest is in showing the very best work period and keeping the bar raised. My hope is that the artists I show are inspirational to local artists, in that different kinds of art are viable in this day and age and if you work really hard and ceaselessly hone your craft you can find an embracing audience.
To be honest, I never looked at Roq La Rue as a “Seattle gallery”. I always operated with the thought we were a national gallery, we just happened to be in Seattle. From the start I showed artists from all over the world and I courted collectors from all over the world. If I had been reliant on Seattle-only sales I’d never have made it. That said, I’ve become a silent partner in a gallery called LxWxH that currently shows almost exclusively Seattle artists so I like to think I’m creating support in that way also.
How would you describe Roq La Rue’s focus as a gallery? How has that evolved over the years?
When we started there was no Pop Surrealism or New Contemporary label — it was all Low Brow. And I was really into the real kitsch pop culture stuff. Hot rod, tiki, surf, tattoo, underground comics, pin-up girl stuff — I loved it all. But that scene started to peter out a bit and through Low Brow’s popularity other things were starting to seep into the scene — someone like Todd Schorr is a good example of what I’m talking about — he’s painting a cartoon caveman, sure, but he’s also expressing allegory and painting like an old master. Everyone in this scene from the start could all paint very well, but there was a subtle shift — away from just doing pop kitsch for it’s own sake, to doing more dreamier, more painterly work that dug a little deeper into the psyche. I started to gravitate to work that was akin in spirit to the Symbolists of the 19th century, but with a modern twist. I myself was always drawn to the darkly beautiful and so that’s the type of work I lean towards. I’m really careful about what I put up — I have to truly believe in it — I don’t throw stuff on the wall to see what sticks, and I’ve turned down money-making shows because I didn’t really “feel” the artists work. We show a lot of animal inspired work — because I love it but also because there is a huge art movement right now that wants to make art that talks about man’s desecration of the world and a longing for a connection to the natural world we’ve lost but pine for, and I think it’s important. I’ve always been a sucker for technical ability. The cleanness and precision of line, of mastering one’s craft is as important to me as an artist’s vision.
Femke Hiemstra and Yumiko Kayukawa
Roq La Rue was one of the first galleries to show low brow and pop surrealist work. Now it seems that these terms are used so widely to describe a huge range of artists and aesthetics, it’s hard to pinpoint their meaning. Do you agree?
Yes, definitely. The label Pop Surrealism is a result of a book I put out in 2004, and even I don’t know if it’s a term anymore. There IS such a huge range of aesthetics that it’s probably better to just call it “art.” I guess there is often a narrative or figurative theme that runs through it and that is what sets it apart from other contemporary art which is still often very conceptual in nature.
Basically, I see Low Brow as the label for work that first came out of Southern California during a certain era which and was more “punk”, working class art — kitschy, provocative, no interest in pleasing art academia at all. That was in the early to mid ’90s and Robert Williams, Anthony Ausgang, Isabelle Samaras, Lisa Petrucci, The Pizz, Shag would all be good examples of this (Robert Williams is a bit different but his work has that bravado I’m talking about).
As time past there was an influx of artists who had been working as illustrators and much of their work brought in a softer, dreamier vibe. Maybe a bit more exploratory then mere culture fetishization. I feel like that is what Pop Surrealism is, with artists like Mark Ryden, Marion Peck, Audrey Kawasaki, Alex Gross… things got prettier and involved more classic painting styles but stayed pretty weird — fantastical without being fantasy.
Now it’s all one big hodge-podge, including the embracing of street art. A multi-headed hydra. There are a handful of us older galleries that at one time all showed the same artists, and it was all Pop Surrealism and Lowbrow. Now everyone, Jonathan Levine, Josh Liner, Copro Nason, Merry Karnowsky, La Luz De Jesus, myself, et cetera, have all gone our own ways and evolved our galleries with varying visions. We are all akin but not really doing the exact same things anymore.
Mark Ryden charity print, “Bunny Cart”
You’re known for being a wildlife activist. Tell us about some of the projects you’ve done with Roq La Rue and other spaces to benefit wildlife organizations.
Thank you for noticing! Wildlife conservation, particularly focused on African elephants, is extremely important to me. The ability to raise money for charity through the gallery is a profound joy and very humbling, truly. The gallery has published 4 prints with Mark Ryden, Camille Rose Garcia, Audrey Kawasaki, and Josh Keyes, which raised a stupendous amount of money — and the artists are to be commended for donating their images and name to the cause. Every cent goes to charity, and I pay out of pocket to have the prints made. I think that having transparency about where the money is going is pretty crucial to a fundraiser being successful, not to mention ethically driven.
Artist Joey Remmers brought me on board to help with a big LA group show last summer called “Kingdom Animalia.” That show raised a goodly sum for Big Life Foundation, which is the current cause I send money towards. It’s a very effective anti-poaching organization that puts something like 96% of money raised into the actual work, vs. administrative and fundraising costs. I keep all those things in mind when picking charities to donate to.
I also hosted a PangeaSeed Art Show which raised funds for raising awareness about the decimation of our oceans, and this January I’m hosting a show to raise funds for cancer research, curated by Robbie Lowery, which is not wildlife related but a good cause anyway!
John Brophy and Josh Keyes at their opening reception at Roq La Rue
Guests at the opening of “Lush Life Four”
Tell us about some of the most memorable exhibitions you’ve had at Roq La Rue.
Hmm… there have been so many over the last 15 years it’s really hard to pick. I always love my “Lush Life” group shows, we’ve done 4 so far. I also loved last year’s “Death and the Maiden” group show, it seemed like a classic “Roq La Rue show”. The Josh Keyes and John Brophy show last year was great as well. Bringing the then unknown Chris Berens in for his first US show and selling it out was pretty special. I had a unusual Fantasy/Sci-Fi Illustrator group show in 2007 co-curated by Travis Louie and myself that I thought was going to flop due to seeming disinterest in the days preceding the show, but then the place was jam packed all night and we sold a huge portion of the art that night. I had a show called “Gods and Monsters” in the real old days that had an amazing magical vibe — everyone was so into it and having a great time, listen to music and looking at art, with people sharing beers, making out, laughing, people getting really affected by the energy of an art show — that was pretty great. We had a book signing with The Clayton Brothers, Joe Sorren and Eric White and gallerists Billy Shire of La Luz De Jesus and Alix Sloan turned up along with Mark Ryden, Marion Peck and Scott Musgrove. Karaoke happened [shudder].
Kirsten Anderson with Hi-Fructose co-founder, Attaboy
Where do you see Roq La Rue going in the next 5 years?
Well, I like this trajectory we are on now, showing more traditional, refined painting with the same outré fantastical subject matter. The artists I show often I plan to keep working with because I’m endlessly amazed by their talent and vision. We are in such a golden age of art right now, with people doing so much good work in so many of the genres we sort of talked about — that I want to be devoted to the artists I really love and feel are pretty important in the big scheme of things.
Roq La Rue Interior
Tell us about your personal art collection. What are your most memorable pieces?
When I was able to afford a Darren Waterston original I was pretty thrilled. I have a piece by Edwin Ushiro of him as a small child with his little orange cat and I have a photo of myself at that age with my orange cat that matches it, so that has some extra sentimental value to me. I have wildlife photos Nick Brandt gave to me to thank me for helping raise money for his foundation Big Life that I treasure. One of my favorite things is a little black and white Halloween drawing Femke Hiemstra did — that purchase kicked off an immensely fulfilling work relationship and close friendship. I have the original Witching Hour painting by John Brophy that just moves me deeply every time I really look at it. I also have works by Chris Berens, Travis Louie, John Brophy, Camille Rose Garcia, Mark Ryden, Marco Mazzoni, Liz McGrath, Lindsey Carr, Jason D’Aquino, Scott Musgrove, Chris Conn Askew, Dan Quintana, Eric Fortune, Glenn Barr, Xiaoqing Ding, Laurie Hogin, Sam Wolfe Connelly, Mia Araujo, Ryan Heshka, …just to name some! I also collect works by NW artists like Patrick Kelly, Amanda Manitach, Robert Hardgrave, Sharon Arnold, Jim Woodring, Derek Nobbs and Jessica McCourt. And then I have some photographs, like a photo of Edie Sedgewick by Billy Name. I’m starting to stack work along the walls so I need a bigger place or something soon. Every wall in my house is hung salon style and I love it.
Kirsten with Collector Long Gone John
Witching Hour by John Brophy
If logistics weren’t an issue and anything was possible, what would be your ultimate dream project or collaboration you’d want to do in the gallery?
Well now, I can’t say too much about that because maybe there are things in the works! I can say that I’d love a museum to bring me on board to curate a show of the crème de la crème of this art scene, an exhibition where sales or other rival gallery considerations weren’t an issue. Now THAT would be a show to end all shows.