Originally Published May 2, 2007
For video game fans, aficionados, addicts and those who are fortunate enough to remember the 99-lives code to Contra, the art exhibit “iam8bit” is an aesthetic trip down pixilated memory lane.
The 8-bit, video game-inspired art pieces in the show at the 1988 Gallery on Melrose Avenue bring observers to a time when Pac-Man passed the torch of crowd favorites on to Mario. As opposed to today’s multitude of different video game consoles with eight-button controllers shaped to fit the contour of a gamer’s hand, all people needed back then was a small rectangle, and the only buttons that mattered were A and B.
Now in its third year, the 200-piece exhibit opened April 17 and drew more than 1,700 people on opening night, the biggest crowd since “iam8bit” first kicked off in 2003. Art from the first and second installment of the show has been compiled in a book with the same name as the exhibit and is the main reason the number of show visitors increases each year.
“This has always been our biggest show,” gallery co-owner Jon Gibson said.
More than 100 artists contributed with different takes on their favorite or most intriguing aspects of 8-bit gaming. The wide range of the pieces pulls characters of the genre out of the seizure-inducing environment of a television screen and into a new world. The artists throw the game-given roles of hero or villain out the window and revamp their digital identities into art.
“You see all kinds of (art) in this exhibit you never thought about (with) video games,” Gibson said, referring to the variety of approaches taken by the artists in respective pieces. “How many times can you see Mario? The answer is pretty obvious when looking around the gallery-millions.”
Martin Cendreda’s “The Hunters Become the Hunted,” an ink illustration done on Bristol board, shows Pac-Man being chased by the ghosts as he frantically gobbles up white balls in the first two rows. Pac-Man turns the tables on his adversaries after eating the bigger white ball that transforms him into the predator. The transformation is perfectly depicted with the ghosts sweating as they attempt an escape from Pac-Man’s serrated jaws.
Dave Chung’s “Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right?WHAT?!” brought forth the sense of adventure that comes with defending the world against the threat of aliens – not the illegal ones, but the pop-out-of-your-stomach ones. Chung’s oil painting of the red and blue twin soldiers of the Contra video game depicts them exerting their arsenal to defeat the tentacle-waving alien villain.
“This is really cool. I have never seen such good art based on video games before,” said art lover Giovanni Galvan as he admired Chung’s painting.
Other artists took a more light-hearted approach to the artwork, recalling the joys of button mashing and the sweet taste of a video game victory, and magnifying the apparent and sometimes forgotten silliness of it all.
Jen Rarey captures the essence of fun in her piece, titled “BURGERTIMERS,” which is a plush rendition of a typical scene in the video game “Burgertime.” In the painting, the main character, chef Peter Pepper, is being chased by his edible foes, Mr. Hotdog, Mr. Egg and Mr. Pickle.
Whether it is the mixed-media glass-and-canvas piece of Princess Toadstool offering false promises of relationships to Mario and Luigi, the painting of Link and Zelda taking photo booth pictures with the Tri-force, or the 150-figurine set of two-inch-tall video game characters made with clay, one thing is certain: Every artist involved had a great time making these works of art.
“That is what this is all about,” Gibson said. “We are not looking for a Rembrandt version of Mario or anything like that. This isn’t some elitist type of thing where we are trying to be snobby about the art. We just want to have fun.”