Last week, hundreds swarmed a Lower East Side gallery. They diligently lined up to see Bob, Linda, Louise, Tina, Gene, and others from beloved animated series Bob’s Burgers, immortalized within 75 works of art. Inside, the air was warm with bodies and beef (sliders were served all evening courtesy of Bareburger) and a certain delight pervaded the space. The gallery’s back wall was transformed into a life-size version of Bob Belcher’s animated restaurant counter, complete with actual ketchup and mustard bottles.
The place behind the magic is Spoke Art, a San Francisco gallery that just opened up a New York chapter on Rivington Street. The Bob’s Burgers tribute show, which is officially licensed by FOX and production studio Bento Box Entertainment, is their first opening in the space.
Spoke Art calls the show “compelling and universally relatable.” That may seem a bold claim, but it’s certainly one of the only television shows I find the time to watch nowadays. I’ve found it to be a creative inspiration and shining example of innovative family animation, depicting an incredibly strange family without legitimately judging them, using male actors to voice women characters without making it a joke, incorporating wild humor without being crass or lazy, and featuring some genuinely catchy songs. I could go on, but let’s get to the gallery.
Some might see such a show as a cheap way to get average folks into a gallery space—which I’d argue isn’t a bad thing by any means—but when I stepped into the packed room that evening I had a small revelation. This was fanart. A medium typically confined to internet forums and uncool adolescents was now elevated into fine art, and people arrived in droves to come see. Even the voice actors are showing support: John Roberts, who voices Linda Belcher, gave the Daily News a grand tour.
I’m at the point in my life where I can admit to dabbling in the fanart world in my younger days, and the notion of scrawling stylized depictions of your favorite cartoons and frequently sharing them with a community of online strangers was never something to be particularly boasted about to the general public. To see the very same sort of work officially sanctioned by the Bob’s Burgers animation studio and drawing massive (in-person!) crowds gives me some sort of hope. Of course, absent was the type of fan tribute that needs to be shielded from young children (though Stephen Andrade’s “Erotic Zombie Friend Fiction” painting comes close), but there’s a time and a place for that sort of thing.
“I feel there has been a massive shake-up in the art world,” said participating artist and illustrator Conor Langton, whose piece “Ocean Avenue 1932” eschews the familiar animation style of the cartoon in favor of the style of an old daguerreotype, creating a memorable and intricate take on Bob Belcher and his humble restaurant, one that lends a seriousness and legitimacy to it all. Langton is no stranger to Spoke Art, having participated in their other tribute shows, including the recent and successful Wes Anderson tribute show, “Bad Dads.”
He notes that “contemporary pop culture” has always had a hand in the art world, “but it does feel like it has grown hugely recently, as these [pop culture] shows are the hottest selling tickets in town. I think the most obvious reason [for it] is that communities on the internet are creating fan bases which in turn is creating opportunities, which is great news for us illustrators.”
The array of artists represented in the show made for a delightful spread of work. Some more clearly recalled the show’s style and tone, others saw the artist taking the characters into their own hands, like Jill Bencsits’s paper sculpture depicting a coquettish and mature Tina (seen below) or Steve Dressler’s abstract Louise. Some pieces directly referenced certain episodes or quotes, and others could very well exist as standalone pieces that could be enjoyed by anyone, not just someone familiar with the television series.
Most of the pieces were made directly for the art show. This was especially harmonious for artist Emily Connell, who predominantly creates colorful plush art with nods to pop culture. San Diego-based, she had booked a flight to New York three weeks before the show and thought it might be cool to try and exhibit some art while she was there. A week before her flight the fates aligned and she found herself part of the tribute show. She worked feverishly to get her piece done in time, an animatronic plush sculpture of the Belcher children in Gene’s band from the episode “The Frond Files.”
“With the time crunch, there was no room for second-guessing,” Connell told me. “I knew I wanted to create a funny scene with the characters moving about, and the Fart School for the Gifted segment is so hilarious. Part of the song in the episode says ‘Every fart is a work of art,’ so that also seemed perfect for an art show.” Charmingly, it’s not the only plush piece in the show: Steff Bomb’s “Fart Fart Fart Fart” is a soft-goods sculpture of Gene’s iconic keyboard. Who knew farts and stuffed art were such a match?
The idea of a Bob’s Burgers gallery show specifically is actually not a wholly original one. Los Angeles-based Gallery 1988 had a similar show recently. Rather than compete, Spoke Art sought to unite: several works in this Bob’s Burgers show were acquired on loan from the LA gallery, and Spoke NYC’s gallery director Jessica Ross saw this as a way to showcase that work on the East Coast as well.
Ross, who was previously based in San Francisco as the assistant director of Spoke SF, notes that she’s found some differences in how the gallery world operates here as opposed to back west. While both cities are notoriously expensive and gentrifying, Ross tells me she sees “most galleries in SF shutting their doors or moving out of the Bay due to rising rents and a general decline in the arts scene in San Francisco, whereas in NY, there are so many galleries doing so many different and amazing things. Interest is high and therefore a demand for art is there as well.”
Some might argue that the influx of galleries in New York, many not aimed at people not already in the Art World and appearing in communities they do not seek to engage, is pushing other businesses out and fueling the very same gentrification that will lead to their demise. But there’s no denying that interest is high. When I arrived, the line to enter the gallery was a block and a half long and when I left, it had nearly doubled in size. Ross tells me they had thousands of RSVPs on the opening’s Facebook event, and served over 700 sliders to eager patrons that night. And uniquely, some of the art is actually affordable to people who aren’t rollin’ in the dough, with some prints going for $25 to $40 and the entire catalogue now available to view and/or purchase online.
“Spoke Art has always strived to be accessible and bring art to a wide range of people who perhaps wouldn’t normally step foot in a gallery,” added Ross. “We like to blur the lines between what’s considered high and low brow and I think regardless of whether you’re a fan of Bob’s Burgers or pop-culture inspired work in general, there is a high level of skill and talent that graces our walls every month.”
Bob’s Burgers: An Art Show Tribute is on view through October 16 at Spoke Art NYC, 210 Rivington Street. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 11 am to 7 pm.