What if Kanye made a song about Kanye? Kanye West pontificated on “I Love Kanye,” the Life of Pablo freestyle that confirmed just how wholly aware Kanye is of the pop-culture mystique he’s created around his own identity. He’d either love or hate (but probably love) Kanye Loves Kanye, the new pop-up exhibition that opens today in Los Angeles showcasing the work of more than 50 artists unified by one compelling theme: Kanye.
After all, West made his own Werner Herzog-approved “Famous” video without the express participation of all the celebs splayed nude, in a giant bed, opposite sleeping doppelgangers of himself and Kim Kardashian—and then turned it into an art exhibit. In Kanye Loves Kanye, visitors are invited to enter a sacred space of Kanye-worship to either spiritually commune with or just gawk at images of Yeezy, as interpreted by dozens of different artists.
“The viewer will walk into a space, incense burning, Tibetan monk music playing in the background to create this religious experience,” creator-curator Matty Mo told The Daily Beast. The L.A.-based artist behind the viral “Selfie” mural in Venice and The Springs polka dots, who goes by the moniker The Most Famous Artist, grinned as he described what was in store for the curious who catch the show timed to coincide with West’s Los Angeles Life of Pablo tour stops this week.
“Yeezus is laid at your feet and viewers will enter one or two at a time so that it becomes a sort of sanctuary,” he said. “What will also start to happen as a result of that is a long line will start to form, which is very much Kanye West, creating this idea of waiting—of anticipation.”
The Kanye Loves Kanye collection opens its arms today to the public in what Mo describes as an equal-opportunity exhibition for West fans and critics alike. “Kanye enthusiasts or haters can revel or find disgust in the madness that is this… thing,” Mo said, an impish glint in his eye, guiding me through the converted warehouse standing in as a staging studio for the exhibition.
Fifty-odd pieces of starkly contrasting Kanye art were laid out on the bare concrete floor, ranging from more traditional painted portraits to mixed-media collage to woodwork. Colorful paintings of the old Kanye, the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye. Kanye standing against the American flag. Kanye as Pablo. Kanye as Warhol. Kanye as Kim K. Kanye kissing Kim in the style of Picasso, their faces melting lovingly into one another’s.
Plastic Jesus’s Yeezus, depicting Kanye as Jesus on a cross, sat a few feet away from a portrait of West made with Tootsie Roll wrappers. “He’s really innovative,” Mo said of the artist. “But he may not have gotten the recognition or the distribution he wanted off this one piece. But as part of a whole, he gets credit for being the guy who uses Tootsie Pops.”
A piece by Simply Sara Art made out of United States Postal Service stickers has already racked up over a million views from a making-of video the artist posted online last month. Popular digital collage artist Johnny Smith’s contribution imagines Kanye as a woman with breasts also made out of Kanye.
One of the collection’s few multimedia pieces features West, hands clasped in prayer, painted onto an aging beige seatbelt—a reference to the 2002 car accident that famously left the then-producer badly injured, requiring doctors to wire his jaw shut. Two weeks later, West recorded his breakout hit “Through the Wire,” the track that earned him his first Grammy nomination as a solo rap artist the year his debut LP The College Dropout won Best Rap Album of the Year. Ten feet away rested a painting by a different artist depicting West, battered and bruised, convalescing in the hospital shortly afterward.
It all started with two Kanye paintings in Mo’s personal collection, on a wall in his own home nearby in downtown Los Angeles’s Arts District. Mo, a former digital marketing startup exec, had long been taken with certain ideas of celebrity, fame, and the internet. “If you look at Pop Art and the icons that were used as imagery for artists like Andy Warhol, Marilyn comes to mind. So many artists have recreated Marilyn as this icon of celebrity from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and beyond. But I think in the internet age Kanye West has a similar type of celebrity cachet. What I wanted hanging in my house was a portrait of Kanye that was abstract and interesting.”
He commissioned artist MR Herget to paint a portrait of West in his own style. Mo hung the black on white Herget piece in his office and posted it on Instagram to his own 152,000 followers. The Kanye piece prompted another artist, Iwan Roberts, to reach out. Once Mo had two iconic Kanye originals in his possession, the idea to build something far greater in ‘Ye’s image took root. He put out a call for more artist submissions seeking Kanye works across a vast spectrum of aesthetic styles, media, and varying levels of renown—artists “with 100 followers, all the way up to 150,000 followers.”
You’ve definitely seen some of these Kanye art pieces around the internet. The best of them have an innate viral quality, like Calen Blake’s tongue-in-buttcheek Kimye design envisioning Ye’s grinning mug on Kim’s nude internet-breaking Paper magazine cover pose. Technically they’ve all been donated to the Kanye Loves Kanye collection in exchange for the exposure a trendy group show like this might bring, although some artists have planned ahead and will be selling limited prints on site.
Mo selected an assortment of artwork from hundreds of candidates, and is still accepting new submissions on the show’s website. He says he shied away from the excessively negative ones. “I know there’s a little bit of sarcasm in some of these pieces,” he said, glancing at Blake’s Kimye, “but I wanted it to be something he could look at and appreciate, and not find that it was something that was making fun of him—because that’s not the intention.”
“What I like about Kanye is his confidence,” said Mo. “When you’re a kid and you’re told you’re great you live up to that expectation. You get to be what you say you are.” With that nod to Kanye’s close relationship with his late mother, Donda West, Mo says he would possibly like to link up with the foundation named in her honor to auction off the collection for charity.
Mo envisions it as just the start of a more permanent collection and is looking for a sponsor to partner with to send it traveling the world. He doesn’t hide the fact that he was inspired as much by Kanye’s reach as an artist and persona as his own mission to use online platforms like social media to amplify exposure for himself and other artists. Using the internet to market in the name of art, he says, “is the primary tenet of my existence... I think of myself as both a Larry Gagosian and a Jeff Koons.”
He hopes that Kanye himself would appreciate the enterprising spirit of Kanye Loves Kanye, but hasn’t heard back yet on the invitation he extended to West and his people. “The belief is that there was no such thing as ‘a most famous artist’ before the internet existed,” he said. “But now we’re all connected and whoever’s best at getting their art into the news feed ultimately becomes the most famous artist.”
Warhol, he says, “made himself a Marilyn by using Marilyn.” Even Kim K’s turned celebrity itself into an art form, Mo admitted. “Art is using the tools of your time to tell the stories of your time with nods to the greats.”
The other night, Mo had a dream that Kanye and Kim came to see Kanye Loves Kanye. The offer stands, should Yeezy like to have his own private tour. “I’m a big believer in the universe providing,” he offers. “If this exhibition doesn’t turn out to be the one he stops by, I hope eventually that he does see this work and appreciate it for all the hours of creativity that a community of people put into it. Man, it would be so cool if I got a picture with Kanye West out of this.”
Kanye Loves Kanye runs October 25-26, from 11am to 4pm, at 1820 Industrial Street in the Arts District of Downtown Los Angeles.