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SXSW 2012 Interview: Justin Ishmael, on the opening of the Mondo Gallery

This weekend, there were a ton of things that you could’ve been doing on Saturday afternoon in Austin, TX: the 2012 SXSW Film Festival was in full swing, with something like 90 movies available to badgeholders; celebrity encounters were to be had all over downtown; there was drinking to do, restaurants to frequent, panel discussions to attend at the Austin Convention Center. Any of these options would’ve been great, of course, but the biggest draw of the day was—without question—the opening of the Mondo Gallery just north of downtown. Wanna know what the opening was like, what new prints were made available, and what Mondo’s creative director, Justin Ishmael, has to say about the company’s new headquarters? Read on for the news, my gentle Examiner readers....

Images from prints and original pieces hanging inside the just-opened Mondo Gallery in Austin, TX.
Images from prints and original pieces hanging inside the just-opened Mondo Gallery in Austin, TX.Various
Justin Ishmael (far left) inside the just-opened Mondo Gallery in Austin, TX
Justin Ishmael (far left) inside the just-opened Mondo Gallery in Austin, TXcollider.com

This year’s SXSW Film Festival has been one of the biggest yet, with world premieres of21 Jump Street (hilarious), Casa de mi Padre, Cabin in The Woods (holy crap are you gonna love it) and more screening over the course of the festival’s eight-day timeframe. Yes, downtown Austin has been a massive cluster(bleep) since the festival started this past Friday--with a filled-to-capacity screening of Drew Goddard’s Cabin—but the most discussed, most popular, hottest-ticket of the entire festival thus far had to have been the opening of the Mondo Gallery on Saturday afternoon.

The lead-up to the opening had occurred over the past few weeks, starting with a batch of (typically, for Mondo) mysterious invitations that offered up a set of geographical co-ordinates, a Tyler Stout sketch of the ear-worm-thingamajig from Wrath of Kahn, a time, and about three dozen sets of initials. Photos of these invites quickly made their way online, at which time Justin Ishmael—Mondo’s creative director—made it official: the Mondo Gallery was set to open on March 10th, and though the physical invites were for an earlier, private opening, a public opening would be held at 6pm…and everyone was invited.

All of a sudden, people who’d had no intention of being in Austin during SXSW 2012 were making travel arrangements. Over on ExpressoBeans.com—a great site for art collectors that also plays home base to a large number of Mondo superfans—people were making plans to get in line the day before, while others made offers to bring by hot coffee, beer, and other vital “line supplies” (those good samaritans all deserve a round of applause, by the way). In short, before SXSW 2012 had even begun, the opening of the Mondo Gallery had already become the weekend’s must-attend event. That’s pretty incredible, given all the other mind-blowingly awesome stuff unfolding downtown on Saturday.

When we arrived (for the 3pm opening), a line of dedicated Mondo super-fans—presumably the EB guys—were huddled against the front of the Gallery itself. These guys looked pretty anxious to get inside, which seems more than reasonable: some of them had been waiting since the previous night, a fact that’s all the more impressive when you consider that a torrential downpour—and a 45-degree chill—hit the town on Friday afternoon. Turns out, these guys were well rewarded for their dedication: if what I’ve heard is correct, these guys had first crack at Olly Moss’ exclusive, only-100-in-existence Dr. Who print, and it’s a doozy.

For a Mondo superfan such as myself, walking into the Gallery was instant sensory overload: all-white walls and polished wood floors, new prints and original pieces hanging on every wall. The place was gorgeous, exceeding any expectation I might’ve had: a massive Ming The Merciless (from Flash Gordon) portrait adorned one wall, Tyler Stout’s newly-released Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Kahn hung on another, and Martin Ansin’s jawdropping Brazil was stopping everyone in their tracks. A small bar offered up vodka punch, while—near the back of the Gallery itself—Mondo’s Mo (accompanied by a team of hurried yet, somehow-never-overwhelmed co-workers) manned the purchase counter.

After a brief look around, it seemed prudent to get in line for prints. We’ve got some photos of the just-released prints for you over on the left, which include Ansin’s Brazil, Stout’s Wrath of Kahn, and a bunch of other amazing new pieces. Anyone who’d been hoping for a massive print-drop at this opening did not leave disappointed (nor did they leave with any money left in their bank accounts: let the record show that the grand I’d set aside for this opening was gone almost immediately), and everyone I spoke with was enormously impressed by the Gallery itself.

Indeed, Mondo’s fashioned itself a truly impressive new headquarters, and I was curious to see what Ishmael—who stuck around through both openings, greeting fans and looking like a proud new father the entire time—had to say about the opening. Did it go as smoothly as he’d hoped? What’d he think of the fans that slept out overnight to be the first in line for the public opening? Were there any hurdles to jump on the way to opening the Gallery’s doors? Here’s what he had to say when we spoke earlier this weekend:

EXAMINER: Thus far, the response to the opening has been pretty amazing: people have been trying to guess what'd be happening here for weeks now, scheduling trips across the country and planning their entire SXSW weekend around this. Hell, you've even got people camping out! I'm sure you expected the response to be big, but did you really think it'd get this crazy? It's like a new Star Wars movie is opening here...

JUSTIN ISHMAEL: I am always so happy with the support we receive for events that we put on. Sometimes, we'll tell people our plans for future projects and they'll be like, "Oh... no brainer. That's going to turn out great." Well, as much as everyone thought that this gallery idea was going to be a slam dunk, we were all pretty nervous about how people would respond to it. A lot could've gone wrong with it, so I'm very glad that everyone was satisfied with what we offered up.

Has the build-up only made you more excited to share what you've put together with Mondo's fanbase, or has the response made you feel more pressured to deliver something amazing? Or is it some combination of the two?

JI: I like the pressure, honestly. It makes things better. I like to push what we do and the things we get to work on and with high expectations comes a better product. Everyone steps up! It's an amazing feeling to put something out and have people say, "They pulled it off!"

I imagine putting this together took a lot of work. Can you talk a little about the process, what went into it and how long it's been in development?

JI: We have been wanting to do a gallery as far back as 3 years ago. We just now decided that the time was right because our shipping center (under theater #2 at the Alamo’s South Lamar location) had proved to be inadequate for our needs. We have a lot more stuff to ship, and it was getting too cramped. We looked for a very long time for spaces and considered the place to the right of Nice Kicks on Guadalupe, which is now the Guzu Gallery next to Austin Books on Lamar. We decided against both as parking was pretty brutal in those areas and we felt that the space wasn’t the proper size. We didn't need some 10,000 square feet... we just needed something simple and around 1500-2000 sq ft. I love the gallery space; it feels like home. The design was pretty straightforward. We wanted all white everything and wood floors. I decided that I wanted it to be pretty much the exact opposite of how we did the store in S. Lamar. I had a good portion of my toy collection there so it was very busy and the walls were black. The only similarities we have is the Medusa chandelier. I got Adam Wallacavage to do one for us so we could have some kind of theme/ connection from the old store to the new. I loved the way it turned out.

What were some of the unforeseen challenges you had while putting this together?

JI: Everything ran pretty smooth considering it all got built and put together on the construction end in less than two months! I never got any calls like, "the foundation is bad" or "this pipe broke and got water all over." It was a very painless process. The only unseen challenge really was how we were going to handle the line. I've been to shows where they just fill the entire gallery so you're shoulder to shoulder and it's hot and miserable. You can't move... it's loud.... it's awful. We purposely only let about 25-30 people in at a time so they could actually enjoy things and look at the art.

When the VIP invitations went out, people seemed to figure out what the little creature on the invite was fairly quickly. One thing they couldn't figure out, though, were the initials: there's been some Da Vinci Code-style stuff going on with those over the past few weeks. Can you give us the correct explanation?

JI: Yeah. I love doing fun things that give away what we're doing, but is not at first obvious. So, I'm a big fan of the comic called RED WING that Jonathan Hickman wrote recently. I was fond of the first issue where it was just a white screen with a broken pilot's helmet at the bottom. We put the Ceti Eel there from Tyler to hint at his involvement and his WRATH OF KHAN poster, but that was really just to signify that this was a sci-fi show. That was the theme. On the VIP/ Press invites, we actually put the coordinates of the gallery on them instead of the physical address to further the sci-fi vibe. The letters were initials of all of the artists in the show. We sent the invites out with a wax seal. I had always wanted to do one as I thought the signet ring in DUNE was always so cool. I was watching GAME OF THRONES recently and they sent a letter and put the house stamp on to seal it and I decided it was time to make that happen. I could go on and on about how awesome it was to see the final product and figure out how to actually apply the wax, stamp it, etc. But I won't bore you guys with that.

You’ve got some really amazing prints for sale here today. Is this the biggest drop you guys have ever done?

JI: It's pretty big. I think it may be the most amount of things we've had for sale at once, yeah.

What are the plans for the Gallery going forward: is the place going to be open every day, every week, during drops? Will people be able to buy new prints here on the regular, or will you continue to limit poster drops to online-only?

JI: We're going to have very specific hours. 12-6pm Wednesday- Saturday. We'll be shipping out of it and using it for office-ing, but it is our permanent home. I've heard some people saying that it was a pop-up store, but that's not the case. It's home sweet home now. We'll be having recurring shows almost monthly, so something new will always be coming out.

I’ve been back to the Gallery twice now since it opened (somehow, I missed a few prints on my first two trips through the space), and on all three occasions I’ve been struck by the site’s elegant design. If you’re ever in the Austin area and you’re a fan of what Mondo does, I strongly recommend that you swing by and check the place out: even if you’re not looking to buy anything, Mondo’s got some really amazing artwork on display, and if the company changes up their layout as often as Ishmael says they intend to, it’ll make the space a destination spot worth revisiting…and frequently.

What do you guys think? Impressed with the new prints? Eager to visit the Gallery yourselves? Still finding it hard to pick your jaws up off the floor after seeing Ansin’s Brazil? Sound off in the comments section below, and stay tuned for more from SXSW 2012 as the week continues!

Stay tuned for more from the 2012 SXSW Film Festival, folks! We're going to have a ton of reviews, interviews, and on-site reports for you over the next week, including looks at 21 Jump Street (click for review), Just Like Being There, V/H/S, The Impostor, the opening of the Mondo Gallery (where we'll have an interview with Mondo creative director Justin Ishmael) and much, much more! Get "Subscribed" up top right now so you don't miss anything else!

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