Images courtesy of the Costacos Brothers and Adam Shopkorn.
Images courtesy of the Costacos Brothers and Adam Shopkorn.
The line between art and artifact is in a different place for everyone, naturally. But even during their heyday during the 1980s, when everything was strange and most of the people who had them hanging in their rooms were not yet up on the whole high-brow/low-brow thing, there was something strange—simultaneously too literal and gonzo-grade abstract—about the sports posters produced by the Seattle-based Costacos Brothers. When everyone else in the game was making posters featuring athletes in action, John and Tock Costacos were dressing James Worthy in a suit and posing him in a glossy law office, having Michael Jordan dunk on the surface of Mars, and getting Jerry Rice to do whatever he's doing (bawse-ing, I think) in the poster above.
The posters sold well, but were irretrievably of their time, and not just because no one is really doing things quite as weird as what everyone was doing in the 1980s. As brand management ate away at the goofball sense of humor behind, say, Kenny Easley suiting up as a rough trade-y enforcer next to a pile of detonated football uniforms, the Costacos Brothers aesthetic became increasingly untenable. By 1990, the nutty renaissance was over.
Or it was until Adam Shopkorn, a curator and fan of the Costacos ouevre, mounted a gallery show called "For The Kids" in New York, at the gallery Salon 94 Freemans, in the summer of 2011. The show, which also featured some sports poster "appropriations" by porny creep/art-brand Jeff Koons, was a success, and now Shopkorn has brought it to Los Angeles's Country Club Projects, where it opens on January 21 and will run until March 4. The Koons posters are still in New York—"We couldn't get Koons to let them leave New York," Shopkorn says, "but actually, when it was in New York, the Koons stuff didn't resonate like the Costacos posters did. People just saw that they were Nike, and that they were cool." I spoke to Shopkorn about the Costacos brothers, the show, and why it was a good idea to ask Brian Bosworth to do this.
Anyone who remembers seeing a poster of Lester Hayes dressed as an old-timey judge or Kenny Easley dressed as... I don't know, a character from William Friedkin's Cruising knows that this is a good idea for a show. But where did the idea to do this show come from? And how does one go about curating an art show built around goofy old sports posters?
I love sports and I love art, so I'm a sucker for anything that combines the two. But I wasn't the first to come up with this. Jeff Koons walked into Nike HQ in the early 1980's and was fascinated by the sports posters they had on display. These were works like: Dr Dunkenstein, Dynasty on 34th Street and Sir Sid (Sidney Moncrief). Jeff asked Nike if he could he take the posters, frame them and call them his own, as an appropriation. Nike did not seem to have a problem with this.
So I've always been into that body of work, which Jeff called the "Nike Posters." Jeff's works also sell for like a zillion dollars and for some reason this body of work seems to be some of the least expensive works of his in the marketplace. I always wondered why this was. Do people not understand the work? Do they not care for sports or do they think it's absurd to spend 50 grand on a Nike Poster that Jeff has called his own? So that's the high-brow piece of the equation.
Then came the Costacos Brothers. This was work I grew up with in my room as a kid. Work that I pinned or scotch-taped to my bedroom wall. Work that cost no more than five bucks at your local sporting goods store and work that was certainly not precious.
I like to combine the high and the low and I wanted to bring the Costacos Brothers work to the art gallery from kids' bedrooms. The works are essentially all grown up, as are the kids that once lived with them.
The more I looked at the breadth of the brothers early work, the more I realized that I needed to show them all under one roof. They're goofy old sports posters, but the more time you spend looking at them, the better and more serious they become. And they have really held up over time. Yes, they're kitschy. Yes, they're ridiculous. But they're also very clever. The graphic design elements, things like the font of the players nicknames, were really forward thinking. We've had graphic designers come into the show just to see the different fonts, and to see a body of work that was created pre-photoshop.
So I figured that the Costacos Brothers work deserved to be reevaluated or shown in a different context, and I chose the contemporary art gallery.
This seems like a total minefield in terms of rights and such. Can we assume this wasn't as simple as just pinning the posters up to the wall of a gallery, was it?
It really was as simple as just installing the works on the walls of the gallery. We reached out to the company that currently owns the Costacos Brothers poster name and they did not seem to have a problem with what I wanted to do. But we most certainly asked them first. The company has been bought and sold quite a few times over the past 15 years or so and it has not been that easy figuring out who owns the rights to what.
Also, I went out into the marketplace and acquired a lot of their early works through third party sources. So a lot of the work is my property and I've spun them back out into the marketplace, focusing on astute collectors. In that sense, what I'm doing in a gallery is no different than what many people do daily on eBay.
The story of how these posters came to be—that they were something of a collaboration between the athletes (who thought they were cool and different) and the Costacos Brothers (who agreed)—is one that seems endearingly, if also a little sadly, a result of its time. It's tough to imagine athletes being so loose and goofy about their images today.
The posters are very innocent. There's a certain trust between the Costacos Brothers and the athletes in the posters that I agree does not exist in today's current sports world. John and Tock had incredible access to these guys and the athletes had a tremendous amount of trust in the brothers. The Costacos Brothers had creative carte blanche when creating these posters, and that's what makes them so great.
The works are both pieces of art and 1980's artifacts, today. They're pieces of art because over time, the posters have become incredibly scarce and it has become extremely difficult to find the brothers early work in pristine condition. And the fact that we've mounted the works and beautifully framed them underneath UV plexiglass confirms that they're now art objects and should be treated as such.
Just like that?
They are still incredibly kitschy and retro, of course. But I think the context changes things, definitely. The posters are impossible to handle with your hands, for one thing, because they've been rolled up for like 25 years in shrink-wrap, and the quality of the paper stock was not very high. And of course we fucked them up with pins and scotch tape the first time around, totally abused them. So mounting them right, in a beautiful wood frame and plexiglass, seems only fair, and helps the poster become an object, not just something disposible. It'd be fun to do it with push-pins now, I guess, but I also just think they look really beautiful this way.
What are the Costacos brothers doing now? What's their role in the show?
Tock is living in the Lake Tahoe area and is retired. John is living in Seattle where Costacos Brothers was founded. He's working in the independent film business.
John and Tock have provided me access to their extensive archives, and when I could not go out and find a particular work myself, it was often the case that John had one of those works rolled up and sealed somewhere, that he provided me for the show. I've spent countless hours on the phone with them learning about how they built their business and how much fun they had doing it along the way. Obviously, no one knows their story better then them and they've been very open about telling it.
They really were well removed from all of these sports posters by the time I brought the show to NYC the first time around, so they were very excited to see all of their creations again under one roof. They've been so much fun to work with.
After Los Angeles... well, what happens after that, for you and for the posters? Whither the future of sports-poster art?
I really want to take the show to Tokyo, although I don't know if I'll have enough gas in the tank after this one, honestly. But I'd want to just take the work completely out of context. Visually, the posters are so stimulating and I think they will translate well to the Japanese sensibility and sense of style. It's hard to say why I think it will work over there, but I just think they'll go crazy for the work.
And I'd love to bring the show to a close in Seattle, which is where it all started for the Costacos Brothers in 1985. This is their hometown and the city of Seattle definitely deserves a Costacos Brothers retrospective.
After that, I will continue to organize art shows, make films and consult, and I'll continue to explore ways to bring the world of art and sports together. Cowboys Stadium has done that really well. They hand-picked a whole bunch of contemporary artists to do site specific art installations within Cowboys Stadium. It brings a whole group of people into the fold that ordinarily are left out of the art viewing equation. I like that.
On a personal note, I'm curious whether you have the "Land of Boz" one in the show. I looked it up for this and I was gratified to find that it was a hundred thousand times more insane than I remembered.
Oh, we've got that. That one and...there's one with Curt Warner as, like, a robo-back, those are amazing. The woman who was Dorothy in the Bosworth one was a Playboy playmate, I think.
I'm sure Boz insisted on that.
Of course. It's the Boz.