Picture a svelte, androgynous Mona Lisa of the modern age. He is a celebrity, a politician and a symbol of beauty in the big, ugly world. He is loved by many, hated by few.
His gel-encrusted coiffure is majestic, like the helmet of a Roman warrior, and his seductive eyes seem to know all of your secrets. Humble as he is, he stares silently-because to his most devout followers, he only exists as an 8-by-10-inch photo on a piece of paper.
Meet Gary Karp-the prodigal son of a 10-year-old, “profoundly irrelevant” movement. Without context, Gary is nothing more than a photograph of a man nobody knows. To his followers, Gary is a world traveler and a cultural icon.
In 1994, possibly hours before a garbage man hauled Gary Karp into oblivion, a group of friends began their search for rotten food to use in a rousing game of “Food Bat.” Among the first layers of refuse, the players made what Guiseppe Mavroleon describes as a “stupendous discovery”-80 or so discarded headshots of a fellow named Karp.
Some time between the dumpster diving and a house party later that night, this group of friends-including San Diegans Ted Coakley, Andy Kuepper, Michael Schwartz and out-of-state Karparticipant Giusseppe Mavroleon-decided to turn one man's abandoned self-promotion into an art project.
The first Gary Karp celebration began when partygoers were given colored markers and invited to modify Karp's face, which had been made into posters and hung around the house.
Soon enough, Gary began to travel the world in the hands of Shannon Landis, a fan who carried a headshot of Karp wherever she went. Gary Karp's hopeful facsimile appeared in photographs taken by his fans, of innocent passersby (penguins, even), as far away as England, the Giza Pyramids and Antarctica.
It is activities like this that made Andy Kuepper believe that Gary is a cultural icon.
“You're in Belize somewhere, and you've got a Gary in your backpack, and you pull it out, hand it to some old lady on a bus bench and take a picture of her... now you're interacting with your environment,” Kuepper says. “[Gary creates] an interaction with strangers that you normally wouldn't interact with.
“I don't know how many people we know in other countries that we can fly over and spend the night in their house and the only thing that put us together is Gary.”
Eventually, more elaborate art forms began to surface, using Karp as the model or canvas. Now, almost every medium imaginable has been used to create a Gary Karp piece.
Last February, the Planet Rooth art gallery in North Park held the Ten Year Gary Retrospective, showcasing a decade of Karpmania. Because of the sheer magnitude of the Gary Karp collection, only a small sample of Garyphernalia was presented. The public was officially introduced to the man from the dumpster, and like that first fateful day, they were provided markers, colored pencils and a stack of Gary Karp photos with which make their own art.
“Everybody leaving [the gallery] was all smiles,” recalls Planet Rooth owner Gustaf Rooth. “With something so pointless, so meaningless, you just gotta laugh. Gary equals smiles. Other artists were probably thinking, ‘I wish I thought of that.' They thought it was so pointless and meaningless that they took it seriously.”
The small but representative sample of art at the exhibit included a slot-machine computer program using hundreds of Gary Karp drawings and remixes of Gary's mock theme song, “Eye of the Tiger”; a map of Gary Karp DNA strands that, through a complicated process, would somehow spell out the words “Gary Karp” if found in a body; many paintings of Gary, from the avant-garde to a portrait done by an anonymous artist in Florida; a latch-hook carpet deemed the Gary “Karp-et,” designed by a well-known New York artist and put together by Karpers from San Diego; hundreds (as a sample of the thousands) of photographs of Karp in exotic locations, or with celebrities, friends and even one wedding-night couple who began dating the night of the first Gary Karp celebration; and, of course, hundreds of artistic modifications of Gary's headshot, a lot of them emasculated.
“Everyone wants to make Gary a girl,” says Karpist Kelle Hiatt.
The question is-why? There must be some reason for taking the photograph of a completely anonymous person and creating an art project and cultural movement that has lasted a decade. Doesn't there?
“I don't know that there is any meaning or purpose,” says Ted Coakley.
Adds Kuepper, “We get a lot of people who ask, ‘What's Gary all about?', ‘What's Gary?', ‘Who is Gary?' And we don't answer directly because we almost feel that it's cheating to just tell you. To understand Gary and to participate in Gary, you have to discover Gary over time. Gary comes from the experience of what Gary is.”
And as to the question of who Gary is-quite frankly, nobody knows. Aside from a few random Google searches, it seems that no member of the Gary collective has actively tried to track him down.
“It's been a semi-mystery for 10 years and I think we should keep that up,” says Gary Karp co-founder Michael Schwartz. “For all we know, he visited TYGR [Ten Year Gary Retrospective] and we didn't even notice.”
Kuepper: “If we actually find the guy, we need to have, like, four IMAX cameras, 70mm film, HDTV rolling, holographic projection image going on. It'd be too much work for us. If he stumbles across us, then that's the nature of the project, but I'm not actively Googling.”
It seems more powerful, anyway, to define Gary Karp as a cultural icon or symbol. To meet him may dispel the myth of Gary Karp, reducing him to a mere human being.
“It's through this mass collective of such trumpery,” Coakley believes, “that a common and pointed statement is made with the various components that make up everyday life.”
And every day, an aspiring model, actor-or whatever Gary Karp is or was-gives up on their dreams. And sometimes, like a page out of the Tao Te Ching, that's when they're discovered.
For more on the Gary Karp revolution, visit www.garykarp.com.