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Art with Attitude

Crass commercialist or artistic virtuoso? Mike Kungl's success proves there isn't an either/or

Kungl's stylized Jessica Rabbit

Nothing sucks the life out fine art like the snooty aspirational baggage that can cling to it like toilet paper on the heel of a shoe.  While viewing the collections at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art can be breathtaking, the experience can simultaneously feel like you’re trapped inside your grandmother’s musty closet.

Fortunately for both artists and art lovers, we’ve done a lot of lightening up over the decades. A light bulb flashed on that permitted art to be appreciated in non-traditional contexts without diminishing its significance. Of course, pop culture has been a welcome beneficiary of this.

The pop artists of the 1960s, as well as art entrepreneurs like Peter Max, helped bridge that gap. In particular, Max struck gold by monetizing counterculture chic, licensing his work on everything from tennis shoes to bedsheets to clocks, all without being accused of selling out. Keith Haring followed suit in the ’80s. His art gleefully mashed up commerce and pop culture – and the result seemed somehow like the center of the zeitgeist.

Which means Mike Kungl can present his art deco-centric work almost anywhere, and no one blinks an eye. He’s a graphic designer, a fine artist and a successful businessman. Like Andy Warhol, the 53-year-old Tustin-based artist began his career in advertising and is a ninja at marketing his work: He has contracts with the fine art divisions of Disney, Warner Bros. and AMCE Archives, which holds the license for Star Wars work (George Lucas is a big Kungl fan), and his paintings are featured prominently on “The Big Bang Theory.”

He’s a busy man.

The diversity of his work is very much on display at his expansive Lemon Heights home. A series of his art deco “martini girls” hangs in the living room, coasters featuring his “coffee” series of paintings are in the kitchen, Darth Vaders and Millennium Falcons cover the den … and his studio out back is filled with a life-size porcelain cow he’s painting for the Miami public art extravaganza CowParade.

Kungl is a personable, outsize character, possessing the gregarious vibe of an ex-hair-metal dude who can look back and laugh about it. For him, the wedding of art and pop culture is a no-brainer – a direction he’s been pursuing since he was a student at Spokane Falls Community College in Washington state, where he grew up.

“The focus was on advertising agency work as opposed to a canvas-and-paint situation where you’re sent out trying to sell sketches,” he says. “I went right for the business end because that’s where I wanted to be.”

But his artistic impulses began earlier. He recounts painting his family couches with his mother’s lipstick at age 4. As he grew, art became his salvation, especially when he got into trouble. “My mom once told me, ‘You’re going to be grounded for two weeks,’ ” Kungl remembers. “I said, ‘You know what? I’ll just be in my room drawing.’ ”

Kungl always painted, but it was never his wheelhouse. He was into drafting, T-squares, precision and fine lines, influenced by early 20th-century artists like poster artist Anders Beckman, industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, and propaganda art created by the U.S. Works Progress Administration.

“All that happened in the 1920s to 1945, the Great Depression – all that’s an inspiration,” he says. “Chinese propaganda, American propaganda, Nazi propaganda – the graphic design that these countries had was just insane. It was beautiful, a huge inspiration.”
He started his career in 1985 at a Newport Beach ad agency that sounded like a law firm – Cochran Chase, Livingston & Co., whose clients included Carl’s Jr. and Pirelli tires. He eventually segued into dot-com work, but when its first-wave bubble burst, Kungl crawled out and figured it was time to do something else.

“I started doing fine art because I found an A.M. Cassandre poster on Melrose for $20,000, and I couldn’t get anywhere near it. It was an original lithograph that was somehow salvaged from back in the ’40s. I thought, ‘I’ll go home and create my own, really cool vintage poster. I’ll make one print of it and I’ll hang it. That should be sufficient.’ Well, one of my buddies came by and said, ‘Mike, that’s really bitchin’. You should show it to the poster publisher here in Anaheim [Haddad’s Fine Arts]. I know the guy really well.’ So I show it to him; he goes, ‘Mike, this is great. Give me five more.’ Bingo.”

The work snowballed from there, despite a stinging early rejection from Laguna Beach’s Festival of Arts. “I try to submit some digital design to them, and they snubbed me. They loved the work, but it’s digital. Snub. So I go home with my tail between my legs …
So, no problem. I did my art paintings the exact same way. They all look like one another.”

Kungl recounts the story with the gusto of a man who uses even the smallest of rejections as fuel. In 2000, he got his work into Laguna Beach after all, at The Vintage Poster on Coast Highway, a shop/gallery that specializes in the old stuff.

“There isn’t a lot of new art deco art being created,” says owner Gary Gibson. “The fact that it was art deco-designed and looks like the 1930s art decos gave us a chance to have an original piece of art that people could actually afford. And our clients all loved his work.”
The love for Kungl’s work has grown substantially over the years, culminating in 2007 with a prestigious gig creating interpretive fine art for the Walt Disney Co.

Working for Disney has been great, Kungl says, but he’s had to walk a fine line with the notoriously buttoned-up company. “Artists like myself were getting so off the style guide in stylizing the Disney characters that they didn’t like it and it became a big issue,” he says. Specifically, eyebrows were raised when Kungl submitted “Tinkertini” – Tinker Bell luxuriating in a martini glass.

“They said, ‘You can’t put the world’s most famous fairy in a martini glass with alcohol. It’s just not gonna fly. If you try to do this again, we’re going to have a problem,’” he recalls. “I was trying to lift the skirt a little higher, have a little more cleavage and instead of a fairy she looked like a 24-year-old stripper. They started frowning on that type of interpretation.”
Kungl has more leeway with the Looney Tunes characters at Warner Bros. “I’m not a legacy guy. I’m an interpretation/pop guy. I gave them my interpretation of their characters and they loved it. Pepé Le Pew. He’s never gonna get the girl, but guess what? I have him driving around in a Corvette in Paris, so that’s fun.”

In addition to creating intellectual property for the fine art catalogs of the most valuable animation brands in the world, Kungl produces art for one of television’s biggest hits, CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory.” It’s just another high-profile way to brand his work, according to the artist.

“To have the mainstream media connected to the art … it’s not necessary, but how else are they going to see it if they’re not looking for it?” he asks. “They’re going to use somebody’s art. Look at set decoration from early films. There’s always something in the background. Somebody did that. Fast forward 60 years. Why can’t it be mine?”

Even before “Big Bang,” Kungl’s art made its way onto season three of the CW’s “Beauty and the Geek.”

“The entire home was my artwork. That was huge,” he says. “They paid us well. They gave us credits; we got exposure. They took some of my futuristic cityscapes and blew them up about 8 feet high on canvas. Just crazy stuff.”

Although the sensibility of Kungl’s work can be traced to 1920s art-deco industrial and propaganda art, his hustle connects him not only to the Warhols and Lichtensteins, but to American artists of the 19th century. “Before the Civil War, it was common for artists to cross boundaries,” says Wendy Katz, an associate professor of art history at the University
of Nebraska.

“The academically trained artist John Vanderlyn created the first panorama in the U.S., a view of Versailles, and exhibited his neo-classical history paintings along with it. His success led to a whole generation of noted landscape painters creating panoramas and dioramas while still producing individual oil paintings. Famous artists like Winslow Homer and Asher B. Durand did magazine illustrations or banknote engravings at the same time as oil paintings. Not only was their style understood to attract a mass audience, but their pictures included items associated with popular culture – pinups, almanacs or calendars, cartoons.”
So Kungl is actually carrying on a centuries-old artistic tradition. He doesn’t have much time to mull the significance, though. He’s too busy trying to keep up with his many clients.

“There are art politics. There is a lot of business you have to deal with, and it’s often not as pleasant as it seems to be,” he says. “But when you handle yourself with integrity and a great attitude and everything’s cool, then it kind of comes back to you and that has worked.”

Gibson says it’s impossible to underestimate the importance of Kungl’s attitude in his success. “Mike is always smiling. He’s so easy to work with. He’s happy. He laughs. He exudes confidence and likability … and that goes a long way.”

So Kungl can work the room and win the personality contests. But all things being equal, he’d rather just retreat to his studio and create. “I like to be an ostrich in the sand. I put my head down, put it in a hole and when I come out, there’s a new body of work that just came with it.”


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