Uncustomary Customs: An Interview With Brooklyn’s Grumpy Bert on the History of the Red Envelope Show
Symbolizing good luck and prosperity, the exchange of red envelopes is a beloved Lunar New Year tradition present in even the oldest stories about this celebration. To ring in the year of the dragon, Harman Projects is hosting the 9th annual Red Envelope Show exhibition curated by Grumpy Bert. In the spirit of sharing this New Year’s practice widely, the exhibition features works from over 100 artists from around the world who work in a variety of mediums spanning ink, marker, pencil, gouache, acrylic, and even rocks. From hair-rising dragons to “chonky” dragons to Dragon Ball, each artist uses the red paper envelope to share something inventive and certainly fortunate.
Before the exhibition opens, curator Grumpy Bert caught up with the folks at Harman Projects to discuss the history of this annual show, what he’s learned from it, and why he loved New York.
Harman Projects: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about yourself and how you started the red envelope group exhibition? How has it changed over the years?
Grumpy Bert: I'm originally from California, but I moved out to Brooklyn in 2010. Shortly after I moved out, I started a shop gallery. It had always been a fantasy/dream thing to open up something like that. I mean, I grew up in Southern California and loved going to spots like Giant Robot, so that was a huge influence for me. Anyways, I just went after that dream and opened a shop called “Grumpy Bert.”
The Red Envelope Show was actually one of those show ideas that I had had in my head for a long time. For whatever reason, I didn't really implement the show until, I want to say, two years after opening the shop. I think the first show was the year of the monkey. And at that time it was pretty much like how the show is right now, honestly, except now it’s much bigger. There might have been 60 artists, maybe 50 in that first show. To my surprise, it just kind of caught on with a lot of different people like then year after year just became a little bit more popular. Now, this is our ninth year doing the Red Envelope Show, year of the dragon.
Since closing “Grumpy Bert,” the exhibition has been hosted by several different galleries. This year it’s at Harman Projects, last year it was at MYPLASTICHEART, the year before at Spoke Art NYC. Has it always had a sort of nomadic feel?
Well, for the first year and a half Grumpy Bert was actually more of a shopping village located in a shipping container. It was like a really small place, but that’s where I did my first art show. And then after that shipping container thing we moved to a “real” brick and mortar type space, and then that’s where the Red Envelope Show was able to grow bigger and bigger.
So was it always meant to be a huge group show? Do you think this iteration will break any records?
I don't know if this year will break any records, but that was never a goal of mine. Five years ago, we had a show in NYC in Queens at Flushing Town Hall and that involved like 250-ish artists... there were a lot. It's almost too much, honestly. For this year, I can't confirm anything yet because artists are still submitting stuff and responding—it can get a bit down to the wire. But we're looking at possibly 120 artists. But let’s wait and see.
Why do you like doing these big group shows? Aren’t they stressful?
Yeah, in a weird way, oddly, I enjoy the chaos of it—rallying a bunch of people together. They all have different styles and backgrounds, but are working on the same goals and projects. It's always satisfying to see the final result of bringing that big mess together in the end.
What's the prompt that you reach out to people with?
It’s pretty open as a celebration of the Lunar New Year. Every year is a different type of character animal, with this year being the dragon. So that itself is already a prompt, but I do tell the artists that it’s not a requirement to actually use the zodiac animal in their artwork. I kind of want to keep it open because I like their style and their work, and I don't want to force them into a certain subject matter that might not be their thing. I just want to see them apply the artwork on a red envelope.
I do ask them to try not to manipulate or kind of transform the envelope where it would become just a red sheet of paper. It’s more interesting, to me, to retain the envelope shape. When someone views the art on the wall, they understand it was made on a red envelope specifically.
Have you noticed a change in the “spirit” of the show each year? I was wondering about this because, Year of the Dragon symbolizes a certain set of characteristics while Year of the Bunny symbolizes another. Since you’ve been doing this show for almost a decade now, I was wondering if the spirit of the show sort of changes each year with a different ensemble.
Every year is a celebration of the year past and what is to come ahead. Maybe I’m pushing that a little bit... But I would say, in general, things are fairly positive. Actually, there was one year, I can't remember the specific year, but there was one show that was pretty dark, the subject matter and the ideas were just... dark. I'm not opposed to that at all, it was just interesting to have this one outlier where people just wanted to go dark. But generally, regardless of the animal, the exhibition has an optimistic tone.
Has there been anything that really surprised you over these past nine years?
I mean for the current show I am anticipating some surprises. There’s this artist Betty Rubble, and she collects like found rocks out in the world and paints on them. So, I gave her the challenge to see if she could turn a red envelope into that, somehow make the prompt fit into her practice. There’s another artist, Authan Chen, and he’s very prolific and his work is very fantastical and detailed. And then there will be a paper cutting artist, Kanako Abe, which is pretty different from the painting or drawing on the envelopes. I'm excited to see what she comes up with.
There's a lot of variation, not just the painting kind of illustration stuff, I try to mix it up a little bit. In short, I never know what to expect.
I'm also wondering, you know, as a curator, organizer, maybe you're an artist yourself, what you've learned both professionally and personally, doing these shows year after year.
am not an artist! I mean, I guess I've learned I cannot draw, I cannot do what these people do, which is amazing! Every year I'm always amazed at what artists can do with a simple prompt. It's mind blowing.
This show is kind of how I'm keeping the red envelope tradition alive for myself. I’m Chinese and my extended family is there, or my immediate family is in Southern California. So, this type of exchange of the red envelope is my own little special way to kind of keep that tradition going. Art has been a great way to bring in the community and educate people about this tradition. A lot of people have seen or heard of red envelopes, but it’s cool to share the tradition with people in this really non-traditional way.
You grew up in California, but you’ve been doing these shows mostly in New York. What makes New York City the place to keep doing these shows year after year?
I think the thing that is maybe cliche to say about New York is that it is truly a melting pot. There's so many different types of people from all types of backgrounds here in New York, which makes it awesome. For the Red Envelope Show, there's no requirement that you have to be Chinese to be a part of the show. It’s like all different types of people who participate, who transform the red envelope into a work of art. It’s like people are getting involved in my culture, and something meaningful to me.
For the past eight years, the New York community has been super supportive. I know that’s just going to keep building and building, and I really appreciate it.
Would you ever want to take it on the road?
It'd be awesome to do it in San Francisco. You know, I lived there for a bit and they have a huge Chinese community and amazing Chinatown area, and such a terrific Pan-Asian bond. I actually did the show in 2020, right before the whole pandemic chaos, out in Los Angeles at the Chinese American Museum. So we did the show in Brooklyn, and also Los Angeles that year. So I did take it to the West Coast one year, but it would be awesome to take it to other places and just be able to unite people and keep sharing this tradition.
The Red Envelope Show opens February 10th at Harman Projects, 54 Ludlow Street, New York, NY, with a reception 6-8 pm, and a lion dance performance at 6:30 pm. The exhibition will be on view through February 24th. All images courtesy of Grumpy Bert.