Kenny Scharf: BESTEST EVER!
June 18 through September 10, 2022
By PETER FRANK, August 2022
By now, Kenny Scharf is a kind of street-art old master, not just a veteran of the 1980s but a prime generator of its party-like-there’s-no-tomorrow ethos (not to mention aesthetic). He conjured a look for himself – and by extension his peers and successors – out of nostalgia for the entertainment media of his childhood: TV cartoons. He thus conflated “low” and “high” art into a rollicking, stylistically impure celebration of the ephemeral and reclamation of lost innocence. But his appropriations, far less subtle than those of his contemporaries (e.g. Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat), bespeak a chameleon’s anxiety. Reflecting on facets of popular culture, Scharf is as true a Pop artist as Lichtenstein or Warhol was. But his reflections are deliberately drained of irony and treated instead with an often-ecstatic affection.
Scharf has been plying his giddy acid-Pop for over four decades; by now, we associate the Jetsons more with him than with Hanna-Barbera, and we know what he is going to give us, whether as wall mural, object, banner, tableau, environment, or whatever. Scharf’s particular brand of fun-art was branded long ago, and somehow, in its effervescent cheer, it wins us over again each time. But Scharf is a hard worker, an even harder entertainer, and a serious artist, so each presentation of his is enhanced at least somewhat with growth and evolution. Indeed, he seems never to tire, either of the physical exertion – his output (as this show demonstrates) is prodigious – or of the thinking that keeps him moving, sometimes quickly, sometimes gingerly, into new territory.
“BESTEST EVER!” presents three of Scharf’s recent (pandemic-spanning) projects, all of which build to some extent on previous work, and two of which propose whole new formal, and by extension subjective, approaches. The holdback, if it’s fair to call it that, is Cosmic Cavern #42, the latest in a series of overstuffed, wildly colored installations that date back to the beginnings of Scharf’s career. This latest Cosmic Cavern features large spray paintings, a new structural device as far as these over-the-top rooms are concerned but not otherwise of major consequence. In fact, Scharf followers (and Hanna-Barbera fans) will be more diverted by the (as it were) near-lifesize monochrome sculptures of Wilma Flintstone and Betty Rubble tucked into pockets of drape and debris; for once evoking these stone-age characters rather than their space-age counterparts, Scharf tweaks expectations a wee bit, almost as a joke on himself.
The new adventures in three dimensions continue in a group of variously-sized and colored objects, set on bases or directly on the floor, whose curves and contortions are clearly drawn from Scharf’s extended comic-figurine vocabulary, but whose elaborate excesses at once give them additional personality – almost to a manic point – and make them more abstract. They can be admired as daffy do-overs of David Smith and Anthony Caro, or they can be your personal white rabbit or pink elephant. For all this, they are surprisingly endearing, certainly next to the third group of work, a collection of large canvases which trouble the distinction between abstraction and figuration even more. In these, Scharf (characteristically) fills every inch of space with rudimentary facial features, and interlocks these otherwise amorphous – but leering, laughing, silently screeching – visages as if they were emerging from somewhere all at the same time, unsure of their identities or fates but uncaring in their rush to manifest. These paintings are scary stuff, but they’re no less wacky than anything else in Scharf’s repertoire. They also determine a new level of virtuosity for the artist, even as they reflect on the turmoil of life in the present. Did the Flintstones have to worry about the end of democracy? Will the Jetsons still be battling viruses? Kenny Scharf may be admitting to worldwide turmoil; but he’s reminding us that there’s still fun to be had. WM
PETER FRANK is an art critic, curator, and editor based in Los Angeles, where he serves as Associate Editor of Fabrik Magazine. He began his career in his native New York, where he wrote for The Village Voice and The SoHo Weekly News and organized exhibitions for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Alternative Museum. He is former Senior Curator at the Riverside (CA) Art Museum and former editor of Visions Art Quarterly and THEmagazine Los Angeles, and was art critic for LA Weekly and Angeleno Magazine. He has worked curatorially for Documenta, the Venice Biennale, and many other national and international venues. (Photo: Eric Minh Swenson)
view all articles from this author