In the early 1980s, Kenny Scharf, barely out of art school, emerged as a central protagonist of the short-lived, much mythologized East Village scene—a milieu that was celebrated as a neo-neo-avant-garde that collapsed the divide between high and low in its embrace of street culture and, alternately, derided as a bunch of publicity-hungry dilettantes whose bohemian posturing was aimed mostly at the market. By the end of the decade, the scene had been declared dead. Some of its best artists were dead, too.
Unlike the work of many of the ex–East Villagers, Scharf’s has remained ubiquitous, but his signature cartoonish retro-futurism was, until recently, found less often in museums than in commercial collaborations: Zippo lighters, Rosenthal china, Swatch and Movado watches, Zara T-shirts, Louis Vuitton scarves, Saks Fifth Avenue holiday windows, a Tour de France bike for Lance Armstrong, Kiehl’s gift packaging, and, most perplexingly, a pair of preppy-staple Jack Rodgers sandals. Too young to remember the heyday of Fun Gallery and Gracie Mansion, I barely thought of Scharf as a painter at all, considering him more like an ornamentiste in the Rococo mold, someone who applied his designs to a seemingly indiscriminate range of surfaces, of which canvas was merely one option.
Thus when I entered “Inner and Outer Space,” Scharf’s recent exhibition at Jeffrey Deitch, I was surprised to find the gallery populated mostly by paintings riffing on the canon of high modernism, with leering cartoon faces dissolving into abstract smears and drips of color. Some paintings took up the gestural allover compositions of Abstract Expressionism or the poured and stained canvases of Color Field; in a set of smaller, square canvases, Scharf arranged his “melting” faces into grids, that most hallowed of modernist devices. It’s tempting to read these works as pure parody, as virtually everything about them—the Day-Glo palettes, the glittering surfaces flecked with diamond dust, the grinning trompe l’oeil aliens—is anathema to the movements to which they refer. Certainly he’s having a bit of fun in the paintings. But, paradoxically, the works also seem like a bid for seriousness, as if he might stake out a claim alongside Pollock, Morris Louis, and Mondrian by absorbing their signature styles into his own.
The centerpiece of the exhibition was Were Melting Together Day and Night (2017), a three-panel painting heroically scaled at twelve by twenty-four feet that was elevated on a platform at the back of the gallery so it loomed over the rest of the show. At the top of the composition is a friezelike row of melting candy-colored faces, each giving way to thin vertical bands of poured pigment running down the length of the canvas. The smaller works showing melting faces often feel like a one-note gimmick, albeit an amusing one. But because of this painting’s sheer size, the faces fall in and out of view, allowing the streams of dripped paint to toggle back and forth between abstract fields of pure color and weird figuration.
As Scharf says in a statement quoted in the press material, the melting faces of his new “sloppy style” are a response to “our increasingly out-of-control situation.” Lest we were unsure of what situation he had in mind, two paintings at the exhibition’s entrance made it explicit. In Trump Tower of Evil (2017), the name Trump is rendered in bubblegum-pink block lettering, forming a precarious edifice with a swastika and cross projecting off the sides like TV antennae, against a silkscreened backdrop of mostly illegible text in various languages. Attack on the Towers of Evil (2015) depicts a cityscape composed of names: those of Bush and various warmongering members of his administration (Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Karl Rove)—plus Halliburton and Exxon thrown in for good measure—intermingle with those of ISIS, Osama bin Laden, and Al Qaeda. These “Towers” sit against a glittery rainbow ground crossed with swirls of black spray paint that are equal parts menacing and charmingly decorative, while cartoon blobs—maybe oil or acid rain or bombs—fall from the sky. As political statements, these canvases are idiotic, but aesthetically, they’re a riot.