Mature, and Spot On

Kenny Scharf shows a more serious side in his latest painting exhibit

Kenny Scharf first became famous in the go-go 80s. His art was a synthesis of painting, cartoons, psychedelia, Space Age fun, spontaneity, day-glo color, and silliness. It was a sort of Pop Surrealism.

Scharf’s arch brand of kooky humor has always blurred the lines between popular culture and fine art. Customized toaster ovens were not uncommon. His objets d’art always seemed more Hanna-Barberra than “Jansens History of Art.”

Having known Scharf for nearly 25 years, I was quite surprised by his new show at Kenny Schacter /ROVE. Upon viewing his latest canvases, the words “mature style” came to mind and mature was never really a word used when referring to Scharf’s art.

The new painting “Squabs, 2003” is worked in an entirely different palate than Scharf is known for. Somber muted browns, tans, greens, grays, and blue-grays predominate, though the iconography is still of a cartoonish sci-fi variety that include anthropomorphic blobs with eyes, nose, and mouth.

“Lavup, 2002” is a terrific painting. Abstract globular forms are rendered in a subtle palate of muted yellows, metallic brown, gray, and green on a white background with a pristine white-painted frame. The painting’s shapes resemble spilled mercury, and the oil paint is used to achieve an effect usually accomplished with an air brush. I was reminded of the shapes and forms of Miro, Jean Arp, and Henry Moore.

The largest painting in the show, “Zrobz, 2003,” is a tour de force. It is an immaculately painted and detailed canvas using all of Scharf’s technique. This is as serious of painting as I have ever seen him do––with brown, green, tan, black, blue-gray, and blue-green creatures spilling over the surface.

There is a large wall in the back of the gallery that Scharf has graffitied with the same imagery as is used in the rest of the show. Spray paint has been used here to achieve the effects of low relief that he is laboring over in the oil paintings. Here his old vocabulary of deltas, spirals, asterisks, and tinsel add-ons is used to fill space, right down to the decorated fuse box.

The most recent canvases in the show seem to be coming from a happier place. “Yumzogs, 2004” once again uses the bright yellows, magentas, lavenders, and pinks more associated with Kenny Scharf.

It seems funny to see Scharf painting so seriously, trying so hard to paint well. That never really seemed to be the point of his art. But this showing of his work comprises the most accomplished oil painting I have seen him do. He seems to be getting it just right.

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