Kenny Scharf is presenting his first exhibition in the UAE, Inner and Outer Space, at Leila Heller Gallery. As always, his latest paintings and sculptures are colourful, quirky and playful but with an underlying message that is dark and profound.
Scharf was born in Hollywood, California, in 1958 and began his artistic career in New York. Along with his friends Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring he was among the prominent artists in the East Village scene of the 1980s and one of the first to inject elements of street culture into mainstream contemporary art.
The well-known American artist works with various media including murals, paintings, sculpture, video, installation and performance art. His artworks are filled with vibrant colours and references to pop culture such as cartoon characters, imagery from advertisements, classic American cars and consumer objects. As this pop culture imagery is drawn from his own subconscious, the artist describes his style as pop surrealism. Growing up at the dawn of the space age, Scharf became fascinated by outer space and the idea of space travel, which is reflected in his work. The title of his show alludes to his interest in exploring his inner world and the infinite unknown cosmic world.
Scharf’s latest body of work focuses on contemporary issues such as consumerism and destruction of the environment. It includes large scale paintings on canvas and linen and sculptures made from found objects. He is also exhibiting some key works from the 1980s and early 2000s.
The paintings done with oil and acrylic paint and a sprinkling of diamond dust feature rows of whimsical, comical faces that disintegrate into streaks of paint. The melting figures reflect the state of our world, and the expressions on the faces range from blissful ignorance to alarm and anger about what we are doing to our planet.
The centerpiece of the show is a monumental painting of melting figures, titled We’re Melting Together Night and Day, where the canvas is divided into dark and light areas representing day and night, or the darkness of today and a more enlightened attitude in the future. In other paintings the artist has arranged the melting figures in a plaid pattern or shown them rushing around on a busy background representing the chaos and pollution of urban life. In a composition titled Petroleumonsters the artist has expressed his concern about the environmental impact of the petroleum industry by depicting dark, animated oil drops and puddles spreading across the world.
“I painted these melting faces and bodies in reaction to what I perceive as our increasingly out-of-control situation. I am an optimist and always look at the positive side of how technology can improve our lives. But the reality is that a lot of man’s inventions are hurting the world. I want to draw attention to the alarming capitalist excess and the resulting ecological damage,” Scharf says.
The artist often uses cartoon characters such as the Flintstones to represent the past and the Jetsons to symbolise the future in his paintings. An example is Judy On The Beach from 2004. It features the cartoon figures relaxing on the beach in a strange, futuristic environment in outer space.
Scharf is known for using recycled materials in his work, and he still stops his car to pick up things such as discarded plastic toys and television sets from the streets. His sculptures in this show are inspired by these found objects. In a series titled Assemblage Vivant Tableaux Plastiques he has put together a variety of recycled plastic toys to create colourful sculptures that highlight the growing consumerism in our society and the long-term impact of plastic and our wasteful throw-away culture on the environment.
In another series of wall mounted sculptures, titled TV Bax he has transformed the back of old televisions into smiling yet sinister robotic faces. Using the shape of the back of these old TVs and the TV tubes to suggest the nose and mouth, he has painted eyes on the grill with oil paints and decorated the colourful faces with rhinestones and crystals to create anthropomorphic creatures that stare out from the wall reminding viewers about their growing dependence on technology and their responsibility towards the planet.
“Each model of these old televisions has a different cover. I can see a face in all of them and often wonder if the anonymous designers of these plastic covers behind the old televisions intended them to resemble human faces. Each of the discarded objects in my sculptures carries a story. People must have struggled and sacrificed to save the money to buy these things, and the children and families who owned these toys and TVs must have been emotionally attached to them. I want to bring alive these inanimate objects and their stories,” Scharf says.
Kenny Scharf: Inner and Outer Space will run at Leila Heller Gallery in Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz, until August 31.