18 Wooster Street
Rosson Crow’s exhibition of large-scale oil paintings explores the history of “bad boys” in underground art and as an agent of culture in New York. From the flamboyance of a wild-style bombed train pulling into a subway station in the 1980s to a haunting red opium den from Chinatown in the 1880s, Crow investigates the rebellious and lawless side of New York history. Rendered in hallucinatory layers of oil paints and washes, her theatrical confabulations collapse centuries and synthesize styles to reveal the nature of interior space and the affinities that align across time.
One painting features a superimposition of the stained-glass windows of the gothic Bowery Mission onto the interior of its neighbor, the New Museum; a second pairs a vintage New York sex club, Plato’s Retreat, with the new Boom Boom Room and a Bruce Nauman neon; a third adorns an 1800s barber-shop with 1980s Allen Ruppersberg texts in bold colors. Some canvases straightforwardly conjure the artist’s imagining of bad-boy dens or lairs without historical hybridization: Kenny Scharf’s black-light disco, Cosmic Cavern; Dash Snow and Dan Colen’s Nest at Deitch Projects; and Keith Haring’s Pop Shop.
Crow has always shown an interest in masculine spaces. She has previously painted saloons, gun shops, oil derricks, rodeos, stock-market floors, and many incidents in the arguably male-dominated tradition of modern art. Here she imaginatively explores the idea of the bad boy as fawned over by art audiences and celebrated in New York history. Gangs, graffiti, gays, drugs, and illicit sex are part of the city’s spirit but also a big part of the art world today. How has New Yorkers’ love for this spirit shaped the history of art and exhibitions today? The cultural moment in underground New York when hip-hop met graffiti met the East Village scene in the 1980s led to an art explosion of interdisciplinary activity. Many of these paintings explore that moment and its legacy for artists working right now.
This exhibition has a bit of a self-reflexive feel as well, as the history of Deitch Projects is aligned with the cultural trends explored in Crow’s paintings. The artist views Jeffrey Deitch as an instrumental figure in maintaining and shaping the legacies of the ’80s that she addresses, and the history of Deitch Projects as exhibiting and supporting the current generation of rebellious youth and underground art from this lineage is very much in the forefront of her mind. By exploring these themes in paint, Crow claims them as her own as well.
October 21 - December 22, 2017
18 Wooster Street
The faces are melting in Kenny Scharf’s new paintings. “Things are disintegrating,” he says, “I am reacting to our increasingly out-of-control situation.” Scharf’s work continues to be infused by his inexhaustible optimism and his sense of fun but there has always been an engagement with profound issues beneath the façade. Ecology, the environment, and capitalist excess have long been central themes. More recently, his paintings have shown his alarm over the effects of petroleum and the mountains of nondegradable plastic that are produced from it.
Scharf’s work has always combined and contrasted the pop culture he absorbed growing up in Los Angeles with the important innovations in modern and contemporary art. His earlier work fused Dali and Disney. More recently, he has been in dialogue with Pollock and Abstract Expressionism. In the new work, he merges his distinct style with color field and stain painting. “I like to connect with every movement in 20th-century art,” Scharf explains. “I make new hybrids, taking it all in and putting it in a blender.”
A distinctive style is something that Scharf admires in other artists and from the beginning has tried to achieve in his own work. He believes in art as an expression of individual identity. From his first mature work as a student at the School of Visual Arts, a painting by Kenny Scharf was instantly recognizable. Still adhering to his signature style, he continuously invents new forms.
Scharf is very enthusiastic about his new “sloppy style” that characterizes the major paintings in the exhibition. Rows of faces disintegrate into colorful drips reminiscent of both New York School painting and the serial imagery of minimal art. In these new works, Scharf is striving to create clear and simple forms that resonate with meaning. He feels liberated and excited, adding that “it is so much fun.”
The expression of emotion in art is essential to Scharf. Art that is cold leaves him cold. He explains that cartoon faces can express emotion with abstract power. Like his artistic colleagues from his early years in New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, Scharf studied cartoons as a way to intensify figurative expression.
It is his early downtown history that brings Scharf back to New York this October. The Museum of Modern Art is opening an exhibition on the seminal performance space Club 57 in which Scharf played a central role. Watching him paint, one can see how his experience as a backup dancer for Klaus Nomi and his other performative roles have shaped his approach to his work. One side of his painting practice is detailed and meticulous to the extreme. The other side is tremendously physical and requires him to use his body like a dancer.
Visitors to Scharf’s Los Angeles studio are greeted by a hundred or more discarded plastic toys in his yard and on his roof. During the early part of his career, Scharf found his art materials in the garbage. To this day, he still stops his car when he finds plastic toys and TV sets thrown away on the street. These discarded plastic objects have inspired the two other bodies of work featured in the show: his Assemblage Vivant Tableaux Plastiques, and his TV Bax. The assemblage works, which are inspired by the Nouveau Realistes, are constructed from his stock of recycled plastic toys. The TV Bax are painted on the plastic backs of discarded television sets. Like the toys, the TV backs have a disconcerting anthropomorphic quality. Scharf wonders if their anonymous designers created these plastic covers, which are different for every model, to resemble a face.
Scharf finds these thrown-away toys and TV backs to be poignant objects, resonant with emotion. “Each of these objects carries a story,” Scharf explains. He thinks about how people might have struggled and sacrificed to buy these toys and TVs, and about the intense relationship that children and families have with them. Scharf resurrects the lives of these inanimate objects in his work. He also notes that garbage keeps changing with technology. The backs of TV sets used to have large protruding “noses.” Now they are flatter and more similar to a canvas.
Since his childhood, Scharf has been fascinated by outer space. Space travel and the portrayal of infinite space have long been central themes. In his life and in his work, he tries to eliminate boundaries and borders. As he pursues his dialogue with the great painters of the New York School, he is increasingly preoccupied with the inner space of painting. His exploration of inner space creates a dynamic tension with his passion for outer space. With his characteristic exuberance and his moral voice, Scharf reformulates his unique combination of Pollock and Pop to create a vibrant new body of work.
Photo Credit: The1point8 and Adam Reich
Read about the Club 57 exhibition at MoMA in the New York Times here.
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