18 Wooster Street
“Mayday,” an exhibition of new work by Shepard Fairey, was Deitch Projects’ final gallery show. The multiple meanings of the title resonated throughout the artist’s new body of work. Originally a celebration of spring and the rebirth it represents, May Day is also observed in many countries as International Workers’ Day or Labor Day, a day of political demonstrations and celebrations coordinated by unions and socialist groups. “Mayday” is also the distress signal used by pilots, police, and firefighters in times of emergency.
The exhibition included numerous portraits, in which Fairey captured the radical spirit of artists, musicians, and political activists he admires. According to Fairey, “These people were all revolutionary, in one sense or another. They started out on the margins of culture and ended up changing the mainstream. When we celebrate big steps that were made in the past, it reminds us that big steps can be made in the future.”
Fairey describes the first of May as “a day to express frustration with the powers that be, but also a day for activists to pursue ideals.” In this exhibition, he did both, with images supporting free speech and bemoaning the US two-party political system, pushing for renewable energy and critiquing corporate propaganda. In Fairey’s mind, the persistence of difficulties across all of these arenas—political, environmental, economic, cultural—points to that third meaning of a call of distress. “By now we thought we would be in post-Bush utopia, but we’re still having to call attention to these problems,” he remarked. Like any mayday call, however, the sounding of the alarm also brings hope for help on the way. “If we stay silent, there’s no hope,” Fairey mused. “But if we make noise, if we put our ideas out there, then maybe we can make a change like the people in these portraits have done.”
Accompanying the exhibition was a new mural by Fairey on the corner of Houston Street and the Bowery. Also called Mayday, this mural incorporated several of the images and themes found in his most recent fine art and street art work. The public piece tackled an array of subjects, including the reclamation of the US flag as a multi-dimensional symbol, global warming, health care, free speech, activism, and the dysfunction of America’s two-party system. It also paid tribute to some of the Pop artists who have influenced Fairey. The American flag and the target referenced the iconic paintings of Jasper Johns, who was also the subject of a portrait in the exhibition. The newspaper and megaphone advertisement paid tribute to Warhol’s early painted renditions. The mural also wove in many smaller images and decorative patterns that supplemented the aesthetic and themes of the larger images.
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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