18 Wooster Street
Nine regular prisms of the indicated measurements will be constructed in light materials, although they should not look fragile. An aluminum structure covered with a wooden sheet and painted black with asphalt is suggested. These forms will be supported on one side by two people—without this side being fixed to a specific point—while the other side is screwed to the wall at shoulder height at 146 cm off the floor. The forms will be arranged in an orderly fashion, equidistant from each other, six in the bigger space and three in the other. The gallery’s team will be responsible for the construction of the objects and the hiring of the workers with the artist’s supervision. The workers will remain always facing the wall and will have to be Mexican or Central American citizens as immigrants in the city. Two workers will be hired for each form plus a group of four people to work as substitutes, that is a total of twenty-two workers. The workday will be four hours or the time the gallery considers necessary (the possibility of establishing two shifts could be considered). The salary will also be fixed by the gallery. When the forms are not supported perpendicular against the wall, they will be left on the floor in the same manner the workers would have done it. From past experience, it is sometimes not possible to cover all the positions, in which case the forms will be left laying on the floor. It is also usual that the workers who participate in the action are impressed by the size of the public on the day of the inauguration, and decide not to return to the job. This will require the gallery to maintain a group of workers always busy in filling empty positions. The construction work of the forms will be done in the same place where the exhibition will take place, without cleaning the leftovers, as well as the possible dirt produced during the action, empty bottles consumed by the workers, etc.
Our project with Santiago Sierra was one of the most fascinating episodes in the gallery’s history. The artist requested that we find migrant laborers who would hold up beams for a minimal wage. I explained to him that, unlike other cities such as Los Angeles, where illegal immigrants stand around in the parking lot of the Home Depot waiting to be picked up for construction jobs, this economic structure does not really exist in New York. In order to find people to hold up the beams, we had to engage a temporary-employment agency. We spent two weeks working with the agency, but they were unable to come up with enough workers who would take the job. It was a very interesting lesson in the New York economy, versus the economies in other countries where Santiago had presented his work. He became very agitated, thinking that the gallery was not doing its job. We then engaged a second agency and increased the amount of money we were offering. Finally, with two agencies, we were able to find twenty-two laborers to hold up the beams. But when they were all assembled, I could see that they were not comfortable. These were not desperate illegal immigrants but serious-looking people who treated temporary labor as a serious profession. After about an hour, the workers began to rebel and formed an impromptu union. They designated a distinguished-looking older gentleman to serve as their spokesman. He came to me and very articulately explained that they had nothing to protest against and were uncomfortable being pawns in someone’s protest performance. They all decided to walk off the job. Santiago was immensely upset, blaming this all on the gallery. Determined to realize the performance, we found yet another employment agency and increased the wage by fifty percent, and finally found a group of people willing to hold the beams.
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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