New York

Kenny Scharf

Tony Shafrazi Gallery

Although it’s customary to describe Kenny Scharf’s recent paintings as “post”—postapocalyptic, postmutant, etc.—certainly they show as much retroactivity as prophecy, in fact maybe more past than future. The space of the paintings is oceanic or stratospheric, in any case without boundaries; each teeming element is bonded to the next in a limitless expanse (a perhaps unintentional but no less funny riposte to “alloverness”). Inside and outside migrate; in Sexadansa, 1983, there’s a universe inside each stick figure’s mouth, and the twinkles in their eyes are stars or suns of a remote galaxy. The Big Bang becomes la petite mort in Sexadansa. Elsewhere, the single identifiable locale is the tropical beach, not only the place you test atom bombs but also where you trace the origin of the species.

In general, the work is regressive—in the primitivism of an Egyptian pose, in the revival of the pathetic fallacy (astrophysics personified), in this figuration’s ultimate refusal of the figure. It balks at a full maturity, although it suggests a process of development: in the background, designs are kept simple, their edges aerated, sublimated, but the foreground hieroglyphics and vegetation gain humanoid capacities, if never fully human ones. Excessive animism is in Freudian thought a denial of death, and, of all the many signs in Scharf’s repertoire, there’s none for the final negation. It’s no accident that so many of his forms are triumphantly serpentine (one piece on paper even depicts a crowned serpent). Procreation is effortless, degenderized, polymorphous.

If Scharf’s paintings seem pure pleasure-principle, his installations, with their functional objects and tawdry presentation, show some regard for reality. Much has been made of the difference between the commercial value of the paintings at the Shafrazi Gallery and the environment at the Fun Gallery (although surely “salability” is in the eye of the buyer). The sand, beach chairs, artificial plants, and even many of the biologically more accurate animals in the environment did attempt to evoke a virtual space, albeit a possibly endangered one, since the sole traditional canvas presented a tropical scene subject to terrific winds. That painting blew into another dimension when it reached Shafrazi as Oceano Vista, 1983, another beachscape and the first thing one saw in the gallery. The piece is warped, no longer rectangular, and against the black and white check of the gallery floor it created a spatial disorientation which prepared us well for further hallucinations. Maybe Scharf wasn’t asserting a greater if grittier sense of reality for the East Village and a giddy weightlessness for Soho. But whether one sees the daffy euphoria and delusional space of his paintings as a response to art power structures or to whole world ones, there is clear evidence of an ego attempting to recapture the safety of an infantile confusion of self and other.

This is an observation rather than necessarily an objection. Despite their beatific contentment, Scharf’s denizens are viewed by many as demonic. Having abdicated all responsibility (an abandonment somehow epitomized by the use of spray paint to depict ultraviolet air pollution), all nuance, all rationality, and all pain, Scharf’s persona carries a new strain of autism. One can respond to this as usefully tragic, because critical or cathartic, or mildly entertaining.

Jeanne Silverthorne