New York

Kenny Scharf

Tony Shafrazi Gallery

Kenny Scharf is the true heir of Surrealism; he shows where it went. It went to the movies, particularly to cartoons and the monster and cowboy-and-Indian films. André Breton’s doctrine of blending dream and reality was found to be easier to realize among children; this was found unconsciously, of course—it was an unconspiracy.

Scharf’s paintings show the powerful connection between Yves Tanguy and Hanna-Barbera, between Joan Miró and the Smurf, between Breton and Cabbage Patch. They show the psychosocial developments that have taken place. There is no beauty in today’s surrealism or in Scharf’s paintings. Beauty has been replaced by the idea of fun. Scharf’s paintings are fun, perhaps in direct proportion to their garishness. Most are lots of fun. Quite a few children were visiting this show both times I stopped in, and every time I looked in the window. They seemed to think it was a lot of fun too. Of course Scharf used to show with the Fun Gallery and he has a painting here called Funity, 1984, so obviously he's thought a lot about fun. One of his thoughts on the subject would seem to be that fun is a way of transcending the monstrous, as in “making fun of,” which would seem to describe Scharf’s occupation. These paintings are filled with monsters made cute: jolly homunculi, cute cancers, merry protoplasms with minds of their own, Godzillas with smiles, a cheerful pickle creature. Meduzen, 1984, depicts Medusa as something linking a Louis XIV sunburst and a smiley face gone to animation hell. The monster is smiley and friendly and familiar. Hell is an amusement park. Everyone in it is a monster so no one looks bad.

This exhibition featured paintings in several styles. Scharf’s flat, cartoony style was familiar; his dense spray-paint works and drip works looked new. Graffiti artists are always complaining about the buffing the city does to eradicate their work on the subway trains, but Scharf seems to have found an “expressionoid” esthetic in the buffed cars, in graffiti’s layers of spray paint, and in the drip of the fugitive painter. Some of these dense abstract compositions are almost beautiful; certainly they are strong and good-looking. Scharf is almost Islamic in his movement away from depiction toward pure shape, the spiral, cloud and wave.

The hit of the show was a customized 1961 Cadillac parked in the middle of the gallery, every inch painted in wild colors. The car is lavishly festooned with post-Gothic-cathedral sculpture: a toy F-14 hood ornament inlaid with a roulette wheel, white wooden primitive dog heads on the fenders, rampant Dayglo dinosaurs everywhere, pom-poms, fake plants, feathers, and rhinestones where once was chrome. In this car you could drive away from the world of good taste in remarkable style. Everyone capable of fun would like it because it’s a regally fun car. It’s easier to make a car fun, to customize it amusingly, than to make a fun painting. But because it doesn’t have the art context its easier to recognize it for what it is—a benign amusing monster. Scharf is into customizing our monsters. He does it well and that’s good. I saw John Boorman’s transcendentally fun sci-fi film Zardoz the other night and one line really struck me. It said, “The monster is a mirror.”

Glenn O’Brien