'Pop surrealist' Kenny Scharf's interdisciplinary practice spans graffiti, sculpture, and fashion, bringing art outside of the art world.Read More
Born in Los Angeles, Kenny Scharf moved to New York, where he earned his B.F.A. in painting at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in 1980. There, he became involved in the East Village art scene alongside Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring.
Scharf's multifaceted artistic practice began with street art and graffiti and has since branched into painting, sculpture, performance, and fashion. He has described his loud, colourful, and fantastical style that mixes elements of pop culture with dystopia and science fiction as 'pop surrealism'. Scharf's murals can be found in New York City to this day.
As part of the first generation to grow up with television in the 1960s, Scharf became fascinated with the potential of television and the future it promised. Much of his work has referenced pop culture and its imagery, injecting elements of street culture into contemporary art. Scharf has depicted surreal and psychedelic images of aliens and cartoon characters, such as the Flintstones and the Jetsons. In the painting LOVE (1982), the artist portrays Fred and Wilma Flintstone with the bodies of snails, entangled in an embrace. In Barberadise (1981), he combines several members of the Jetsons family with insects against a candy-coloured landscape.
In the 1980s, Scharf and Haring organised a series of disco parties in their shared apartment called the 'Cosmic Closet', later termed the 'Cosmic Cavern'. These pop-up events created immersive glow-in-the-dark experiences through the use of black light and Day-Glo paints. In these spaces, Scharf brought in 'garbage,' painted its surface with fluorescent pigments, and illuminated the room with black light. In Scharf's Bushwick studio in 2014, he painted his guest's faces as they entered, while American artist Scott Ewalt worked as the event's DJ. The 'Cosmic Cavern' has been installed in several international institutions and exhibitions, including MoMA PS1 (1981), the Whitney Biennial (1985), MARCO Monterrey, Mexico (1997), and Lotte Museum of Art, Seoul (2018).
In 2013, Scharf began his long-term Karbombz! Project, where he spray-paints cars with his iconic characters for free. Karbombz! started in Alabama, where the artist was approached while working on a mural to paint on a passer-by's car. Scharf has since offered to paint anybody's car should they request it.
Karbombz! follows the trajectory of Scharf's public art practice. He relates his project to his experience growing up in Los Angeles among lowrider, surfer, and DIY subcultures, telling KCET in 2020, 'I always got excited when I saw the lowrider cars all painted amazing, when I see surfer air-brushed vans, anything that has decoration and usefulness. It definitely improves the boring madman traffic jams.' As of 2020, there are an estimated 260 Karbombz!-ed cars around the world.
Kenny Scharf's practice has always embraced the potential of collaboration outside of museums and galleries. He has previously worked with American new wave band The B-52's to design their album cover for Bouncing Off the Satellites (1986). Scharf has also had commissions with various fashion brands including Jeremy Scott, Jack Rogers, Swatch, and Dior. He additionally developed The Groovenians in 2002, a cartoon produced by Cartoon Network for Adult Swim. When Worlds Collide, a documentary about Scharf's artwork and involvement in the North American art scene was released in 2020.
Scharf has held solo exhibitions across North and Central America, Europe, and Asia, including at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA); Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow; La Nave Salinas, Ibiza; and Baik Art, South Korea. His work has been collected by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Sogetsu Museum, Tokyo; and the Broad Foundation, Los Angeles, among others.
Arianna Mercado | Ocula | 2021