DETROIT — When an artist has been doing their thing for as long and steadfastly as Kenny Scharf, there is a kind of comfort that sets in around the idea of trusting their own process. Arguably, Scharf has always worked from an intuitive place, as far back as his undergrad days at the School of Visual Arts in the early ’80s, followed by a run of palling around with some of the most influential artists of the East Village scene, including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, with whom he shared an apartment in 1981 that was the site of his first “Cosmic Cavern” installation. Scharf would go on to immediate gallery success and inclusion in the 1985 Whitney Biennial, and a cursory scroll through his Instagram yields archival images of him sitting at Andy Warhol’s elbow. Who wouldn’t trust their artistic instincts, when they managed to land Scharf at the warm little center of the New York post-Pop, street art scene, and launch him on a lifelong career trajectory?
That career is presented in truncated form in a survey of works at David Klein Gallery, which offers an easy primer to some of Scharf’s most prominent and recurring motifs: Surrealist Pop clip-art imagery rendered in photo-realistic painting style (what Scharf refers to as “Super-Pop”), hot dogs against colorful backgrounds, playful and intricately detailed fantasy landscapes, and, of course, a candy-colored assortment of his “blob” paintings (which might be considered the fine art predecessors of emoji). For Scharf, this Venn diagram of subjects holds common ground.
“I look at the way I work, and I have so many different styles — people sometimes get confused,” said Scharf, in an interview with Hyperallergic on the day following his opening at David Klein. “But if you look at my work throughout the years, I have these movements where I change style.” Scharf likens his whirl of styles to the great influencer of his generation: television.
“I grew up with TV,” he said, “so it’s like watching a show and switching the channel. You can go from cartoons, to soap operas, to the news, to science fictions. You have a show, let’s say, and then change shows, and then a year later you’re like, I’m going to go watch that show again.”
Scharf’s work is colorful and accessible, and conveys a sense of his friendliness in person. While his styles are different, the work is loosely joined by palette; from his hyper-focused hot dogs to his sprawling Seussian landscapes, Scharf demonstrates an affinity for color. A Freudian might read into the fixation on hot dogs (and Schraf’s other recurring food subject, doughnuts), but there isn’t the sense that his work says a great deal more than what can been seen on the surface.
However, a handful of his newest works represent a kind of evolution of the blob-in-space motif that Scharf has been working with since the ’80s. Quasi-legible in the background are screenprinted layers of newsprint, lifted from articles mostly about climate change. It seems that not even Scharf’s little proto-emojis are immune to environmental anxiety — at least those that do not have the luxury of living in space.
Scharf stayed busy during his time in Detroit, installing a new mural work commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). His work fits in with Detroit’s institutional interests these days — Cranbrook Art Museum is currently showing a Punk Graphics (1976–1986) exhibition, on the heels of last season’s twin shows featuring Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Library Street Collective, working in tandem with the Dan Gilbert-backed Bedrock Development, seems tirelessly devoted to powerhouse players from New York’s more recent street art renaissance of the early 2000s — having commissioned new works by Swoon, Faile, Shepherd Fairy, and KAWS in recent years. There is nothing wrong with maintaining an interest in outstanding moments in contemporary art history, but one has to wonder what the current Detroit scene could achieve if it made a fraction of the investment in its local scene as it does in New York’s.
As far as commercial appeal goes, one can see that another byproduct of Scharf’s career chops is his ability to create a juggernaut of his signature motifs, easily adaptable from gallery, to street, to car, to limited-edition pool floatie in the Whitney shop. And, as any member of a long-term relationship can tell you, keeping things fresh over four decades is a tall order. It’s admirable that Scharf continues to come to the canvas and let it meet him where he’s at.
Kenny Scharf continues at David Klein Gallery (1520 Washington Blvd, Detroit) through October 27.