Street art and murals in Southern California seem to grow like weeds these days. Both legal and illegal works are increasingly facilitated and continue to attract visitors from around the world to paint in Los Angeles. Within this boom, the bubblegum aesthetic of Kenny Scharf has surfaced on the walls of Culver City, West Hollywood, and Pasadena in recent years. The colorful blob like forms stretch and divide up the walls they encompass and appear to be living organisms as they slide along the surface. It's special to have this grandfather of street art add to the public conversation yet it's also probably surprising for many to learn, that southern California is his home turf and the genesis for many of his conceptual ideas and influences.
Scharf, a product of the East Village and the art boom in 1980s seems to have always been associated with the East Coast. Yet this central figure in the New York scene is really more of a hippie than a punk rocker and it was his early interests in psychedelic posters, Kustom Kulture, and lowbrow art forms that resurfaced when he discovered the New York graffiti artists as a college student.
Growing up in the Valley, Scharf's quintessential Jewish family placed importance on tradition and middle class values. Living amid a brown and orange color palette, the appliances, coffee shops, billboards, and cars that were all space aged in the late 1950s and early 1960s became boring and boxy to the maturing high school student in the 1970s. In response, Scharf started to collect example of these designs in magazines because they represented a potential future that was much more exciting than his current reality. This stifling experience in the Valley cooked him like an Easy Bake Oven, ready to explode when he finally left home.
Inspired by the exploits of Andy Warhol, Scharf moved to New York shorty after graduating high school where he attended the School of Visual Arts in 1978. He surfaced in the art scene not long after arriving and was an instrumental member of Club 57, planning performances and partaking in the wildness that characterized the early 1980s in the East Village of Manhattan. His close friends Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat were along side of him as they each eventually used aspects of graffiti within their fine art to develop what we now call street art.
The explosion and resurgence of street art in the 21st century has placed Scharf within this tradition and its reengineered purpose. From the original subway graffiti writers to multidimensional artists like KAWS, his importance as an originator of this young movement began before social media made celebrities of artists.
Preceding many of the trends of what we consider art, Scharf's place in the art world exists between multiple eras. Whether it is Pop Art, New Wave, Pop Surrealism, or Street Art, his activity in Los Angeles highlights the tension among all of them. The incredible success he achieved thrust him onto the international stage in his twenties. The AIDS crisis, deaths of dozens of close friends, and the resulting movements like Neo-Geo left Scharf in its wake as a has-been after just a few years. At times, fans, collectors, and associates were even surprised he was alive, especially after so many of his friends were being mythologized as geniuses because of their untimely deaths. Much like Willem de Kooning outliving the myth of Jackson Pollock, Kenny Scharf has wrestled with the ghosts of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring for decades.
After leaving New York City in 1987, Scharf had stints in Upstate New York and Miami, Florida before moving back to Los Angeles in 1999 to pursue an animation project with Cartoon Network. The poor experience left him frustrated with Hollywood and relying on other people to make his visions come to life. Soon after, a recommitment to painting spurred a flurry of studio activity.
Invitations followed to paint the inside of the parking garage at the Pasadena Museum of California Art and one of the walls of the new West Hollywood Library. These high profile locations reintroduced Scharf to his hometown of Los Angeles throughout the following decade and even earned him a guest role, playing himself on the long running television show "The Simpsons."
Scharf's expressionistic hand and free-flowing artistic process are both parts of why his art makes you giddy. There is a coolness that seems to flow into his process, blurring the borders between art, fun, business, and life. He does not rely on assistants, and does not plan out his large murals. Instead it's more like an impromptu performance piece. This dance to complete a mural references his hippie background and revives a bit of the lost customization that makes architecture in L.A. interesting. There seems to be no slowing down this one-man show as he completed several murals in Culver City over the past year and is coming full circle to his youthful days in the city.