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Monsters and Classical Gas
Thoughts after watching the new Kenny Scharf Documentary.
Monsters. I’ve been drawing and painting and even writing about them since I was first given crayons.
I can tell you about the way TV kid shows from the seventies and Martian movies from the fifties being replayed on repeat have influenced me. I can tell you about the ways I’ve been trying to analyze myself and figure out the reasons I am attracted to them and find them humorous. I can tell you that I’ve also drawn lizards and wrestlers and sneakers- that all still seem to live in the same dimension as the creatures. I can tell you that I’ve “upped my game,” and have learned how to refine my depiction of anything I choose to depict through hard work and form.
I can tell you that I’ve always seen faces on objects. This is something called face pareidolia, that was once thought to be related to psychosis but is now considered a very human thing. This is something mentioned by the artist Kenny Scharf in the documentary, When Worlds Collide, directed and written in part by his daughter, Malia Scharf. He mentions that he has always seen faces on objects, as a way to perhaps understand his own tendency to add cartoon faces to blobs and shapes that appear to me to be “monsters.”
But what I found I’m more interested in, is the artists interviewed in the film, commenting on what they know and/or believe about Scharf’s colorful and playful artwork, within the art world. Their input was helpful for me, a person who makes a similar kind of art that doesn’t really appear to challenge my viewers perceptions of anything, really.
FAMOUS CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS
As a teen, when I first started to read about Warhol, Basquiat, Haring and Kenny Scharf, I felt far more of a connection to Scharf than the others. The colors and characters were so similar to things I doodled and drew. They still are. Not to mention his interest in recycled materials and performance. As a young creative person, I wasn’t thinking much about why I painted as I did. I did and do so in a rather intuitive manner, aside from when I choose a subject matter that is a thing in the world we all agree upon as existing. It seems he works in a similar way.
Standing with the art.
In 1997 or ‘98 I went to the Keith Haring retrospective at the SFMOMA and ended up being surprised by and more interested in Kara Walker’s exhibit (discovering her for the first time) that revealed form, presentation, and narrative in a way that contrasted with Haring’s rather (in my opinion) impersonal and “speedy” shapes and drips. Maybe things would have been different if Haring were still alive to have had some input on the display.
The Warhols I had seen in person by that point were more like seeing historical relics or movie props. So much of him was everywhere and on all of the pop-culture junk I devoured as a kid.
Experiencing Basquiat’s retrospective at MOCA in 2005 led me to feeling something huge and wonderful, like walking inside of a story. Even though there are contemporary artists whose imagery has not (yet) been printed on Vans, but definitely carry the same kind of magic. The experience, with all of those big canvases in one space, led me to understand that my art needed to have my own version of that energy, as well as the strange sort of intimacy I got from the Kara Walker San Francisco exhibit, if I could ever get there.
But two years before the Basquiat retrospective, (So many time jumps!) I had attended an opening for a solo show Kenny Scharf was having at Bergamot Station, in west Los Angeles. It was my first year of living as a professional artist and I asked him how he found motivation to start working in the day. It was a problem I had. He was friendly and warm and answered my question sincerely. Obviously I really liked that. Fast forward eight years later, (Again!) in Culver City, where he was a part of a group show and he saw me ducking out of the opening. He walked over and suggested I stay- reassuring me that it was going to be even more fun as the night wore on. Of course he didn’t know who I was and I didn’t stay, but the fact that he reached out to a guest to make them feel welcomed is something I appreciated.
When Worlds Collide discusses (in part) how Scharf’s work needed to grow. The fact that Haring and Basquiat received more attention and their art sold for more money during those well-known early years in NYC was an issue for the artist. How would it not be? But when looking at the evolution of his aesthetic, you can see the time it took him to find something I can’t really put my finger on, but know very well from my own art-life. You can feel the sophistication in some works of his back then- but compare it to what he did later, and there is obvious growth or more confidence... Sometimes it takes time, no matter how prolific we are. Or perhaps the prolificacy is what it takes.
The exploration in the film of the “happy” and playful content in his work is also very interesting. Within the bright and cheery faces on paintings, murals, the blobby faces spray painted on cars, there are often connections made to nuclear threat and ideas of a toxic future based on our waste and idealized visions curated by industries who had/have the power to infiltrate our brains. TV, cartoons, plastic products designed to make the world an easier or fun place to live, are also harming the planet- there is commentary to be found. A personal exploration of the era he grew up within and a space where the “real” world is being critiqued.
He states his method is one where he just starts painting/making, and allows the work to evolve and form the visual “story” (my term), and I am comforted by that. Other people in the film, painters included, mention how he is his art (process included) and his art is him. It’s genuinely who he is. How gorgeous is that?
He’s been doing this for over forty years and that is something. He’s made it his living, even though it’s been tough, at times. And he’s still around! Well done.
Fast-forward to the future (Come on, Linda! ⏰), which is now (🤦♀️), and we see Kenny Scharf’s work was recently used in the Christian Dior men’s line designed by Kim Jones that is absolutely brilliant, in my opinion. If the fashion industry wasn’t a world where garments are priced insanely and intentionally out of reach from someone like me, who works primarily as a teacher for a living, I would wear every piece I saw on the wonderful fashion show that’s up on Youtube.
A modified version of Deee-Lite’s What is Love and Pussycat Meow is at least a part of the soundtrack for the show and it brings me right back to memories of early 90’s night life. Models float-walk through a cosmic landscape that reminds me of his room at Tunnel (I was there in 1996 but don’t remember the room!) and brings me back to dreamy feelings of being young and out all night, dancing in clubs and transcending time and space through dance (and maybe a wine cooler or three) at Bay Area outdoor raves.
When I asked him, all those years ago, how he starts his working day, he said that he doesn’t always get right to painting. He said sometimes he wakes up at eleven and sometimes has a swim or does yoga before grabbing a paint brush.
The idea of play is a part of his work, and perhaps that’s the big idea to get from everything he does. Maybe it’s saying that there are other things art can be or reflect onto the viewer.
The other day, I heard the song called Classical Gas by Mason Williams. I think it’s a very good song, released in 1968. It’s been a while since I heard it and I forgot how emotive it is.
I guess it was around the time of its release that my dad learned some things about Mason Williams’ work.
Ever since I can remember and every time that song came on at the supermarket, mall or some diner, my father would take the time to retell the Mason Williams story, through the filtering lens that was David Lay’s perception of life. He stated that Williams was just a regular guy who decided he wanted to master certain things and be done with them, forever. “One offs,” but masterful ones. As though perfecting something, checking it off a list, and moving onto something completely new was the ultimate enlightened process, and the only genuine way to approach the arts.
He told me that Mason Williams wanted to write one great poem and he did. He wanted to paint one big mural and he did and he wanted to be a master at guitar and he became one so he could create a modern classical song. For shits and giggles. Without much concern over the “whys” of things, just a plain desire and effort toward interesting goals. I guess that sounds good. It’s certainly not the whole story, but I get why my dad liked his version of it.
From what I can tell, Mason Williams is a Hollywood creative who had opportunities based on his hard work in that community and he took advantage of them. For instance, it’s no secret that his famous song was a collaboration with the amazing studio musicians that were known as The Wrecking Crew.
Mason Williams (on the Internet) is listed as a classical guitarist, but he started as a comedian and comedy writer. He did want to write poetry, as well as write and perform a song and he created a large-scale mural for a museum out of photos of a Greyhound bus. He was friends with the artist Ed Ruscha (Interviewed in the recent Kenny Scharf doc), who had something to do with this being on display at the Pasadena Museum of Art and then the Museum of Modern Art. In fact, he made a lot of art, not just the bus.
My dad liked his fantasy of Mason Williams not placing too much “weight” on the importance of his artworks; that he did things simply because they were challenging and fun. This idea reminds me of Scharf’s discussion of fun being a big part of his life’s work. I know that my dad wanted to believe in the simplicity of the artist’s pursuits, as opposed to being “a big shot,” as he would say. I suppose it’s similar to how I value the time Kenny Scharf took to notice and respond to me. We all make up so many stories to help tell our own, don’t we?
There is so much contemporary art right now that I just love. Such incredible and beautiful paintings, weavings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, installations, performances... From people I know very little about, but their work is just as and often more inspiring than the works of the artists I’ve been discussing here. The context of their art, as gleaned from essays written by gallerists, or perhaps the artists themselves, show that many seem to connect to concerns and ideas that reach not only what everyone feels is complex and relevant, but also valuable to the art market. I see someone using thread to create what I see as monsters and the description of the work references ancient texts and climate change, sexuality and gender... It blows my mind, really. Is it truly all about that? Or is it text made up because this is needed to make work sellable and collectable? Probably a little bit of both and I’m jealous that I can’t seem to make those kind of connections between words and visual imagery in an organic manner. Most often I work intuitively and then find meaning, connections.
And then there are those with an approach that’s all about using independent sales strategies and the Internet to make work that suits walls on homes (And I’ve seen some good stuff!), thereby appearing to me to lose the value of the artist’s vision and process-story. So is that more sincere? Is that honest? I’m not sure how I feel about this, but I suspect my ego is just chattering up a big useless storm in my brain, as all paintings must end up in some room, somewhere, acting as some kind of currency or complimenting the fabric on a sofa or patterns on wallpaper.
Sigh. Somebody cue that one Peggy Lee song (you know the one) and let’s just keep on dancing.