Progression of Art
Escaped in Time, I'm Pleased
This work comes from a series of paintings called "The Death of Estelle," painted in a style that recalls realist 1950s commercial advertisements. The series, when viewed in sequence, tells the story of a "jet-set woman of the future" with brightly colored hair and clothing that directly references the fashion from the futuristic TV cartoon series The Jetsons. In the series, Estelle is enjoying a pizza party when she is approached by extraterrestrials who emerge from her television to tell her how to travel into space. In Escaped in Time, I'm Pleased, the fifth painting in the series, Scharf explains that Estelle is "inside the space ship and she's looking out the window and she sees the world exploding in a nuclear explosion. And she's pleased [...] she's fine as long as she got away."
Visual studies scholar Natalie E. Phillips asserts that this series, as well as several of the works Scharf created throughout the 1980s (often adopting imagery and characters from The Jetsons) was his response to the fear and anxiety that pervaded American society at the time due to the Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust, Ronald Reagan's "strong doomsday rhetoric," and the sobering reality of the AIDS crisis. Phillips writes that Scharf's work "vacillates between opposites (good vs. bad, heaven vs. hell, parody vs. sincerity), refusing to occupy a fixed position," and that it is rife with "odd juxtapositions [...] between the horrific and the benign [which] are the artist's means of coping with his own apocalyptic anxiety, as well as a critique of the self-destructive behavior of American society."
Phillips asserts that in this work "The horror of the mushroom cloud she views from space is mollified by Estelle's cheery smile and the mediation of the explosion through the television screen. Like Scharf himself, Estelle is the ultimate escapist. The Estelle paintings help allay anxiety by trivializing nuclear holocaust, transforming it into a gleeful, nihilistic celebration. Estelle's fashionable, non-stop interplanetary party is seductive. Yet the obvious absurdity of her nonchalant response to the demise of the planet simultaneously underscores Scharf's intentionally ridiculous, escapist desire to dodge Earth's problems by simply moving to outer space."
Acrylic on canvas
In Judy, one of Scharf's earliest graffiti murals, we see a crudely-drawn version of Judy Jetson from the futuristic cartoon The Jetsons, executed in red spray paint on a white brick wall. Here, Judy's head is atop a one of Scharf's signature swirling cosmic shapes, giving her the appearance of flying. A comic strip speech bubble near her mouth contains a small squiggle as if to denote an unimportant comment.
What mattered most for Scharf in his early graffiti art was not so much what the work said, as its placement in a public space. This attitude would go on to inform Scharf's career for the next several decades, as he believes that art should enter into and coexist with, rather than be separated from, everyday life.
Friend and artist Keith Haring shared with Scharf his interest in Art Brut and the theories of French artist Jean Dubuffet, who asserted that true art derives from an internal creative impulse rather than a conscious drive to pursue art as a career. This attitude led Haring and Scharf to develop a strong interest in the subway graffiti of New York City, to become friends with graffiti artists like DAZE and HAZE, and to begin creating their own graffiti works. Scharf explains, "I never professed to be a graffiti artist, nor a street artist either. I just found that hitting the street was the best way to get out there. Especially living in New York City, where all these art people weren't interested in looking at my work or accepting me in a gallery. I wanted to confront them, I wanted them to have no choice but to see me."
Spray paint - New York
Cosmic Cavern 2
In 1981, at the same time he began creating unsanctioned graffiti in public spaces, Scharf also had the urge to decorate interior, private spaces with what he coined "Cosmic Caverns." He first had the idea when he came across a black light, and placed it in a small closet in his East Village loft. He proceeded to fill the room with a variety of brightly colored "junk" (like appliances and toys), and to paint the walls in fluorescent colors. He says that at first, "People didn't look at what I was doing as very original because black light was very popular in the '60s with the hippie culture. In the '80s, it was kind of weird to bring something back that was already from another generation. But I didn't care. I loved and I still love what black light does to a space." The installations became immersive, psychedelic, multi-sensory environments that he has since re-created in various venues.
The Cosmic Caverns were largely informed by Scharf's lifelong "fascination with junk and garbage." He explains, "I had been making art out of trash for awhile before that. I like appliances and things with dials and toys, things I can transform into these science fiction/fantasy objects." He also notes, "When I moved to New York in 1978, the city was basically a trash heap. And I found it fascinating because there was so much great stuff. As punk rock and new wave kids, we were finding all this cool 1950s stuff which we were inspired by and allowed us to both mourn and make fun of the 'death of the American dream.'"
Scharf later recreated the Cosmic Cavern on a larger scale at Club 57, a popular hangout and dance venue for artists like FUTURA 2000, Klaus Nomi, Ann Magnuson, Andy Warhol, and FAB 5 FREDDY. Scharf explains, "parties started happening in them. I love having art that you can dance in. It becomes alive. Visual art itself is alive, but when you have music and people, it's a great performance. [...] Art is so solitary that when you get to do something involving a party and a bunch of people it's great."
Day-Glo paint, PS1 - Long Island City
As part of his desire, in the early 1980s, to imbue everyday items and environments with an artistic element, Scharf customized a wide variety of found objects and "broken junk," including household appliances and toys. His favorite of these customized found-object works was this vacuum, painted to look like a cartoonish red and green cyclops he named "Cheeki." He referred to Cheeki as his "pet," and explains, "It was kind of similar to how the Flintstones had their pets as appliances. So, I took this vacuum cleaner, made it into my pet, and then would actually take her for walks on a leash. It was really fun."
In this way, Cheeki became a sort of performance piece. Scharf recalls, "One day I took Cheeki for a walk in the Garment District, where guys would regularly run around with clothing racks and pieces of plywood on wheels, and I remember one of them suddenly stopped and looked Cheeki and I over, then our 'pets' sniffed each other, and we just kept going."
Repurposing junk has been an important artistic and environmentally-conscious activity for Scharf throughout his career. He says, "Whether it's a car, a TV, a telephone, anything that you actually use and handle and touch, if you turn that object into art, then you bring art into your everyday life. I look at it as futuristic but also it's very ancient. I compare it to the Ancient Egyptians or the Greeks. All their objects that they used in their daily life were art."
Scharf has customized a number of other found objects such as Answering Machine (1982). He explains, "I was customizing all these broken appliances that I'd find in the street, and then one day I decided, why only do broken ones? I should do ones that are still working and then it'll be even more transformative." Years later, when exhibiting Answering Machine at a group show, he pressed play on the recordings, and discovered a message from his deceased friend Keith Haring. Scharf says, "It was very bittersweet and really touched my heart."
Customized vacuum cleaner
In 2009, Scharf was invited to contribute a mural to the Houston Bowery wall, part of the Wynwood Walls, a "museum of the streets" begun in conjunction with Art Basel Miami Beach. The massive epitomizes typical Scharf style, with brightly colored, interlocking, goofy faces and characters, arranged centrally around a red oval, which serves as the nose of a jagged-toothed, macabre creature. Arts writer Sandra Schulman asserts, "Maybe [this snarling face] represents some omnipotent force, an angry cartoon god that all the other characters swirling around him need to needle, poke, chomp on."
When he returned to the site in 2010, he was devastated to find that his mural had been tagged over. He says, "I had a really tough time after doing that wall. It's such a high-profile space, and there are so many writers that want to get on it, and a lot of them don't know who I am. I come from a different world and time, and, well, let's just say they annihilated it." That winter, he painstakingly tried to restore the mural, saying, "It was freezing, very difficult to see what was underneath and much more difficult than initially painting it. So there I was, looking at somebody's big, ugly tag and trying to bring back what was there. It was 100 times harder than doing the original mural."
When the restoration process was put on hold because of a blizzard, Scharf returned to find that the wall had been bombed again. When he expressed his frustration on Internet graffiti blogs, he received strong negative responses from a younger generation of artists who were unaware of Scharf's early involvement in the Wynwood walls, which they viewed as belonging to them. He says, "They were, like, threatening to kill me. Yes, it's the Internet; yes, people say a lot of crazy shit. But it was clear they didn't know or care about their own history."
Spray paint - Houston Bowery (Wynwood Walls), Miami
Typical of Scharf's oeuvre, this large mural painted on the side of a parking garage features a swirling mass of brightly-colored cartoon faces in a joyful, cosmic soup. Scharf usually paints smiling figures, explaining, "I want to feel that happiness and joy. It makes me happy if I make a perfect smile." He also notes that his characters can be likened to animated "emotions."
Scharf's decision to paint cartoon-like figures is a conscientious one. Even in his early career, "I thought to have cartoons in the art world is a no-brainer. I'm not the first one that did it. I mean, pop artists were doing it, and I thought that ground was broken way before me. Yet I encountered a lot of resistance, and maybe because my cartoon use wasn't ironic. [...] I think that people a lot of times didn't like that. They thought it was kid stuff, and I wasn't being a serious adult artist." Yet Curator Richard D Marshall suggests, "Disguised as lurid, Day-Glo colored cartoon heads; Scharf's subjects present a surreal, yet achievable reality of a harmonious cohabitation of man, nature and the cosmos."
When executing large-scale murals like this, Scharf works solo, without assistants, aided only by the driver of the cherry-picker lift that helps him reach all parts of the surface. He explains that "It's just spray paint and nobody can really help you. And I make it up on the spot, I don't really know what exactly I'm doing anyway, so how could I... You know, it's not color-in like you can have someone else do it for you." He views his artistic process as analogous to that of a jazz musician "who has all of their repertoire, their notes, their tricks, you know, they learned it, they're good musicians. And they have kind of an idea of where they're going to go, but they kind of go [where they want to take you]".
Spray paint - West Hollywood, California
What Me Worry? (Blue)
What Me Worry? (Blue) is comprised of several slim, goofy-looking, red and grey figures that resemble sperm, as well as small spheres, and other organic forms, superimposed on top of a collage-like jumble of newspaper headlines and articles about global warming. The wacky, oblivious expressions of the figures, in contrast with the frightening and dire text in the background, serves as a criticism of the way in which humankind refuses to take seriously the imminent threat facing our planet.
In recent years, Scharf has created multiple works that deal directly with environmental issues like climate change and pollution. Scharf, who vividly remembers growing up amidst the perpetual smog days of Southern California, recently stated, "I feel that I can't be quiet about my obsessions which have always been our environment and the danger to our fragile ecosystem. I have been making this my main focus pretty much with all of my messaging either blatant in your face or underlying and subtle, but it's always there. Lately, I feel the need to utilize all of the dire headlines we are all confronting on a daily basis as we enter the most dangerous and stressful moment in our ecological human history."
The sperm-shaped references to human reproduction in this work relate to Scharf's concern for his children, and for all of the future generations inheriting a damaged planet. On one hand, he feels a sense of impending doom, noting that today's children are "so innocent and pure and what the fuck is going to be there for them? Sorry, there's no animals, they're all extinct." Yet at the same time he communicates his fear through this and similar works, he also makes sure to include "messages of hope and optimism and joy," in order to inspire viewers to take action, rather than resigning themselves to a hopeless future.
Oil, acrylic, silkscreen ink and mylar on linen with aluminum frame