How Kenny Scharf Became a SoCal Street Art Icon

Kenny Scharf working in his Los Angeles studio, 2015EXPAND
Kenny Scharf working in his Los Angeles studio, 2015
Badir McCleary

The following is an excerpt from G. James Daichendt's new book, Kenny Scharf: In Absence of Myth. This chapter, entitled "Art in the Streets," covers the SoCal native's relationship to the street-art world.

Street art has become the largest art movement of the 21st century. Developed from graffiti, the postmuseum art form was first established in New York in the 1970s, when [Kenny] Scharf and his colleagues borrowed aspects of graffiti and successfully took the art form beyond letter writing. This spawned artists like Shepard Fairey, Barry McGee and Banksy, who carried the torch for street art in subsequent decades.

Street art again experienced a significant jump forward in the 2000s as social media became a way to spread these accessible and riveting images instantaneously. Dubbed the “art of the people,” it’s acknowledged as art the second it is stumbled upon, reversing many of the attributes conceptualists left the art world. This surge of activity began as Kenny found his legs in Los Angeles, a combination of events that culminated in Kenny painting murals and using the streets as prominent aspects of his work again.

In 2004, after years of not painting outside, Kenny was asked to paint something at the Pasadena Museum of California Art in conjunction with the exhibit "Kenny Scharf: California Grown." Kenny’s idea was to paint the garage, which was inspired by Barry McGee’s garage installation at LACMA, and he knew it would last longer than the show itself. This was followed by an invitation from longtime supporter Jeffrey Deitch, who began curating the Wynwood Walls a few years later in Miami. The momentum continued to build through the years with an invitation to paint the infamous Bowery Wall in New York City in 2010 and a host of projects across the country in 2011.

Kosmic Krylon Garage, Pasadena Museum of California Art, 2004
Kosmic Krylon Garage, Pasadena Museum of California Art, 2004
Image courtesy of Ryan Miller_Capture Imaging and Pasadena Museum of California Art

In 2011, Scharf was asked to contribute a huge mural on the exterior of the West Hollywood Library. This invitation marks his latest wave of success, as street artists are quick to acknowledge his contributions to their history. A host of publications, exhibitions and documentaries also followed these events, which expanded the knowledge base and fandom for the work of street artists around the world.

The new West Hollywood Library was scheduled to open in October of 2011, and the parking garage was a collaboration with the city of West Hollywood and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). The commissioned murals were considered to be an extension of the wildly popular exhibition "Art in the Streets," the first major U.S. museum survey of graffiti and street art at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Along with Shepard Fairey and Retna, Kenny was asked to paint on this monstrous surface. Spray painting had always had a big impact in Kenny’s art, and while he never called himself a graffiti artist, he was clearly being written into its history.

Soon after the mural was completed, Kenny received a call from The Simpsons television show. Shepard Fairey was to play a lead character and the show hoped to include Kenny, Ron English and Robbie Conal to round out a group of historically important street artists. On the episode called “Exit Through the Kwik-E-Mart,” Kenny’s character is busy spray painting his characters in an alley. One of the antagonists on the show teases Kenny’s character as he works on the wall by asking if he was designing a Mommy and Me store, after which Kenny mocks him and adds his face to the mural. The episode aired in 2012, and being included on a Simpsons episode is a bit like being knighted in pop culture.

Kenny was at first a bit oblivious to the show’s cultural importance. A list was published of The Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s 100 favorite things, and art by Kenny Scharf was listed as No. 85. This very cool development exemplified how Kenny’s influence was being recognized by creatives and artists across the communities that he had been shaped by as a kid and now impacted by as an adult. The support and appreciation that Kenny desired over the years was returning and on a much larger scale, acknowledgment that the artist could not have been more grateful for.

West Hollywood Library, 2011EXPAND
West Hollywood Library, 2011
Lord Jim

A survey of graffiti and street art
The most impressive event in 2011 was Kenny’s invitation to play a significant part in the "Art in the Streets" exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angles. The gallerist turned museum director Jeffrey Deitch championed the show designed to celebrate and trace the development of graffiti and street art in the 1970s to the global influence it has today.

The massive exhibit was impressive and received positive reviews overall, and Kenny’s contribution was noteworthy and difficult to miss. One of his customized cars had a place of honor alongside his friend Keith Haring’s painted automobile upon entering the show. Then just to left of the entrance, Kenny painted a huge mural that doubled as a walkway leading visitors to an updated Cosmic Cavern. Kenny’s imprint on the record-breaking exhibit was impressive and acknowledged him as a foundational figure.
Sharon Mizota’s review for the L.A. Times explains: “In the end, the show is not just about showcasing street art but about recovering in some way what has already been lost.”

During this surge of recognition, Kenny was even invited back to Miami to paint in Tony Goldman’s new development called the Wynwood Walls. The community revitalization project, which utilizes the abundance of windowless warehouse buildings to create an outdoor gallery, was a dream of Goldman’s. Combined, the MOCA show and the subsequent invitations to paint outside cemented Kenny’s place in the history of street art. It’s difficult to travel to a major city without seeing his work. From the garage at the Pasadena Museum of California Art to a seemingly random Brooklyn fence, it’s possible to see more of Kenny’s work in public spaces than ever before.

Thirteen channels
Art has been the driving force in Kenny’s life, and he has found companionship, love, loss, despair, and redemption pursuing it. The different modes of thinking and making for Kenny range from performance and installation to painting and street art, a spectrum that he says stems from his past: “I am an artist from the television generation. The remote control had 13 channels, and you could sit down and channel surf and never really focus on one thing, or you could just watch one cartoon show, and then you get bored and go back to the other show. That’s how I view my different styles.”

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There are several world views that Kenny finds himself returning to over the years, perspectives that are the starting points and the lens through which to begin experimenting with a lifetime of imagery and ideas. You can see these ideas in everything from his street art to his paintings and sculpture.

The first perspective is outer space and an interest in the cosmos. To juxtapose this outward view, Kenny also focuses on inner space at the molecular level. It’s easy to recognize the spirals, stars and planets that make up this world, which is either outward- or inward-looking. As Kenny puts it, “I find it interesting that outer space and inner space are the same — the way planets revolve around the sun, much the same way electrons revolve around the protons of the nuclei.”

Davis Brothers Tires, 2013, Los AngelesEXPAND
Davis Brothers Tires, 2013, Los Angeles
Lord Jim

The most well-known perspective is perhaps Kenny’s illustrations and commercial images that are realistic and come from pop culture. Actual objects and characters from cartoons make up this world. In contrast to this, Kenny also uses abstraction, something he sees as escapism as his forms become bloblike and ooze onto one another.

Exploring these themes in various media allows him to expound on these ideas and continue to investigate. Kenny does not see it as rehashing themes but rather a natural extension of his childhood. He explains, “I feel like I have enough television stations to help my ADD.”

Flipping through television channels is an apt metaphor for understanding his perspectives: “I am ADD because I had too much input as a child. The generation before me only had billboards, radio and magazines. Then my generation had television. It changed things, the way the internet changed things today.”

As Kenny continues to work, inwardly and outwardly, he sees this process as akin to cooking: “I feel like I have my ingredients and I can make a dish with one ingredient or 10. I made a language for myself that allows me to go on for infinity and never be bored.” Whether it’s technically or conceptually exploring ideas, Kenny feels that his themes allow for endless combinations.

West Adams Street Mural, 2014, Los AngelesEXPAND
West Adams Street Mural, 2014, Los Angeles
Lord Jim

G. James Daichendt is dean of the arts and humanities and professor of art history at Point Loma Nazarene University in Southern California and a graduate of Columbia, Harvard and Boston universities. Recent books include: Shepard Fairey Inc.; Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art; Artist Scholar: Reflections on Writing and Research and Artist Teacher: A Philosophy for Creating and Teaching.


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