There are hardly any humans in the fantastical psychedelic art of Kenny Scharf, unless you count Fred Flintstone and Jane Jetson, or Wilma Flintstone with a snake’s body.
Goofy, nostalgic without being obnoxious, and sometimes straight-up weird, the curious solo exhibition “Scharftopia: The Far-Out World of Kenny Scharf” is literally far out — it’s an hour-plus drive from the Twin Cities to St. Peter, Minn., to take in this show at Gustavus Adolphus College’s Hillstrom Museum of Art. These paintings, drawings and sculptures, drawn from the collection of Minneapolis-based Mats Sexton, offer something of a mini-tour through the Los Angeles artist’s career.
A fixture of the New York art world in the 1980s, Scharf has been thrust back into the spotlight in the past five years through a current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art about the East Village art scene’s Club 57, along with shows at Deitch Projects NY and solo exhibits in 2017 and 2015 at Honor Fraser Gallery in L.A.
As for the Minnesota connection, Sexton first connected with Scharf in 2002 while writing the book “The B-52’s Universe: The Essential Guide to the World’s Greatest Party Band.” They bonded over Scharf’s painting “Hypnozen,” which was featured as the cover art for the band’s 1986 album “Bouncing Off the Satellites.” Scharf was a part of the East Village scene in the ’80s, befriending Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, but left New York as the AIDS epidemic claimed the lives of Haring, Basquiat and many other artists. He split time between Miami and Brazil before moving back to L.A. in 1999.
Though it was painted during his New York years, the vibe is very SoCal in “Agua Pollination” (1983). Two figures carved into a purple rock formation gaze longingly at each other with some very silly sexual tension between them, along with a silver palm tree.
Even more recent works feel like they could’ve been from the 1970s and ’80s. “Monstroil” and “Nastoil” (both 2010) are kind of dark, with hazy blue backgrounds and globby black sinister, monstrous faces popping up, some with sharp, deathly teeth. In “Jungle Gym” (2017), an aquamarine and green background is foregrounded with trippy purple trees, floating dark purple blobs, furry red beasts and random Chinese lettering. A variety of mass-produced one-eyed cats in “Cateyeguy” (2007) and three-eyed green dogs in “Dogeyeguy” (2017) bring a psychedelic pet feel to the whole thing.
At a certain point the work starts to feel repetitive. Which is OK, because visual artists typically nail an aesthetic and you can guess what to expect from them. But the pets in particular felt gimmicky, while some of the newer abstract work was a bit murky.
This repetition is redeemed by “Love Is All Around,” a piece drawn from Scharf’s 2015 exhibition “Born Again.” For this series, the artist collected and repurposed 37 paintings from thrift stores by adding emotions he felt bubbling up from under the surface. The original painting here looks as if it were ripped from the cover of a romance novel found at an airport. Scharf painted mischievous furry purple figures onto it, suggesting subtext in a kitschy image you’d expect to see in Grandma’s living room.
Some of the more fascinating works in this exhibition have nothing to do with Scharf’s psychedelic world. Characters from the 1960s animated TV shows “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons” pop up throughout. “Wilma and George” (1981), a marker-on-paper drawing, shows Wilma Flintstone and George Jetson with nonhuman bodies, posing in bizarro landscapes, as if straddling the Stone Age and the future. In “Flintstones” (1999), a bewildered Fred with a tattoo of the Jetsons’ kid looks at a volcano erupting in the background, while his wife Wilma and daughter Pebbles chill in their stone home, which has a futuristic-looking antenna. A heavenly Jetsons’ scene hovers in a corner of the painting. It seems to suggest that each era has its own catastrophes, as history repeats itself.
If these worlds are too much for you, relax and take a trip to “Palm Springs Vacation” (1978), an acrylic-on-canvas painting that is Scharf’s least psychedelic and most ridiculous piece here. Created while Scharf was studying at the University of California, Santa Barbara, it sticks out among the other radical worlds. A fat dude wearing a tiny polka-dot bathing suit and chomping on a cigar sunbathes next to a blond diva in white heels amid fake pink palm trees and leopard-print colored mountains. Clearly, escaping to a surreal landscape is as easy as hopping a plane to Palm Springs.