Leila Heller Gallery presents Kenny Scharf & Philip Taaffe until 31 August
Leila Heller Gallery presents the first solo exhibition in the UAE by Kenny Scharf, muralist, painter, sculptor, and installation artist, best known for his fantastical, large-scale paintings of anthropomorphic animals and imagined creatures, and the first solo exhibition in the Middle East by Philip Taaffe, one of the most eminent painters of his generation.
His new body of work is a reaction to what he perceives as our ‘increasingly out-of-control situation’, depicted by the melting faces in his paintings. Scharf’s work continues to reflect his inexhaustible optimism and his sense of fun but has always been engaged with profound issues beneath the facade. Ecology, the environment, and capitalist excess have long been central themes. More recently, his paintings reflect his environmental concerns over the petroleum industry.
Large-scale, bright, colorful paintings, murals, drawings, sculptures, prints and installations define Kenny Scharf’s oeuvre, often depicting animated cartoons or imagined creatures. With a child-like appeal, his work is often described as playful, optimistic, bubbly and full of joy. Beneath the colorful and idyllic surface of his paintings and collages, Scharf references the darker issues of the modern world. He categorizes his art as ‘pop surrealism’, drawing inspiration from the realm of the unconscious, explaining that his own unconscious is full of pop imagery. He cites surrealism and abstract expressionism as his major influences.
In We’re Melting Together Night and Day (2017), Melty Slop (2017) and consequent paintings in this series, animated faces of comical creatures crown the descending lines of paint, as though each downward melting blotch were the extended body of one of those figures. Alluding to Color Field, a style characterized by large, highly simplified compositions in which the use of color is independent of line and figuration, Scharf connects with modernist art movements by creating new hybrids, almost as if these earlier forms of art had been placed in a blender. Rows of faces disintegrate into colorful drips reminiscent of both New York School painting and the imagery of minimal art. In these new works, Scharf strives to create clear and simple forms that resonate with meaning, a process that he finds to be “so much fun”.
The use of cartoon faces allows Scharf to express emotion with abstract power. The expression of emotion in art is an element he considers essential to his practice; art that is cold leaves him cold. Scharf studied cartoons as a way to intensify figurative expression, like his artistic counterparts from his early years in New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.
Earlier in his career, Scharf sourced materials for his artworks in the garbage, and to this day, he still stops his car when he finds plastic toys and TV sets thrown out on the street. These discarded plastic objects have inspired the two other bodies of work featured in the show: his Assemblage Vivant Tableaux Plastiques, and his TV Bax. Inspired by the Nouveau Realistes, the assemblage works are constructed from his stock of recycled plastic toys, an expression of our perpetual consumerism. The TV Bax are painted on the plastic backs of discarded television sets. Like the toys, the TV Bax have a disconcerting anthropomorphic quality. The artist questions if their anonymous designers created these plastic covers, which are different for every model, to resemble a face.
These discarded toys and television backs are considered poignant objects, resonant with emotion. “Each of these objects carries a story,” Scharf explains. He considers how people may have struggled and sacrificed to buy these toys and TVs, and the intense relationships that children and families have with them. Scharf brings to life these inanimate objects in his work.
Since his childhood, Scharf has been fascinated by outer space. Space travel and the portrayal of infinite space have long been central themes. In his life and in his work, he tries to eliminate boundaries and borders. He is increasingly preoccupied with the inner space of painting, his exploration of which creates a dynamic tension with his passion for outer space. With his characteristic exuberance and moral voice, Scharf reformulates his unique combination of Pollock and Pop to create a vibrant new body of work.
The use of oil and acrylic paint in an airbrush-like manner imbues the presence of street culture within contemporary art. Pulsating with energy and overflowing with visual information, Kenny Scharf’s art infuses sinuous biomorphic forms with a symbolism reflecting electronic media’s insistent grip on our most primal fantasies. Fusing high art and cartoon, technological aspiration and ecological devastation, he creates playful works of art that evoke a state of whimsy
Best known for his skillful fusion of techniques, Taaffe has mastered a wide range of processes; including collage, linocut, woodblock, rubber stamp, silkscreen, and marbling — all interwoven into richly complex and highly meditative canvases. He assimilates images, symbols and signs from various sources, transferring them to paper and canvas. Taaffe strives for a visual energy and an optical vibrancy that integrate the decorative with the narrative, and the ancient with the modern – entwining cultural lineages and histories to create something authentic from these interwoven sources.
Taaffe’s work combines free gestural painting contrasted with carefully mapped and measured surfaces; including printings from linocuts, hand-drawn relief plates, stencils and silkscreens, often employing traditional techniques such as marbling and gold leaf. The contemporaneity of his works stems from his embrace and appropriation of the language of modernism, though his meticulous, labor-intensive methodology has often been compared to that of medieval manuscripts. As art historian Charles Stein notes, “Taaffe’s reinvention of the beautiful represents a kind of valiant inquiry, a conscientious refusal of the suppression of human possibility.”
There is a distinctive methodology behind the making of his layered paintings, the assembly, preservation and transmission of information are integral to his process. Through his imaginative mélange of art forms and techniques, Taaffe has dissolved the barriers separating artisanship from painting, effectively redefining painting.
In this current body of work, Taaffe derives inspiration from familiar sources, including natural history illustrations, Roman mosaics, microscopic imaging of Viking artifacts, Syrian embroidery pattern books, masks from Mongolia and the Far East, and devices drawn from calligraphy and book design. Optical vibrancy and visual energy underlie these images, reconnecting abstraction to the natural world and exploring the convergence of the optical and conceptual. “I think the power and possibilities for painting today has to do with binding it to a cultural legacy,” says Taaffe. “Painting is where these symbolic languages or forms somehow crystallize and reveal their ancestry — and that in turn shows a certain sense of future possibility.”
A striking feature of the paintings in this exhibition is that none of them use the same palette or include the same imagery. Compositionally, the paintings range from compressed layers to airy patterns, such as Nocturne with Architectural Fragments (2014), with its layered structure of geometrical lines. Vibrantly colored and heavily patterned, these lines optically vibrate; a mesmerizing experience that compels you to shift your attention between the overall pattern and the individual, oscillating figures, inducing an effect that is both dizzying and pleasant.
At the same time, the subtle play between symmetry and asymmetry in this and other paintings is key to our experience of them. By disrupting the pattern through shifts in color or the deployment of similar but subtly differing forms, Taaffe activates the visual field to the point that one must keep making distinctions, such as undoing the bond between figure and ground. In terms of the internal pictorial narrative, he attempts to tell a story by incorporating diverse geographical and historical subjects and themes, bringing together certain references in unprecedented ways.
Deeply interested in process, Taaffe creates various speeds and velocities in a work. “I plan and deliberate a great deal before I apply certain gestures. The beginning result can take a very long time, and I take a long time deciding and trying things out imperially off the painting, outside of the painting. It’s a real process of extended deliberation.” Taaffe’s paintings teem with activity, he is constantly developing languages that he brings to different pictorial situations, in order to conclude the narrative, making certain unprecedented juxtapositions in the work.
Taaffe’s close attention to similarities and differences imbues his paintings with a state of heightened seeing often associated with hallucinations. The radiant light coming from within the paintings, the oscillations and sudden shifts between figure and ground enhance our experience. Through his evolving practice, Taaffe seems to have evolved into a conductor of trance states in a digital age.
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