One Word: Plastics

A utopian future and a dystopian now

Photo by Jack GouldHe was either 20 years ahead of his time or 20 years behind it. Probably both. But these days, Kenny Scharf's works from 1978 look just about right. He painted cars and chicks and spaceships as sharp, dangerous phalluses rocketing off into the cosmos. Lowbrow? Mais oui! But though one might be expecting more gravity-defying T&A (à la Robert Williams) from an exhibit titled "Car Nation," the works aren't mere macho artist-as-Hemingway bullshit. Rather, they're delicately painted with an almost fey grace and sensitivity. And you should go see them.

Kenny Scharf was one of three artists of the moment in New York in the '80s. The others became on their deaths the much more famous Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. But Scharf didn't die, and his fame remained localized. After the numbing effect critic Clem Greenberg had on the art scene from the '40s on, demanding that painting become more and more insular, culminating in artists chasing one another's tails to produce work that was less and less interesting or beautiful and more and more about dreary washes of stripes, the Pop artists of the '60s and '70s brought back the lowly object. Any object at all. Really. Tube of toothpaste? Check! Toilet? Absolutely! And then all of a sudden, the art world was safe for dog graffiti and dancing, cave-drawing people outlines and pictures of convertible Cadillacs blasting off into outer space.

There's a Happy Days/Grease quality to Scharf's paintings; in that way, Scharf's paintings weren't too early or too late but were rather right on the trite tip of nostalgia, alongside preteen girls spending their whole allowance at fake '50s diners with indifferently cooked food. This was about four minutes before they all became Madonna.

But Grease and Happy Days both forgot how important the atomic future was to the late '50s and early '60s. They remembered the carhops and the poodle skirts (and, apparently, skintight satin pants and tube tops), but they forgot about the shiny, optimistic longing for a near-future of hovercrafts and dinner at the touch of a button and electricity too cheap to meter. From its groovy Googie architecture to Disneyland's House of Tomorrow, the '50s and pre-Vietnam '60s were all about the future's promise (and B-movie terror), which loomed as wide as the cosmos. Hell, we conquered the moon. Scharf remembered that in 1978, even if Hollywood didn't.

But there were others who were taking note of the same thing. The B-52's were on Planet Claire. (Most of Scharf's works look as if they could be B-52's album covers.) Blondie was atomic. By the late '80s, Julie Brown had gleefully copped the entire aesthetic for Earth Girls Are Easy.

Self-Portrait With Cadillac shows a skinny Scharf in a nighttime desert. His hair is inching toward Flock of Seagulls; his tight, synthetic-fabric shirt has only one sleeve, like he's Olivia Newton-John in "(Let's Get) Physical." His car flies off into the bright galaxy. Fast Fun shows a generic, pretty woman (not possibly painted from life). She could be Angelyne, with her purple hat and triangular glasses and screaming-red lips and nails. Her car spews atoms like ours spew carbon monoxide.

Scharf's works are all interesting, but the biggest is from '91. Oddly, it's the most recent that feels the most dated. Biorama is a large, pink-and-green silkscreened collage that shows zebra-bikinied '60s bad girls and yearbook photos of nerd boys and girls with flips. Large shreds of newspaper articles warn of the perils of ozone and rain-forest depletion. I want to say, yes, it's their fault. It was their lust for a shiny, synthetic future that led them to blithely destroy the natural world. Plastics, son. Plastics. But then one remembers the people of today driving their SUVs even though they know—they know—at what cost. In the '60s, the future was limitless. Now it's finite. Children in Tierra del Fuego can't leave the house without ski masks on because it takes only minutes to fry under the ozone hole. The Alaska National Wildlife Preserve will only provide a year's worth of oil at our current usage rates, but no one will demand that Detroit raise its mileage standards by so much as two miles per gallon. It's not their blind optimism for a utopian future that's the problem. It's our willingness to live in a dystopian present.

Jean Lowe has a lot to say. Mostly, she has a lot to say about monkeys and apes and animal rights and stuffy rich white men who are transformed in her work to yesteryear's stuffy rich white men of London's posh, elitist clubs. Yes, they're to blame!

Gentlemen's Club is a marvy, room-sized installation. Its murals depict in ugly hues (washed-out grays and pea greens) a paradisiacal natural world conquered by ugly civilization and ugly industrialization and ugly science and ugly academia. I wonder what they thought about it at MIT, where the work first showed in '95. I bet they fuckin' loved it!

Though I'm usually a sucker for political work, Lowe's work seems strident and simplistic to me—probably because I'm just not that sympathetic to animal rights. I love zoos! And fur! And steak! And medicine that has been tested on poor little bunnies! But despite my lack of interest in Lowe's agenda (and her palette), her medium and composition and delivery are extraordinary.

Lowe's installation is staid and formal. A large table, surrounded by a few chairs, dominates a comfortable but elegant room. On the table (and scattered on chairs as well) are books bearing titles like The Education of Koko and Subsaharan Agricultureand Clinical Aspects of Sensory Deprivation in the Primate Model. As stated before, the room is enclosed with frescoed walls. But this, the very model of solidity, of masculine British phlegmaticism, of Empire, is composed of cardboard and papier-mâché. It's as solid as the ozone over Tierra del Fuego.

"Kenny Scharf—Car Culture" and Gentlemen's Club at Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233; www.grandcentralartcenter.com. Open Tues.-Wed. & Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Through April 28. Free.
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