The Kids in Amerikulture

The friendship between the pop artist Kenny Scharf and conceptual photographer Tseng Kwong Chi—both members of the ’80s downtown New York art and party scene—could fill a gallery. At least, that’s what gallerist Eric Firestone and Muna Tseng thought. Firestone and Tseng, a dancer and choreographer who manages her late brother’s estate, approached Scharf about doing a summer show at Firestone’s namesake gallery in East Hampton. Scharf, who considers Kwong Chi one of his best friends, agreed.

“Let’s celebrate the friendship that was there—the intense creative time that these artists lived through—and celebrate their youth, their interconnectedness,” says Muna of the project. Titled “Amerikulture,” the two-part show draws upon the artists’ commentary of American culture through Scharf’s most recent pop paintings and Kwong Chi’s photographs from 1979 to 1987, three years before his untimely death from an AIDS-related illness.

Scharf’s paintings of pancakes, hot dogs, and doughnuts, which look as if they were painted to entertain a stoner with a case of the munchies, take up part of the front room, along with works of his signature blob shapes laid out in psychedelic patterns. A sculpture of his swirl-top-hairdoed character Squirtz is displayed in the window.

In the back room, Kwong Chi’s outré “East Meets West” series of self-portraits line the walls, showing him dressed in a Mao-style suit against iconic American settings—Paramount Studios, the Hollywood sign, and Disneyland, to name a few. The rest of Kwong Chi’s images in the exhibition double as a walk through of the raucous ’80s. Two large panels of photo-booth photographs from themed parties at Danceteria and The Underground, and six photographs from other nights, include feature several of the artists of the time, including Scharf, Keith Haring, Maripol, and Andy Warhol. “It was just so much fun; those panels really capture everything about those times and those particular nights, and all the personalities,” says Scharf.
The one common visual thread in the exhibition, aside from Scharf showing up in Kwong Chi’s photographs, is the appearance of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters of their youth; several of Scharf’s paintings depict the space age characters from The Jetsons, while the prehistoric cast from The Flinstones serve as the backdrop for one of Kwong Chi’s quirky self-portraits. In a way, they double as a nod to Kwong Chi’s past and Scharf’s years ahead.