The Ride and the Cosmic Cavern

Kenny Scharf Sculpture

Kenny Scharf, Cosmic Cavern. Courtesy Honor Fraser Gallery. Photo Joshua White/JWPictures.com

Keith Haring is in a studio, flipping over a tape playing the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” Basquiat is in a limo, watching a screen. Andy Warhol is in a jewelry store. Who are these people, and where are they? What is it that they are all taking part in?

I am in Paige Powell’s The Ride, and adjacently, in Kenny Scharf’s Cosmic Cavern, which are both in the Portland Art Museum, through the beginning of April. These two installations are specifically placed on the same floor, next to each other, because they both are representative of a particular New York City art scene in the 1980s.

Paige Powell Sculpture

Paige Powell, Still from The Ride, 2015, 3-channel color digital projection; 18:42 min., Image courtesy of the artist.
© Paige Powell, reprint of image by permission.

Powell documented this art scene with photograph and VHS video. The Ride combines a number of these video clips, projecting them on a wall, superimposed inside of an image of another screen: the TV inside the back of a limo, on which Basquiat is watching something unknown (it turns out to be the movie Goldfinger, but this wouldn’t be apparent without the gallery text). Behind the video, is an alcove covered in photos of the time–the famous artists and their milieu, engaged in scenes not unlike those on the video.

Kenny Scharf Sculpture


Kenny Scharf, Cosmic Cavern. Courtesy Honor Fraser Gallery. Photo Joshua White/JWPictures.com

Down the hall is Cosmic Cavern, a day-glo panoply of ephemera that might date from the streets of 1980s New York: destroyed televisions, children’s toys, consumer packaging, magazine images, holiday decorations, fragments of broken mirror, and a disco ball. The materials cover the interior walls of a small wooden cube, slathered in reflective, fluorescent paint, set ablaze by blacklight bulbs, and animated by recordings of radio broadcasts from the era. The first incarnation of this installation was set up in the loft that Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf shared, in 1981. In The Ride, one of the video clips shows Haring leading Powell’s camera up the stairs, and into a blacklight room that very well might be this installation.

Who are all of these people, featured in the photographs and video? What is it that they are participating in? They are in a room, in a store, in a party, in a studio, in a scene, in a decade, in a photograph, in a video clip, in an art installation. These two works attempt to describe a time and place. They do so using two very different methods: one, the documentary technology of video and image, the other, the evocative use of assemblage sculpture, simultaneously deploying recognizable objects, and obscuring them under shimmering color, that breaks each object individually and unites them together. The effect is quite palpable. In each installation I feel that the forces of time and space are being seized, manipulated around me with the magic of a time machine. But where am I going? Can I be transported to this different time and place? I can exist in the same dimension that these artists once existed?

Paige Powell Sculpture

Paige Powell: Andy Warhol and Kenny Scharf, Mr. Chow, New York City, 1986.© Paige Powell, reprint of image by permission.

The VHS quality, itself a product of the time period, is sketchy and faded, the colors and light poorly recorded. In the video clip showing Haring climbing the dark stairs to the blacklight-lit loft, existing only in a mystical dimension of the 1980s in New York City, the video is grainy. In the blacklight, Haring’s white T-shirt glows, but his body becomes invisible. White garments from other unknown people dance in the dark, bobbing up and down in the video like ghosts. The garbled sound of unrecognizable music mixes among the different video feeds, and with the music from Cosmic Cavern down the hall. A universe is being conjured in these works. But where am I now? Haring, Basquiat, Warhol–are all tragically dead. Like we all will be, one day. But what universe am I in? Where is my milieu? What will document this experience today, in the 2010s, and will anyone watch it in a distant future?

Time is always removed. Like the wooden walls, temporarily constructed to contain the space of a gallery installation, time is a thing that you exist within. Until suddenly, you don’t.

By Adam Rothstein

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