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Stars and Cars

Kenny Scharf's "Astral Cumulo Uber Express" at the Kevin Bruk Gallery harks back to the Fifties, when the U.S. and Russia were locked in a race to put a monkey in orbit or a man on the moon. During the era in which the Soviets sent Sputnik hurtling across the...
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Kenny Scharf's "Astral Cumulo Uber Express" at the Kevin Bruk Gallery harks back to the Fifties, when the U.S. and Russia were locked in a race to put a monkey in orbit or a man on the moon. During the era in which the Soviets sent Sputnik hurtling across the sky, America's obsession with space was limited to watching Annette Funicello fill out her bra on The Mickey Mouse Club.

After a couple of decades of war and poverty taking a toll on the nation, Eisenhower delivered his bland version of a milk-and-honey paradise full of hi-fi vibes and highball hedonism, of back-yard barbecues and 3-D movies, of affordable vanilla tract housing and flickering TV screens in every home. No one complained. With the good times rolling, few appeared worried about the internal corrosion sullying the American dream. The nuclear family bonded over dinner served on trays in their living rooms, happily hypnotized by Howdy Doody and Lucille Ball on the boob tube. Cool jazz and blue suede shoes rocked the airwaves; the new superpower on the block reigned supreme, as many were lulled to believe.

But after Sputnik caught the U.S. napping, everything changed. Determined to beat the Ruskies to the stars, Americans filled their homes with appliances straight out of the The Jetsons and the roads with cars shaped like phallic rocket ships. Faster than an Apollo launch countdown, the pissing contest for galactic supremacy touched down. And the signs showing the earthly race to conquer the heavens were blasting off in full gear everywhere.

Scharf has tricked out a 1960 Cadillac coupe, one of the most iconic designs of the era, in a giddy fusion of modern design and contemporary art that pokes fun at duck-and-cover classroom drills, threats of atomic rain, fear of the Red Menace, and those rip-snorting drive-in movies like Teenagers from Outer Space. With sleek lines and pronounced tailfins that could slice through butter, the souped-up Caddy looks like some sort of astral mako shark swallowing up most of the space in the main gallery. Bruk actually had to tear out a wall and use a Bobcat to get the monster inside.

As cherry as it was when it rolled off the assembly line nearly a half-century ago, the jet-plane-style carriage is covered in Scharf's trademark biomorphic paintings of atomic doodles. Pyramids, compass points, swirling star rot, snarling one-eye bowling balls, leering cosmic boomerangs, and mutant planets cover the entire length of its husk. The vehicle's exterior shines with a polished mirror finish produced from the application of countless buckets of Sure Coat gloss, and the artist has installed pink, blue, and green neon lights under the dash, seats, and chassis that flash like a UFO buzzing the horizon. Sporting more chrome than a Roswell weather balloon, the car features two pink lava-spewing Easter Island heads affixed above the headlights, a green brontosaurus with a rhinestone spine for a hood ornament, and a gaudy tiara smack-dab in the middle of the roof over the front windshield.

The blue-and-white stripe interior has also been extravagantly painted and the car's ceiling decked out with what appear to be the contents of a beach resort's souvenir shop, including seashells, fluorescent plants, and mirrors exuding a vibe that a meth-addled Pee-wee Herman or Phyllis Diller might have gone bonkers with a glue gun in the back seat. Iggy dolls; The Flintstones' Wilma, Betty, and Bam Bam; Gumby's horse, Pokey; and Elroy Jetson and his robot maid line the rear window in what reads like a pop-cultural time capsule.

Scharf also cooked up a Beyond the Valley of the Dolls soundtrack for his celestial chariot and packed a Studio 54-meets-Star Wars disco into the trunk. Like Scharf's "Closets," the space brims over with a dizzying array of kitschy elements that seem gleaned from an old-school five-and-dime and appear a fun-house ode to postwar consumption. The trunk is lined with acid-hue fish gravel and its interior lid bejeweled in a shattered-mirror mosaic while garish plastic aquarium plants hang like stalactites. A pair of cupcake-frosted turntables spin like dervishes topped by lava lamps that ooze a bizarre glow. A mirrored disco ball dangling inside speckles the gallery with a spiral of stars. All goofy fun and bristling with throwback optimism, Scharf's sendup of the space race is a timely metaphor for how far we've traveled from Cold War schizophrenia, marking a bygone age.

In a world where global ascendancy seems to revolve around the control of oil reserves, this clunker delivers a stinging reminder that though lofty dreams of yesteryear may have run out of gas, we still suffer from a crop of government bozos itching to hog the steering wheel.

Next door at the Fredric Snitzer Gallery, Gavin Perry's "The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters" features half a dozen paintings that shorten the distance between fine art and lowbrow car culture. It also banks on America's love affair with the asphalt. His immaculately finished works might remind viewers of LL Cool J's popular Nineties correlation between getting laid and driving a hot car — "Back Seat of My Jeep" — or make them mull over many a young male's scatterbrained reasoning that rolling out in the perfect ride can lead to the perfect piece of pussy. One must admit, however, that rather than mere eye candy, Perry's paintings flex panty-dropping power, if only in the words of your average sex-preoccupied car junkie.

He takes what appear to be miles of vinyl tape — used for pinstriping — and creates compositions that seem to fuse geometric abstraction with Op Art, achieving a collagelike effect imbedded in pancake-thick coats of impenetrable glossy resin. Named after an etching by Francisco Goya, the exhibit draws comparisons between artist and laborer, between judgment and taste, between the one-of-a-kind original and the mass-produced knockoff. Perry employs the same technique as a blue-collar drone would when detailing a gun-metal-gray Benz with butterscotch interiors and 27-inch rims. His meticulous, labor-intensive process also serves as a commentary on the growing consumer fetishism for individuality.

An untitled SUV-size piece features brown, maroon, and burgundy strips of tape overlapping each other in a basket-weave fashion in the background. In the middle of the composition, what looks like a Maltese cross fills a diamondlike enamel field that shimmers in waves of iridescent hues. The surface is as slick as a surfboard, with raw zones of plywood peeking through the congealed ribbons of tape.

In another piece named after the exhibit, one observes what appears to be a starburst or a rainbow being sucked into a black hole. This painting, like others in the show, looks machine-made rather than painstakingly crafted by the artist's hand.

Observing Perry's work, one begins to notice he has taken a quantum lurch toward perfection. He creates what might be termed zones of desire or a refracted prism into a subculture eager for life in the fast lane — or at the very least hooking up with J.Lo for some action in the back of an Escalade.

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