Curated by Bill Arning, Director of Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and Rick Herron, New York-based independent curator, the exhibition reconsiders Haring’s career and achievements through new commissions, recent work, performances and events to highlight the ubiquitous influence Haring has had on contemporary artists working today.
From symbols to social practice, Haring’s influence reverberates throughout the contemporary art landscape in new and unexpected ways. Rather than engaging artists whose work merely mimics Haring’s style, the exhibition includes artists whose practices exemplify the innovation and veracity for which Haring is known, including his embrace of humor, dance and nightlife, issues relating to health and wellness, his artistic approach, social and political activism and the inspiration of kids.
The importance of contextualizing the social aspects of nightlife has become increasingly integral to contemporary art practices. The artists in Powerful Babies play in bands, DJ at parties and direct music videos. Works in the exhibition based on this theme include a text-based commission by artist, DJ, poet, model and celebrity of the LGBT community, Juliana Huxtable; a 38 song playlist tribute to Haring by Steven Evans using songs from Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage, with song vinyl lyrics installed around the museum; a mixed media sculpture by Raul de Nieves, whose title has been inspired by the 1960s classic ‘It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I want to’; limited edition t-shirts designed specifically for the exhibition by New York based artists Scooter LaForge and J. Morrison, made together with Xiu Xiu; and a performance by Swedish artist Tobias Bernstrup.
Artists in the exhibition also use art and social media to tackle issues of health and well-being, including AIDS, violence against trans-people and gender as construction, legislation and social violence against women’s bodies, cancer, the misuse of drugs and alcohol, anxiety and clinical depression. ‘Meth Kills’, a painting by Scooter LaForge which plays homage to Haring’s ‘Crack is Wack’, will be exhibited, alongside a digital collage by long-term survivor of AIDS, John Hanning; a painting by Thedra Cullar-Ledford, who like Haring’s response to his own AIDS diagnosis, became most prolific after being diagnosed with breast cancer; and an unfinished work by Lori Ellison, whose passing from terminal cancer in July 2015 resulted in an overwhelming display of sympathy in the form of digital floral bouquets on her Facebook page.
The long-lasting influence of Haring’s artistic approach to the canvas, formal qualities and his way of creating work is evident in the work of several artists in the exhibition, including Klara Lidén, who wheat-pastes fresh white paper over concert bills in every major city in a defiant act of erasure and addition, one of which will be on show as part of the exhibition. Katherine Bernhardt, who is inspired by everyday objects, will exhibit a painting of a Swatch watch made from acrylic and spray paint on canvas, while Michael Alan’s use of fine lines flitter around canvas and masks like an endless, nervous ribbon. As Haring painted directly on the bodies of Bill T. Jones and Grace Jones to bring painting to life, Tad Beck asks choreographers to dance on top of photos of themselves dancing, making their gestures simultaneous acts of creation and destruction. Like Haring, Jeanette Hayes seamlessly mashes history and the current moment to create a perfect synthesis of our own time in her painting ‘iOS Veneration’ and Allen Grubesic has an uneasy engagement with commodity and cultural appropriation, using humour to mine the location between the found and the readymade in his ‘I DIDN’T DO IT’ series. Encompassing a style as instantly memorable as Haring, Japanese artist Misaki Kawai uses cartoon narratives to create an iconographic system that is universal yet ambiguous – not strictly a happy place – and Alexander Tovborg meditates on history and mythology in his paintings, full of complex patterns and references to folk art and outsider personalities.
A celebration of Haring’s achievements and legacy cannot be complete without acknowledgement of his life as an activist. His conceptual, political and social approach infiltrated the contemporary art scene of the late 20th century, paving the way for future generations of artists to use art as a social and political vehicle. In Trenton Doyle Hancock’s work, his alter ego Torpedo Boy, a black super-anti-hero, reveals human foibles and brings difficult societal issues to the surface. M Lamar mixes the genres of opera, metal, performance, sculpture and video to conjure a place beyond received categories of racial and sexual identity, using blackness and horrific histories of slavery and colonialism to explore exaggerated power dynamics.
For Haring, children were the greatest sources of motivation and happiness, frequently collaborating with kids to paint murals all over the world. Work in Powerful Babies are examples of how the art of Haring’s generation instructed and inspired emerging artists working today, many who in turn make projects for, with and about kids. Kids had a hand in making, producing and staring in Jaimie Warren’s ongoing video work, Whoop Dee Doo – the result of a week’s long residency in California that involved high school and university students. Joakim Ojanen’s ceramic sculptures use cartoons and childish motifs to address melancholic issues of the adult psyche, and Przemek Pyszczek’s work is inspired by a sense of nostalgia for his Polish heritage. His sculptures in the exhibition, entitled ‘Playground Structure’, combine materials and elements of color and scale to reflect on his childhood.
Powerful Babies is the third in a series of annual exhibitions presented by Spritmuseum, home of the Absolut Art Collection, celebrating the lives of artists and work in the Collection. The exhibition brings together four of the five ‘Absolut Haring’ paintings for the first time since they were commissioned by Absolut in 1986, including two from the Keith Haring Foundation which have never before been exhibited in Sweden.