How Sharif is Sharif? Smokeless Fire by Sharif Farrag at Gallery1993

Smokeless Fire is a show of artworks by Sharif Farrag currently on view at Gallery1993. Gallery1993 is a car used as an exhibition space. Typical viewings of the show take the form of a ride in the car. In my case, the car pulled up in front of my neighbor’s house; I read an exhibition text in the form of a poem written by the gallerist, Seymour, while I stood in the street; we drove around for maybe 15 or 20 minutes while he explained what each artwork was; and at some point, I requested we pull over so I could get a closer look at the artwork. To end the appointment, I was dropped back off at my house. There it is.

Let me start over. Smokeless Fire is a show of artworks by Sharif Farrag currently on view at Gallery1993. There are five distinct pieces in this show, only one of which has a title, and it’s a damn good one: Hanging Up Sharif. I’ll call the other works the “wheel piece,” the “drawing,” the “lighter piece,” and the “door lock piece.” They don’t have titles now, according to Sharif, but they may eventually. This is a difficult show to approach because while there are many unique and interesting objects to draw connections between, it’s quite difficult to contextualize any of them, other than their location on or inside the car. I’ll start with some descriptions.

(Gallery1993)

The wheel piece is a small drawing attached to the center of the hubcap of the front passenger wheel. I’m not sure how it’s attached, I think it’s just underneath a prefab plastic hubcap piece, but I’m not familiar enough with specialized car parts to really know. The drawing looks like it’s in pen; the paper, which appears to be ripped off of a larger paper, has a hole punched out of the corner; it must be three-ring binder paper. The drawing itself is a dotted line that goes diagonally across what I’ll now call this “slip” of paper, with a little scissor drawn next to the dotted line, and, I am told, something (but not what!) written in Arabic (to me, sadly, it just looks like scribbles). Again, I can see that the slip of paper has been torn away from the larger piece of paper, not cut cleanly, as a scissor would indicate. And again, I don’t know what the Arabic says, but I suppose scissors and dotted lines are universal symbols. The wheel of the car gleams, damp and freshly washed; another kind of universal symbol.

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(Gallery1993)

Next is the drawing inside the glove compartment. You open the glove, and there it is, just lying there by itself. Seeing it is akin to a surprise, like opening a drawer and finding a chocolate bar (which can be either exciting or gross). It also reminded me of a flat file. I’ll touch back on the idea of drawings in drawers later. The drawing itself is small, less than letter size, rendered in pen and watercolor, I think. It depicts a group of men waiting in line at a store window to buy bread. Some men are wearing pants and t-shirts, and others are wearing robes; some are wearing noticeably funny combinations of traditional clothes and western clothes, accessorized with baseball caps and sunglasses; one even carries an American-looking plastic bag with a yellow smiley face on it. The drawing itself is pretty; while the characters are comic-bookish, there are many subtle colors and textures; Sharif has paid special attention to patterns, in both architecture and fabric; he has also rendered, I think importantly, the hair on the men’s legs which stick out from their robes. This scene is clearly not from here. During my car ride appointment, Seymour mentioned something about Morocco, but I couldn’t quite make sense of the story.

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The lighter piece is a sculptural form (I thought it was resin, it’s actually epoxy clay) that’s “plugged-in” to the cigarette lighter; it’s hard to place the form, and Seymour describes it as a paper clip.

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(Gallery1993)

The door lock piece is wilder, and also kinetic (because it goes up and down); again made of epoxy clay but painted to look like metal (I am told), it’s a skinny thing that looks like it grew somewhat organically out of the knob. It also looks like a wisp of smoke, which is what it reminds me of; or, it’s just a two-pronged form that resembles the letter Y, and really nothing else. Seymour doesn’t offer specifics on the referential shape of this one, that I can remember.

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(Gallery1993)

Lastly there is Hanging Up Sharif, a puppet-like version of, I presume, Sharif, draped over an epoxy clay covered coat hanger. It hangs from the roof handle of the rear-passenger seat, in the same place where I hang my dry cleaning, once or twice a year.

Do you see what I’m saying about the lack of context? Sure, the car is the context, but it’s the exhibition space. I struggled to determine on whose terms to interpret this artwork. The car’s or Sharif’s? Perhaps they were one in the same. I decided to meet with Sharif to figure it out.

It will be hard to describe our meeting without just gushing about how nice Sharif is, how kind and genuine he comes across. He’s tall and pretty, with long, thick hair and full, though not dramatic lips. We meet on the USC campus and he walks me around, pointing out artworks he made. He doesn’t have a studio on campus (undergrads don’t), but he’s made himself comfortable here, especially in the ceramics studio, where he also holds a job. At one point we have to retrace our steps to a towering artwork he made (it is literally modeled off of an electrical tower) because we were talking, and he didn’t want to interrupt our conversation. This man is sweet as pie and polite as fuck. He’s also mysterious—who is this person who made Hanging Up Sharif, but also, like, a clay smoke-wisp exploding out of a door lock, painted silver? While I cannot recount our conversation in any faithful way (I don’t take notes or record), Sharif is figuring things out. He’s trying different mediums to see what suits him, using ceramic, metal, drawing, free-writing, fabric, incense, ritual, and now, this car. For Sharif it’s both an experiment and experience to be working closely with a gallerist. The upside is that he feels encouraged, motivated, excited; the downside is he has to hand over some creative control, perhaps without knowing. While we sit on stools and talk in the empty, dusty ceramics studio, he shows me a series of censers he made; these censers (incense burners) were used during the opening of Smokeless Fire (the title of the show starts to make a little more sense now). I tell Sharif I didn’t go to the opening, and usually the reason I don’t go is because I won’t get to see the art. He describes the opening to me; it took place at his house near USC; they drove the car into the backyard and created an installation of censers arranged in a circle around the car, burning an incense of frankincense and myrrh. I tell him I wish I had known that there would be a one-time installation at the opening, because then I would have come. “I’m sorry,” he says, looking genuinely sorry; “it’s not really part of the show, it’s just something we came up with at the last second. You didn’t miss anything, we just lit the incense to purify the car before it went out.” I laugh and say “Oh sure, I didn’t miss anything important, just THE PURIFICATION OF THE CAR!” It seems important to me.

This is something you need to understand about Sharif; it’s not that he doesn’t have particular ideas about his work, or how it should be installed or perceived; its more like he’s open, like actually open, not open by necessity, to new ways of thinking about what he’s doing. That me missing the purification of the gallery and its contents is to him not a big deal speaks to his unpretentiousness; my agitation at having missed this event because of lack of advertising speaks, paradoxically, to my pretentiousness. As our conversation goes on, I soften a little; I am learning something new about art and about myself, and about where we place value. I wanted to be at the car purification, but to Sharif, what was important was that it happened. It wasn’t a performance, but an action; it had a purpose. An actual purpose. (When fact-checking this writing, Sharif wrote to me “The purification of the car goes back to Muslim traditions, not the sage-burning nag champa type of cleansing. It’s based on something called bakhour, my mom used to bombard me with it every Friday. It also can be used as a gesture of hospitality when inviting guests over a house, or to celebrate holy days or weddings.” I don’t see his comment as antithetical to my interpretation, but I wanted to include it nonetheless.)

Before I forget, I also have to say that early in our conversation, in the context of making intuitive work invested in materials, Sharif said “it’s not that I don’t have concepts, it’s that I’m weary of them.” Sharif’s art practice, if not the art itself, is invested in an exploration; an exploration of the possibility of art. Not a public exploration; but more like, the possibility of making art as Sharif, of being Sharif. I see this both clearly and subtly in Hanging Up Sharif.

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(Gallery1993)

Hanging Up Sharif at Gallery1993 is the third iteration of Hanging Up Sharif (he told me that). The first iteration was in a cabinet filled with ceramic trophies; the second iteration was hanging on the wall with the trophies underneath; and in fact there was another iteration, which Seymour told me about, if I remember correctly. During my car appointment, I asked Seymour if the artworks were made especially for this show, and he said some were, but when he first saw Hanging Up Sharif, it was literally in Sharif’s bedroom closet. Clever art storage, indeed! That this is the only artwork in the show that’s been shown before, already “iterated” if you will, fits well with its content. The most obvious way to read the work is that it’s a comment on identity politics; or, not a comment on, I guess, but more an embodiment of it. In fact, it’s almost a caricature of the idea of identity politics, because it is literally a puppet that Sharif made of himself; a version of himself, presumably one of many, that hangs in his closet, and that must be occasionally (or rarely, if he’s like me) taken for a cleaning. I totally see the Sharif in the car as drycleaning, if I haven’t made that clear enough. The title of the work, too, is clever, but also dark. The idea of hanging yourself up can be interpreted in many ways—the first that comes to mind is the idea of retiring (like “hanging up your jersey”); Sharif is letting go of a certain identity that this puppet represents (though I couldn’t tell you which one). The next thing I think of is “hang me out to dry,” an expression that means to abandon or to betray in some way. The third is my personal favorite, the quintessential breakup song “Hang Me Up To Dry” by Cold War Kids, which refers more to finally being let go (the lyric goes “so hang me up to dry/you rang me out too too too many times). It’s actually a great song full of laundry metaphors, and I must listen to it immediately (now you do it too). The last, and darkest reading of Hanging Up Sharif is the idea of hanging—of an execution. The sculpture itself, all floppy and cute and slung over a coat hanger, does not visually read this way, but the title of the work suggests it anyways. I don’t know any other way to say this, other than that I think, perhaps even unconsciously, I’m not sure, it represents the pain of the bigotry and violence of our disgusting country, along with what seems to be its logical conclusion: you can hang up Sharif, or just plain hang him. This is an artwork where the title complicates its interpretation and makes it nuanced. It makes the show; it saves the show; it embodies the spirit of the car and its journey, while staying true to its own journey. This is what I mean by the possibility of being Sharif.

There are two other important aspects of our conversation I want to share; the little bit about his family life (it really accounted for maybe, three percent of our conversation), and his responses to my questions about each artwork. Since the exhibition text that Seymour provided was a semi-abstract poem which did not give standard information such as titles, materials, dates, a bio, or anything of the sort, I wanted to share the context of the works (as told to me by Sharif, because I specifically asked).

That little slip of paper from the wheel piece is ripped off of a larger drawing that Sharif bought from a beggar in Morocco. He was in Morocco on a travel grant from USC; he had wanted to visit Syria, where his mother’s side of the family is from, but based on the stipulations of the grant, Syria was deemed too dangerous. While in Morocco, Sharif spent many hours at local cafes, basically people-watching, eating bread and honey, and drawing. He said it’s common for people to approach you at cafes, wanting money; one man handed Sharif a comic, and then made his rounds at the cafe. When he came back to Sharif, he wanted money, or he wanted the comic back. Sharif bought it; that little piece of paper on the hubcap, with no title and no subtitle—it says “thank you.”

The drawing in the glove box was kind of an exercise for Sharif; he also made it in Morocco, sitting in a cafe, because he didn’t know many people and didn’t have a lot to do, and he wanted to practice his drawing, because he doesn’t think he’s good at it. He drew that particular scene because of what he saw as the silliness/absurdity of the traditional dress combined with the western accessories.

The lighter piece is a baby rattle, and it’s supposed to make noise as you drive. That’s all I can remember about that.

The door lock piece is in the shape of a slingshot. A slingshot!

I think the context of this work gives it legibility, and I think the context of the car gives that legibility a new context; as in, I like considering Sharif’s work in the context of being installed in a functioning car, but I would argue that that consideration is only possible (or at least more accessible) when I have more information about the artwork. That a little slip of paper was carried thousands of miles and then glued to the wheel of a car inspires the idea of a journey—of some kind of communication across cultures, and perhaps most poignantly, an appreciation for little, little things; a slip of paper from a stranger that says “thank you.” It could bring me to tears.

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(Gallery1993)

Something I like about the drawing in the drawer is that it makes me think of flat files, the fanciest and art-iest of drawings in drawers (personally I own the largest style you can buy, and on wheels!). For a native Angeleno, raised in Reseda and educated between El Camino Real High School and a Muslim youth group which met at the Mosque every Saturday, the contrast between the world depicted in Sharif’s drawing and the world both immediately within and outside of the car, a Crown Victoria, presents a paradox of place, and a reality of present. The world is small, and both of these cultures live and thrive together, not just in Los Angeles, not just in Sharif, but in this little box inside this sumptuous, clean, and straight-up super duper fly car. You can make a bunch of drawings alone in your studio and store them in your convenient and very functional flat file, where they won’t be damaged, or even seen, for that matter. Or, you can stick your drawing in the glove box and cruise anywhere you want. I’m starting to think it’s not the car that’s the context, but what it represents; a kind of freedom.

As for the slingshot and the baby rattle, those are a bit more mysterious and random. I don’t think I would have ever guessed it was a baby rattle—maybe I would have if I heard it rattle, I don’t know. That it was described to me during my car visit as a paper clip whose negative space was somehow important did not help, but nothing really would have. I suppose that plugging in a baby rattle where you would normally light a cigarette is humorous, but I don’t really get it. But nothing ventured, nothing gained!

The slingshot is a little bit of a different story. During my talk with Sharif at USC, the first artwork he took me to was a huge sculpture he made in the shape of a slingshot; it was made of different fabrics, mostly plaid-patterned, stretched and glued over a giant slingshot armature, not in the “resting” position, but in the aim/fire position, so it’s stretched backward to the max. (When fact-checking this writing, Sharif wrote to me that his intention was for it to be a “gummy slingshot that if you tried to pull it would just slump over.” I would argue that gummy things don’t have metal armatures, but that’s my interpretation.) I thought it was a cool sculpture; I like how he made it human-like by basically dressing it up in clothes. Its posture was such that it was on the verge of firing, and firing hard. But of course it isn’t really a slingshot, because it’s not designed to shoot anything; so the posture is ultimately a let-down. No climax. The slingshot on the door lock knob (Sharif told me that’s what it’s called) is similarly functionless, and I can’t really make sense of it here, other than it would be considered a kind of “customization” (a word both Seymour and Sharif used), to have that thing instead of normal knobs. It’s not what I would choose! But I suppose that’s the point. I think slingshots are an important and interesting aspect of Sharif’s visual vocabulary, but it’s sort of blah here. It should go in the big slingshot show I think Sharif should do…

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I could have said more about about the structure of the gallery, but I’d rather try to make sense of its contents. I think the experience of the car appointment probably changes depending on who you are; honestly, I felt my experience was a little bizarre. That being said, let me point out that Seymour’s decision to write a poem (the thing I find myself most critical of) instead of providing a bio, or blurb about the show, or even a title list, is interesting because it values experience over understanding, which is exactly how my car ride felt. Seymour’s poem is a gesture toward-non understanding, or toward confusion; something Sharif and I talked about at length; that art is confusing, to do and to experience. Sharif is not a didactic artist, and is not invested in placing his artwork in some kind of lineage or traditional compressed press release form, so why should Seymour be? As frustrating as the poem was, knowing all that I know, I think it was a gesture of kindness, of camaraderie, understanding, sympathy—i’m just not sure it functioned that way in the end.

If I had to ascribe a theme to this show, it would be “Sharif does Sharif.” The customizations, the personal drawings, the little thank you note from the Moroccan beggar tucked under the wheel; the effigy hanging like a costume in the back seat; it’s as if to say, which one of these is Sharif the artist? Is he the macho, opaque, abstract sculptor? Is he the collector of keepsakes, notes, and journals from travels? Is it the Sharif sitting anonymously in a Moroccan cafe, a Sharif among Sharifs, finding beauty but also irony, rattling ideas of authenticity? Is he the crafty type, gluing fabric and shoes and making dolls, making fun of himself and giving everyone a good laugh? Is he the hipster shaman performer, purifying the gallery which is itself parked in his backyard?

You’ll notice I titled this writing “How Sharif is Sharif?”; of course I’m thinking of Laura Aguilar’s multi-part work How Mexican Is Mexican (1990), which I recently saw at the Vincent Price Museum as part of the Getty-funded Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative. While Aguilar’s title lacks a question mark, making it as much of a question as a directive, (from something like “how Mexican is Mexican enough?” to “how Mexicans perform Mexican identity,”) I pose my title as a question, because again, this show is an exploration, not just for Sharif to figure himself out, but for all of us to figure ourselves out. How Sharif is Sharif? How Georgia is Georgia? And across the spectrum of identity.

Lastly, I want to address the title of the show, Smokeless Fire. Though I did not know what it referred to, it sounded vaguely biblical. I thought perhaps it was a reference to Moses and the burning bush; a fire that famously burns, but does not consume, a bush. I searched for “smokeless fire” and found that the Quran refers to creatures called Jinn, who were created from a smokeless fire. Jinn, from my very brief reading, are like spirits; they aren’t angels, but more like fallen angels, or less-than angels. How does this affect my interpretation of Sharif’s work? I’m not sure. In the most basic sense, it indicates that the show is somehow coded, or that there is more than “meets the eye” so to speak. This would be absolutely true. But it also evokes spirits, and perhaps even the spiritual. Smokeless Fire, though it is just a title made up of an adjective and a noun, is also a way of looking; as in, the show itself is smokeless fire; it conjures the invisible and opens the possibility to another realm, one that we cannot access through just our eyes; Sharif’s realm.

Of course it takes a certain level of commitment to get to the lengthy interpretation of this show I’ve presented here, but that’s who I am. After all, this is what I look for in art—some kind of transformation. If I were you, when I go to see this show, (or really, when the show comes to see me), I would try to look past the car and the ride, and forget the pressure to listen or engage in a conversation, or the pressure to be, well, moved (the car does plenty of that for you). Sit in the back and focus on taking in the artwork more than the scenery; look for the artist inside the work; become a little more Sharif.

Smokeless Fire is on view at Gallery1993 from October 7th to December 30th, 2017. Email seymour@1993.gallery to make an appointment. For information on Sharif Farrag, please visit his website: http://sharif5.tumblr.com.

Georgia is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net