Let’s try a gutsy opening line: Sharif Farrag’s crowded and conventional-looking show of ceramics at in lieu gallery proves that banality still reigns when it comes to the language of ceramics and display. Or: The blah-convention of vessel-on-white-pedestal at Sharif Farrag’s Snooze betrays the artist’s penchant for full-blown whimsy—his spirited and near-magical forms which, unlike many contemporary ceramophiles, are not invested in nostalgic notions of process and materiality. Better yet: If painters could do with canvas what Sharif does with clay, the arc of art history might have been a lot a lot wetter, mushier, certainly more mineral. Lastly: Part cartoon, part real psychic drama, Sharif makes so many lumps of clay into dizzying, tactile narratives that manage to reference Bernard Palissy’s three-dimensional snake-covered platters as much as the heavy metal band Slipknot.
Sharif is a supernova, partly because his work is fun and funny, and partly because it is formally and materially rooted in a tradition (the clay vessel), which is itself a unique art/artifice in that it occupies the rarefied space of transcending fine art while it is somehow always in the process of becoming it. He uses a broad, funky palette (you can attribute that to a high level of material literacy derived from that uniquely-ceramic combination of research, chemistry, experimentations, happy and not-so-happy failures)—a palette which immediately references painting and operates with painting’s nuance in comparison to, say, the dull, clunky, one-note celadons that come out of a crusty bucket at your neighborhood pottery shop. And then there’s the profusion of the work—there’s just so much of it, too much—a tendency Sharif understands as a way to avoid sinking down into psychic spaces that are of no use to him in art—you know, certain kinds of pain, misery, tragedy. Sharif’s work contains a paradox so profound that it just might work—that is, it tells the story of Sharif’s life whilst also working as a lovely, intricate, utterly contemporary barrier to its heartbreak. In other words: it is a distraction. And what a prolific and productive distraction it is.
While many artists with the aspiration to work clay into a critical discourse bump up against a desire to produce which outweighs a desire to convey, very little in Sharif’s work suggests he might be forming without thinking. In Garden jar (squideater), protruding traditional jug handles, mushy and black with iron oxide, give way to black clay squiggle-lumps that emerge as arms, legs, hands, eyes, leaves, petals, or even squids, as the title suggests. These appendages look as if they’re sprouting from the pot au natural, but they also look like they are outgrowing it, or overgrowing it; eyes manifest as simple carved lines, but also as lumps with un-earthly looking pupils. The underglaze to this underworld-on-a-pot is a spotty, almost scabby purply blue—a texture achieved by an understanding of when the chemistry of a glaze and the way in which it is fired will cause it to shrink and separate around a form—a term suitably referred to as “crazing.” What makes this a good artwork isn’t that its sloppiness belies a kind of material understanding and precision that reads as authenticity; or the novelty of the black clay; or the accessibility of the Dante-esque narrative; or even that it can neatly be sold and installed, take the pedestal, too, if you like—but that as an object, it so accurately embodies the place in the mind from which it comes—the form that is covered, smothered—the vessel like a body, from which the useless and the useful and the articulated and the in articulated sprout. It’s a Sharif.
At the other end of the spectrum, I’m not so hot on Bodach. Not to be contrarian, but the obvious time and effort it took to make a sculpture of such size and weight—to say it lacks subtlety is an understatement. And while subtlety is not the hallmark of a great artwork, here it only leaves room for over-sized, cartoonish interpretations of what should be a shadow Sharif—something more related to light and nether-spaces than the corporeal, breakable Bodach we are presented with. Put another way, the ghoulishness is too forward; it’s too much out of TV, and not enough out of a space Sharif can only access through his magical mind/body/clay combination, which is the thing we need from him, and that we look to him for. Staring at Bodach crouched in the corner of the clean, bright, pleasant gallery, my mind drifted to Sharif’s beautiful show at USC, where every detail of installation was approached as if it were (it was) the sculpture itself—the wire-y handmade pedestals, the way he used paint to trace lilac-colored lines around the contours of the room, the intricate and sometimes threadbare rugs taken from his mother’s house situated as soft, familial pedestals, they were like islands, and they said something about where he came from, and where he didn’t come from. This is an artist capable of making something haunting, weird, and unexpected, not just through smart and consistent production in an on-trend material, but through passion and longing, set like a jewel in the idiosyncratic soul of the maker.
Catching goldfish polishes that jewel to the extreme, or burnishes it, if we want to stick with clay metaphors. It’s such an odd artwork—a slightly warped slab of clay is the ground for a painting of a ghost fishing for goldfish; but it’s also a clock with no hands; and instead of a frame, the edge of the slab is fitted with little clay nubs, which may be some sort of nipple belonging to the two-dimensional creature whose hands reach out from the edge of the slab—but it’s not a painting, because there is no paint—so it dodges that sometimes tedious discourse of painting. It’s this: What I love about Sharif’s work is that it’s not didactic, and yet it radiates with purpose, all while having an affect that circulates beyond whatever that purpose might be. Like the side-kick Idea bats perched around Bodach, we remain oriented because we orbit materials and symbols we can understand—time, death, nipples, frames—but everything else is indeterminate—it’s up to where the bats land, or roost, or hang, or what have you.
There is another angle here, too. Sharif is my friend. He became my friend through art. I met him during the run of his show Smokeless Fire at gallery1993—a show made possible by a curator creating a space for Sharif to experiment with an art that had the potential to be misunderstood as something to covet. Not that there’s anything wrong with coveting art, but I think Smokeless Fire as an exhibition embraced indeterminacy in a way that Sharif’s narrative vessels and clay paintings, and shows like Snooze, will come to miss—not in terms of the way they are made, but the way they are received. A white box within a white box doesn’t recede so as to foreground the art; it sanitizes it.
You could argue that because I am a writer, I am drawn to indeterminacy—it’s true, I am apt to make the story my own. Although there is a lovely specificity and total Sharif-ness to the pots and paintings of Snooze (the ambiguous genital-like flower forms, the white-toed sneakers with their thick, floppy bows, the hands and spirals and grins and teeth and chains and smiley faces and critters of every glaze, oxide, slip, and surface you can think of), there is space for the wildness and aspirations of others—yes, the work’s openness to transference, to new ownership, to occupying a kind of shared space—certainly this is what makes it covetable, not just the alluring paradox of its goofy sincerity, which may or may not be considered goofy and sincere a few years from now. If you believe that art is fundamentally about finding meaning in spaces where no fixed meaning yet exists—as I do—then you’ll know what I mean here: Art is about finding: Sharif says “look.”
Snooze is on view at in lieu in Los Angeles from February 23 to March 23, 2019.
Georgia is a writer in Los Angeles. She is a co-founder of and lead contributor to UNPUBLISHED and a contributor to X-TRA. Georgia’s catalog essay on the work of Stephanie Taylor at LAMAG is forthcoming this May.
All images courtesy of in lieu. Photos by Ethan Tate.