Part inspiration, part disruption: thoughts on the work of David Aguirre and his six-month residency at the UNPUBLISHED STUDIO

It was an old-fashioned thing—not like a beam balance, but pre-digital—the kind you can cheat if you shift your weight—a little less, a little more. It was square and heavy, despite looking plasticky, with a gently-etched non-slip surface, buffed down to a dull white from years of step-ons and step-offs, all in the service of answering a single, pedantic question: what does it weigh?

It may seem crazy that among all the possible flora—let’s see—the black, heat-melted cactus blossoms—the limp, faded bok choy—the putrid, buzzing lemons—that I’d open an essay on David Aguirre’s work by describing something so not-from-nature. It’s true that all things natural bleed through David’s work—he loves the color blue, especially in its most watery iteration; he loves hiking, and walks that are so tedious and sweat-inducing that they’re practically marches; he loves clay—its weird, wet lumpiness, its ability to go from coil, to mountain, to bead; that it can hold things. He loves fruit. And while a significant portion of his artwork ended up being scavenged, more or less, from my yard, (you should have seen me—shaking my little fist at David as he stood under my lemon tree, picking the hard, green lemons-to-be— “What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled at him), there were many nights when I gazed out over the back deck to see the studio glowing, David bent over one of his many work surfaces, slapping or rolling or smoothing the clay—he was The Artist, if ever there was one. The next morning would be a near-cornucopia. It was something to behold.

The early days of his residency were occupied with building and stretching a series of large (but not huge) rectangular canvases and hanging them in a row on the back wall of the studio. These ended up as light, ethereal paintings in colors that reminded me of swimming pools—translucent, gentle—they sort of, acquiesce. Blues, aquas, teals, surrounded by browns, ochres, and other colors reminiscent of sky and earth—the kinds of colors in scenic painting kits. On top of these swathes David would paint a few fruits: a banana bunch in yellows and greens, a red apple. I’m still not really sure what to make of these paintings (David explained that they were like faces); they certainly functioned as a kind of marked exhalation from his previous work, which embraced the crass, shiny, wince-inducing elements of pop culture, rather than a tranquil, vegetal state of nature. In later iterations, these paintings received more embellishment—ceramic medallions, clothespins, little bits of nature stuff. Oranges. I’ve learned that David’s is an additive process.

 If the first few months of the residency were a study in focused energy—painting as an iterative practice invested in exploring a singular theme and form—then the second half embraced a more punk-rock, fuck-it-up mentality—a dizzying, fruit-fueled, clay-slinging, assemblage-ing, found-object, sculptural extravaganza raging from dusk til’ dawn. In my version of the art fantasy, it was one of our meetings that catalyzed David’s practice; but regardless of what spirit moved him, he was certainly possessed, ending his residency with such a large and eclectic body of brand-new work that I had to ground myself with the one object I was already familiar with.

I still don’t know if it has a title. When I saw it, I loved it instantly. My old scale, the one I had used to weigh plaster, clay, boxes—which had been tucked inside an open shelf—had migrated to the ground. On it, David had placed two things: a little hand-painted cut-out of the Earth, and a rather large foot, made of blue painter’s tape. The foot itself was a gnarly thing, maybe an ogre’s foot, with a fat arch and stubby, splayed-out toes. It was mottled with clay, as if it had been intended as an armature, or escaped some dank, enclosed space. A foot and an Earth on a scale. Not an additive gesture—a simple one. 

Something special about this artwork is that I don’t need to explain it. It’s visceral and immediate, instantly calling forth our own ubiquitous experience to this object of fraught relationships. It’s also all the special art words—oh, indexical, symbolic, metaphorical, maybe even metonymic; it has a telescoping effect on our human scale, and we are at once the ones tipping that scale, but also made small by it, all while comprehending the weight of the world that sits on top of it. It is an artwork that spews forth a hundred adages, expressions, puns; it’s a thesaurus in a neat little square; it’s a reminder; it’s a silly thing; it makes us laugh, while it is somehow just serious enough. It has such a pleasing combination of artifice, with the painted Earth on paper, and then the sculpted, clunky tape-foot, and then the found scale—it’s real, you could step on it—you already have. It’s a thing of history, picturing Atlas battling the Olympians, the old world versus the new, those poetic scales of justice. Those are a few of the things I like about it. I could go on.

If you missed David’s open studio, then you won’t understand how different this artwork was from the others. There was a clothing rack on wheels wrapped in plaster, the central armature on which a plethora of items were affixed—clay tulipiere, bok choy leaves clipped into a multi-pronged hanger (it looked like a chandelier), clay faces, those thin, paper beauty masks, more limbs made of tape—there was a five-gallon-bucket-turned-swamp-cooler, and a fountain made out of what I think was a black rubber bed pan, pumping with filthy black water that splashed across the studio wall. There were books and notebooks, a pile of fruit drawings, and a jumble of ceramic coils that looked like a sharp nest of snakes. There were things that were beautiful, and things that were ugly, and my big, sweet, delicious lemons rotting in a plastic bag that hung from the ceiling. 

After David moved out, he left behind two artworks and a note. One artwork was for Sarah—a cone-like ceramic planter on a rubber yellow chain (he knows how much she loves gardening). One was for me—another simpler, gentler artwork—a small, layered, mixed-media drawing on paper. At the bottom of this paper is a little grid, with David’s signature blue-tape-bits and fruits; above that is a soft, smudgy drawing of a globe with what looks like an organ sack, or perhaps a placenta, hanging from it, all reminiscent of a hot-air balloon. Above that is a small graph-paper-like grid, almost like a blank area to write-in your own something; and hovering above the grid, the word Monday, written in bubble letters, floats in a hazy pink cloud. Around the edges of the drawing is an almost imperceptibly small script describing the many anxieties of Monday; the Monday blues. I fell so hard for this artwork; I was so touched by its intimacy, its smallness—I swear, it whispered things to me; it seemed...alive. For all his artworks, with their over-abundance of nature, their flamboyant ephemerality—for me, this is the one where his spirit really resides.

The UNPUBLISHED project has always been an experiment. I continue to be shocked at how profound it is to share space with an artist in the midst of their practice. One simply cannot tacitly observe—one is sucked in, subsumed by not only the art, but by the artist, and ends in a boundless, amorphous puddle of thoughts and feelings not all that suited to committing to words. There are many, many more thoughts and ideas I have for David—some kind, encouraging, useful—others more stern, or unworkable, or across too many boundaries. Art is like that. In its wildest moments, we cannot remember, discern, accept, who has authored it—it becomes something that seems as if it is an obvious answer to a question we didn’t realize we’d asked. It’s part energy, part fog; part inspiration, and part total disruption. In other words: David. 


David Aguirre - July 14, 2019 (42 of 7)

David Aguirre was the UNPUBLISHED STUDIO artist-in-residence winter/spring 2019.

Georgia is a writer in Los Angeles. She is a co-founder of and lead contributor to UNPUBLISHED, a recent contributor to X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly, and is currently the Review Coordinator and Writer for the School of Art at CalArtsGeorgia also directs the UNPUBLISHED STUDIO, a need-based workspace and mentorship program for artists in Los Angeles.

Click here to read her recently published review of Matthew Lax’s Brunt Drama at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive.

Click here to subscribe to UNPUBLISHED essays and events.

As always, thank you to Sarah for editing this text!

Photos by Cedric Tai.



Before you supernova: Sharif Farrag’s “Snooze” at in lieu

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.

Garden jar (squideater), 2018, stoneware, glaze, 12.5 x 12 x 10 inches (in lieu)

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.

From left to right: Catching goldfish, 2018-2019, stoneware, glaze, 16.25 x 13.5 x 1.5; Bodach and Idea bats, 2018-2019, stoneware, glaze, 33 x 23 x 28 inches (in lieu)
Snooze installation view (in lieu)

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.

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All images courtesy of in lieu. Photos by Ethan Tate.