Art Insider Nov. 15: Monstrous ceramics, cartoons for climate change, and more

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This week, artists use humor and cartoon characters to speak to deeper issues, talk about Michael Jackson, and approach diaspora in unique ways. 

“Laugh in the Dark” by Sharif Farrag
François Ghebaly Gallery

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Sharif Farrag,
Laugh in the Dark (installation view) (2019).
Image courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly, Los Angeles. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

When you think of ceramic work, you might think of the age old form of a vase, or ideas of beauty or timelessness. Yet Sharif Farrag’s ceramic creations throw taste and caution to the wind, feeling playful, irreverent, and a bit punk rock. His vase forms sprout monstrous feet or ghoulish arms, and are draped with chains. Each is inhabited by a cast of  orgiastic characters (think Pee-wee’s Playhouse meets Garden of Earthly Delights) . Some of his glazes drip down the sculpture into puddles on the floor or ooze from the fingernails of gargoyles. Flowers sprout faces, and clocks become animated. His riotous ceramic sculptures prove that despite the complex process inherent in the medium, ceramic works can be as intuitive and inventive as a doodle on the back of your math homework.

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Sharif Farrag, Jumble Face Costume (Bird Bath), 2019. Stoneware, glaze. 55 x 24 x 24 inches (140 x 61 x 61 cm).
 Image courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly, Los Angeles. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

Sharif Farrag’s work is inspired by the diversity and complexity of his hometown of Los Angeles, specifically the San Fernando Valley. Last year he told Young Space, “I take a lot of pics when I walk around and gain inspiration from things I see around me. I drive a lot, do a lot of people watching, and listen. Los Angeles is a beautiful, complex, endlessly inspiring place.” 

As a kid, graffitti was a huge influence for Farrag, who is first generation American and grew up Muslim. “I loved how graffiti looked, and it also claimed space. It was powerful. Doing graffiti allowed me to create a new representation for myself at a young age, and not one mediated through my body, heritage, and whatever else came with that. All of this was in the decade after 9/11.  As for being Muslim, representation was a huge deal. Graffiti really showed me how I could take agency over the things I liked.”

On view: November 9–December 15, 2019


“Optimistically Melting” by Kenny Scharf
Honor Fraser Gallery

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Kenny Scharf,
Optimistically Melting! (installation view) (2019).
Image courtesy of the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery.
Photo: Joshua White/

You may have seen his ecstatic swirling cartoons plastered across the side of a tire shop, or even gracing the side of a Honda Civic driving next to you on the 10. Kenny Scharf is an L.A. mainstay with an iconic style. In addition to his blob characters, Scharf incorporates found plastic toys, which at Honor Fraser he strings across the gallery entrance, in order to repurpose them out of the landfill. 

Despite his over-the-top aesthetic, Scharf’s new body of work has a darker undertone, and speaks to environmental collapse. In some paintings, his ecstatic blobs begin to melt across the canvas, and other works contain literal news headlines reporting on global warming. The title, Optimistically Melting! , gets at the conflict of our present day, which is how to stay optimistic and exuberant amidst the onslaught of environmental collapse. 

On View: September 7–December 14, 2019


“I Will Greet the Sun Again” by Shirin Neshat 
The Broad

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Installation view of
Sayed, Kamal, and Ghada from artist Shirin Neshat’s Our House Is On Fire (2013) series
at The Broad’s exhibition,
Shirin Neshat: I Will Greet the Sun Again . Photo: Joshua White/, courtesy The Broad.

Shirin Neshat came to America from Iran in 1979, finishing high school here and going on to UC Berkeley. Much of her work comes from her own experience of displacement or separation from one’s homeland, while also reconciling the political strife in the Middle East during her lifetime: ‘79 Islamic Revolution, 9/11, the Arab Spring. 

Nehsat’s own emigré status informs the narratives of her work. As she told the LA Times, “Every woman in my film is an outcast, they are rebellious, they are running away.” 

Now on view at The Broad is a 30-year retrospective of Neshat's work. It contains 230 photographs and eight immersive video installations. They’re all heart-breaking poignant reflections on diaspora, struggle, and shared humanity. 

On View: October 19, 2019–February 16, 2020


Todd Gray explores colonialism

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Todd Gray,
Euclidean Gris Gris (The Young Shall Inherit the Earth) , 2019. Three archival pigment prints in artist’s frames.
30 3/4 x 30 5/8 x 3 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist, David Lewis, New York, and Meliksetian | Briggs.

LA-based artist Todd Gray is known for his photographic work. He was Michael Jackson’s personal photographer in the early 1980s, responsible for many of the images chronicling Jackson’s early rise out of the Jackson 5 and into his mainstream pop career. 

Outside of his music photography, Gray examines the legacies of colonialism in Europe and Africa, and the split between a western logical thinking and a more African physical and intuitive way of thinking (what Gray calls Gris Gris ). Gray is in residency at the Pomona College Museum of Art all year, and is exhibiting an evolving selection of his photo collages. 

Gray was a recent guest on my contemporary art podcast, The Carla Podcast , where you can find a full hour-long conversation him. You can also listen here as I discuss Gray’s work with Steve Chiotakis, and share clips from the full-length interview.