Outside/Inside: Alicia Mccarthy and Jenny Sharaf at Johansson Projects

The current show at Johansson Projects, Alicia Mccarthy + Jenny Sharaf, is a bit of a study in contrasts. For one, the artists find themselves at different points along their respective career paths. Alicia Mccarthy is a mainstay in the San Francisco Bay Area and part of the so-called Mission School, a group of artists that came to prominence in the city during the early 2000s. Jenny Sharaf is a recent MFA from Mills College in Oakland and a young emerging artist who has exhibited in LA and San Francisco. Their two person show at Johansson Projects seems to point to interesting contrasts in compositional approaches, one that responds to the world outside of the gallery, the other to the thingness of paint. – Matt Smith Chavez, San Francisco Contributor

Alicia McCarthy | Untitled (5), 2014. Crayon, spray paint and latex paint on found wood. 4' x 4'
. Image courtesy of Johansson Projects and the artist

Jenny Sharaf | Untitled (4), 2014. Paint on canvas. 48" x 60". 
Image courtesy of Johansson Projects and the artist

Mccarthy paints on found materials rather than on stretched canvases. Her recent paintings at Johansson Projects are mostly produced on reclaimed pieces of wood that are nicked up and smudged from their previous lives as functional objects. It’s easy to imagine that these blemishes serve as compositional prompts for Mccarthy, or that they provide a kind of entryway that guides her mark making forward. They can also remind us that with these paintings, as with most other things, history lies right below the surface.

These works, then, are not paintings about painting. Mccarthy’s abstractions are openly about the world around her, about what’s happening just a few steps away outside the gallery door. The compositions themselves speak with the same concrete language, referencing the warp and weft of weaved fabrics, for example, or the symmetrical piecing of quilt blocks. Her visual vocabulary seems just as grounded in the physical world as her found and reclaimed materials. And it speaks with a startling mix of modesty and sure-handedness.

Alicia McCarthy | Untitled (Weave), 2014. Gouache and latex paint on found wood. 49.5" x 43". 
Image courtesy of Johansson Projects and the artist

Alicia McCarthy | Untitled (4), 2013. Liquid pencil, color pencil on found wood. 36" x 49". 
Image courtesy of Johansson Projects and the artist

Jenny Sharaf’s compositions, on the other hand, are pushed forward by the thingness of her paints. At the center of her paintings are large pours of bright colors that have dried into almost sculptural layers. Her swirling mobs of color can seem like a tongue in cheek reference to 1960s psychedelia. But the neons of her palette point to something technological, something that is almost digital. 

Unlike Mccarthy, Sharaf’s compositional prompts are not the blemishes of reclaimed objects but the chance elements of her mark making. Within the context of this show it’s not hard to imagine Mccarthy responding to the landscape outside of her studio -- the scuffed pavement or the graffiti on the walls -- while Sharaf contemplates the physical qualities of her paints. In that sense, the show at Johansson Projects seems like a fascinating study in contrasts, from the artists to the studios to the paintings on the wall.  

Jenny Sharaf | Untitled (5), 2014. Paint on canvas. 40" x 30". 
Image courtesy of Johansson Projects and the artist

Jenny Sharaf | Untitled (2), 2014. Paint on canvas. 30" x 40". 
Image courtesy of Johansson Projects and the artist

Alicia McCarthy, Jenny Sharaf. Installation shot. 
Image courtesy of Johansson Projects


Alicia McCarthy's hypnotic paintings are a quiet F-U to the ever-quickening pace of the ever savvy, Photoshopped world around us. Each work, like a handwritten love letter to all things handwritten, savors every clumsy fumble, every misspelling, every found material that's over time given out. McCarthy transforms non-art materials like house paint and discarded wood into humming artworks with a combination of naive nostalgia and punk defiance. With a washed-out palette that feels inspired by a memory or trance, McCarthy's work feels, somehow, already and beautifully forgotten. McCarthy is a member of The Mission School, the iconic San Francisco '90s movement that privileged low-brow folk in all its forms.

Jenny Sharaf, a recent MFA graduate of Mills College, deconstructs the mythology of the California girl, questioning the role of the female artist in the process. While McCarthy works in a state of near meditation, Sharaf prefers the rush of rushing, trusting her gut to create works that ooze a fast-paced energy similar to flipping through reality TV shows on a melting television. Using pop starlets and female flesh like paint colors to be layered and juxtaposed, Sharaf explores the depth of the surface as well as its seductive beauty.

Matt Smith Chavez is an artist and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is an MFA candidate at the University of California, Berkeley


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