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Alicia McCarthy & Jenny Sharaf @ Johansson

Alicia McCarthy: Untitled (Weave), 2014, gouche and latex on found wood, 49.5 x 53"

“Out of School” might well have been the title of this nuanced two-person show.  Alicia McCarthy’s work either sports or comes burdened, depending on one’s point of view, with the now-assimilated Mission School backpack.  Recent MFA graduate Jenny Sharaf’s paintings drip and leak like melting popsicles purchased from a boardwalk sugar shack.  Although of different generations, McCarthy and Sharaf are friends and professional colleagues.  They share some of the same strategies in making their work: light-as-a-feather grids or interventions of sprayed craft paint, flat-footed applications of industrial paint, and focused engagement with the ever-elastic language of painting.  But the intention of their individual practices is tellingly and possibly inevitably different.

The charm and seduction of McCarthy’s work is inescapable.  Hand rubbed graphite caressing wood planks like skin, the cluster of flathead nails irregularly tacked yet studiously making words, and judiciously scavenged materials elevated to gallery status  — reveals her love of physical material and her sensitively calibrated eye for tangible richness.  McCarthy is a picker.  Looking up, looking down, she shops pavementsand construction yards for what have become the ingredients of her work.  Her democratic eye takes all matter at face value, pre-judging nothing.  These paintings recognize the spiritually inclusive ideal that one thing is equal to another.  This unfiltered openness is exhilarating and gives her work an undeniable presence.  One wants to lovingly fondle the work, as one would an old book.

McCarthy: Untitled, 2014  color pencil, nails, latex paint on found wood, 40 x 20"
Working from the trope of the grid, McCarthy’s modestly scaled paintings give the appearance of the ad hoc, but are carefully considered to the extent that she unfailingly finds balance in what is off-register and out-of-sync.  Interwoven lines are painstakingly drawn and painted, creating a sense of inevitability to the humble, textile-like surfaces.  She paints as one would hand hook a potholder, creating an enchantment of folkie allure.
Given significant recognition as a member of the Mission School and a successful gallery career, McCarthy clearly owns the space she occupies.  She is superb at what she does.  But it’s that knowingness that gives one pause.  It is no longer possible to speak of this work as subversive and radical.  What was once

Jenny Sharaf: Untitled (2), 2014, paint on canvas, 30 x 40"

considered transgressive and shockingly dismissive of established art world conventions has now folded itself into the art-historical narrative.  Not that important work should always storm the barricades.   But it should question itself.  McCarthy’s unrepentant taste for the unskilled and low-born, the expected grids, the small arrangements of nailed words, and oddments of wood poetically arranged in gallery corners now risk becoming the reductive, precious and forgone conclusions of style.

The ungainly and unruly paintings of Jenny Sharaf lurk like carhops waiting to be discovered.  Brash and aggressive, poured paint careens around the canvas, coalescing into boulders of pigment, behind which softly sprayed lines just hold the composition in balance.  Where McCarthy’s work locks itself into practiced form, with the look of gawkiness, Sharaf’s paintings are gawky, skidding into barely but bravely held coherence.  Despite the candy colors and the preppy pinks and greens, which straddle the garish and the cute, her palette posits an unexpected toughness and rigor.  Unlike McCarthy’s work, Sharaf’s painting has yet to settle into something that can be recognized, and that is its open-handed, promising strength.
Alicia McCarthy + Jenny Sharaf @ Johansson Projects through August 16, 2014. 
About the Author:
Julia Couzens is a Sacramento-based artist and writer whose work has been widely shown, most recently at the di Rosa Preserve.  Her drawings and hybrid objects are in museum and public collections throughout the U.S.  These include the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts; Berkeley Art Museum; Oakland Museum; Weatherspoon Art Gallery, University of North Carolina; and Yale University.  She lives and works on Merritt Island in the Sacramento River delta. 

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