San Francisco artist Jenny Sharaf is skilled in an impressive array of mediums. Whether she's remaking iconic California scenes as surrealist portraits, turning movie stars into collections of collaged body parts, painting luscious swirls of bright colors on canvas, or engaging the city with interactive art happenings, this busy woman has no lack of outlets for her awesome ideas. She also isn't afraid to needle other artists like Richard Prince, whose controversial exhibition of other people's Instagram photos became fodder for Sharaf's sharp response, "Babe Decor." In the end, she says, her work is an ongoing exploration of "the artist as the California girl."
Outside of the gallery scene, she's also responsible for a huge parking lot art show and helping turn billboards into artistic canvases. So what's next on this perennially busy artist's agenda? You'll have to read our Q&A with her to find out.
Your collages are incredible, especially the way you create matrixes where various sex symbols are folding into themselves at such a rate where they’re nothing but hair, or legs. In other cases their features are smeared across their faces. What happens to the power or allure of the icons you play with when you spiral, sprawl, and catalog their features like this?
When I work with collage elements, I tend to work quickly and intuitively, trusting my eye and my hand simultaneously. I do have my go-to muses — Bardot and Elvis being two of them — but am always hunting for California iconography or images that feel ambiguous, complex, and nostalgic. Something strange happens when figurative elements are abstracted in a very formal sense (using pattern and repetition).
In your bio, you talk about your obsession with Hollywood as coming from your family’s legacy in the film and TV business. What has your family been involved with specifically?
I grew up in LA in a TV-eccentric family. My dad is a cameraman and my mom is a sound-person, mostly freelance for the network channels, but they also make the occasional documentary passion project. During most of my childhood, they worked very long hours on high profile entertainment interviews, spending decades working for 20/20, Dateline, and Entertainment Tonight. My dad's footage became the content of media history — Michael Jackson interviews with Barbara Walters, Tom Cruise interview with Oprah, the list goes on and on and on. As a child, I would watch these programs to feel closer to my parents when they were out working. Or we'd watch them as a family, if aired at a time when they were home. Looking back, TV always served as an important marker of time and events for me.
Going further back in the family, Irene Sharaff (my grandfather's cousin), was a very accomplished costume designer. She worked on countless titles — including Cleopatra, Hello Dolly, Guys and Dolls, and much more. Her legacy feels very important to me, even though I had never met her. The folklore of her career and personal life have come in and out of my work over the last five years.
Your “Babe Decor” conceptual project is fascinating. (The short version is that an artist named Richard Prince created a controversial series of work by pulling images of women on Instagram without their permission, adding his comments to the images, and selling prints of the photos & comments for hefty sums. You then contacted one of those women, created your own print and clothing line from her/Richard’s image, and had this woman wear the clothing with her print in a show.) What was your reaction when your first heard about Prince’s concept for his Instagram series? And how did this reaction expand to become “Babe Decor?”
I've been interested in Richard Prince's work for a long time. His instagram project is totally predictable and easy, given the discourse of his practice. That doesn't mean it's not upsetting. The chavaunist undertone to everything Richard Prince does is evident of art world antics. It's a major boy's club and I felt like I needed to do something in reaction ... so came up with the project's concept, went to NYC, and executed. Prince re-grammed many of the project photos (without credits, of course), which felt like a success and failure. I'm not sure how the project will continue. I've tried reaching out to Richard, but have yet to hear anything back. He definitely knows who I am at this point.
How is social media affecting the art world, and your art specifically? In one way it can really amplify your work, in another it creates the risk of others repurposing your work without your permission. How does the concept of "remixing" another artists work (or even a stranger's work) affect the art world?
It might be a little too early to tell, but I think social media is affecting the art world in a few major ways- 1) artists are more accessible than ever 2) artists control the market more with their following (more even playing field between artists and galleries) and 3) all the cool artists know each other. The combination of these things will hopefully result in more artist-run spaces, less romanticism in "getting discovered," and more transparency all around. Sharing your work is risky in some ways, but it's also the only way to prove you did something first. People will copy you, if your stuff is good. It's part of the beast.
You’ve also been behind some really cool happenings involving San Francisco at large, like with your Parking Lot Art Fair and the Art City Project. As each of these projects catches on, how does that shape your plans for what to do next? What are your bigger goals for art happenings in San Francisco? And what specifically is your next project along these lines?
I've learned a lot from the happenings and events I've done so far and try to use those lessons in the next iterations. Right now, I'm working on a series called for the early fall in San Francisco.
What else are you working on now?
My first solo show is still up at Luggage Store Gallery Project Space on Haight Street [in San Francisco].
I'm about to start working on a large scale project in San Francisco, but can't talk about quite it yet ... Follow me on Instagram where I post lots of art that I'm making and looking at.
All images courtesy of Jenny Sharaf