He fashioned the earliest examples from street trash, elaborately knotting lengths of ordinary rope, bundling broken-down cardboard boxes and braiding strips of recycled cloth. He soaked newspaper in water and glue, mashed it to a pulp, then kneaded the pulp the way his father had kneaded dough. He molded the pulp into loaf-like cakes — some resembled phalluses or turds — and displayed them in stacks and piles, the way he remembered baked goods in markets when he was a child.
Even as he was doing all this, markets and appetites were expanding. In souks and shops, machine-made overwhelmed handmade; imported wiped out local. At some point, Sharif slowed down on scavenging and started buying, picking up cheap, disposable objects, the equivalent of Duchampian ready-mades, in bulk: plastic toys, made-in-China buckets, slippers, brooms, rugs, flip flops. He attached such items to supports woven from wire. The resulting assemblages — free-standing or suspended, cascading down walls, spilling across floors — colonized gallery space the way consumerism swamped the globe.
But this art didn’t come across as polemical. It was, first and foremost, visually delightful, with its sleek surfaces, bright colors and hectic, aggressive abundance. It had a tickling psychological edge, a blend of zaniness and violence. And it was accessible in an I-could-do-that-too way. This was art that didn’t rely on genius skills or elite training or expensive materials. Almost anyone with a little cash, a knack for wire-twisting and a magpie eye, could make their own versions at home, just as Sharif did in the modest Dubai apartment where he lived and worked.
His studio — including a beat-up desk scattered with pencils, pipe tobacco and notes-to-self — has been transferred, intact, to the Sharjah Foundation. Installed in the show, it looks, in its stuff-jammed corners, as much a hoarder’s lair as an art sanctum. And it gives some sense of Sharif’s work habits: Basically, he never stopped. For him art-making seems to have been a form of existential busywork, part child’s play, part labor, part meditation. Sharif, the social skeptic, viewed consumerism as addictive waste. But Sharif’s art insists that nothing is wasted if you make waste your creative source.
And it wasn’t just making art that absorbed his energy. He also taught art, wrote about it, promoted it and helped form organizations, like the Flying House in Dubai (founded by his older brother, Abdul Raheem Sharif), that supported it. He cleared the ground for succeeding generations of Emirati artists, and for international events like the Sharjah Biennial, introduced in 1993 and still going strong. And in his own work, he continued to experiment, to take the pulse of his time and place, which also meant, all politics being connected, that he took in the globe.
After the worldwide economic crisis of 2008, which hit the Emirates hard, the “Urban Archaeology” sculptures shrank in scale, became domesticated. Some were composed of a single household item — a dustpan, a hammer — wrapped in copper wire as if thickly bandaged, or armored, or possibly smothered. At the same time, Sharif’s old-style political satire resurfaced in a series of monstrously ugly paintings — they look the way our current American politics sounds — titled “Press Conference.” And there was a palette-cleansing return to ultra-spare, system-based drawing and painting.
Examples of most of this work are in his retrospective, “I Am the Single Work Artist,” through Feb. 3, which is gratifyingly, though exhaustingly, large. Organized by Hoor Al Qasimi, the founder of the Sharjah Art Foundation, it’s installed in two foundation sites: a complex of white-box-style galleries along Al Mureijah Square and in a 19th-century house called Bait Al Serkal, once the residence of the British Commissioner for the Arabian Gulf, and later a hospital.
The architectural ambience of the two places is very different. And it says a lot about the cultural versatility of Sharif’s art that it looks equally at home in both settings, as it did in the Venice Biennale last summer. (A New York gallery show, “Hassan Sharif: Semi-Systems,” opens at Alexander Gray Associates, in Manhattan, on Thursday, Jan. 4.) The sheer scale of the Sharjah show is an acknowledgment of the high esteem that this artist has, entirely on his own adversarialist terms, earned at home, and that is now ripe to be globally shared.