Hassan Sharif’s Political Paintings at AGA

Alexander Gray Associates, New York presents Hassan Sharif: Political Paintings (2008–2009) from March 17 to April 23. While Sharif (1951–2016) is best known for his sculptural compositions, he was a dedicated painter—insisting, “It is so easy now for me to give up painting and make objects, but time and time again I feel painting is important.” Highlighting the medium’s primacy in his practice, the Gallery’s presentation brings together political cartoons from the 1970s and paintings and works on paper from the late 2000s to center the artist’s unflinchingly wry observations on contemporary life and politics.

Trained as a painter, Sharif first received critical recognition for his figurative images. By the mid-1970s, he had applied his compositional skills to drafting caricatures for a variety of United Arab Emirates newspapers and magazines. Using his platform to critique everything from the United States’s foreign policy in the Middle East to the changing economic realities of life in Dubai after the establishment of the U.A.E. in 1971, Sharif’s images have an immediacy and irreverence that makes their outspoken commentary all the more compelling.

Later paintings by the artist amplify these cartoons’ political critique and gestural style. Canvases from the Press Conference series (2008–2009) feature an impassioned leader ranting into a microphone. As Sharif once observed about these politicians, “They are so confident that, in the end, they go mad. They think that when they talk there are bombs coming out of their mouths.” Alluding to this madness, the works’ loose brushstrokes animate each scene—dissolving every figure’s face into a grotesque parody that captures their unhinged psychological state.

Other works by the artist from this period shift their focus away from political figureheads to picture the grim reality of those whose collective fates they control. Repeating the gesture of a raised hand over and over again, Sharif’s 2009 Raising Hand paintings abstract the movement until its meanings collapse and run together—making each figures’ arc-like motion simultaneously a wave goodbye, a sign of surrender, and a plea for help. Rendered in sickly hues of blue, green, and orange, Sharif’s figures recall the emotive, distorted forms of German Expressionists, drawing parallels between their questioning of convention and Sharif’s own.

This critical appraisal—an inherent social critique—was foundational to Sharif’s approach to art-making. “Every act from man is a political act. An artist is a realist by nature,” he once concluded. “I record reality through visual symbols which overflow with combinations of black humor.”