“Painting was seen as the ultimate commodifiable, politically impotent, non-conceptual form, which I think is a total miss. Painting is an incredibly complex medium, and it's probably one of the hardest art forms to do, given that it has thousands of years of history.”
Chris Sharp is a writer, curator, and gallerist based in Los Angeles and Mexico City. His writing career includes serving as the news editor of Flash Art International, editor-at-large of Kaleidoscope, and a contributing editor at Art Review and Art Agenda, as well as writing for many artist monographs and articles for various art publications. After a decade of working as an independent curator in Europe, Sharp moved to Mexico City where he and artist Martín Soto Climent opened the unique project space Lulu. Eight years later, in June 2020, he and his partner BB Beugelmans launched the project Feuilleton, an intimate gallery in their Los Angeles apartment dedicated to works on paper, which will close at the end of March 2021. At the start of 2021, he opened his own Los Angeles-based contemporary art gallery, Chris Sharp Gallery.
Sharp is currently preparing the exhibition La Mer Imaginaire, a meditation on the sea, the imagination and climate change for La Fondation Carmignac in Porquerolles, France, and the exhibition Particularities, a survey of small-format, contemporary painting for X Museum, Beijing. Both exhibitions are scheduled to open in 2021.
In this interview, Chris Sharp reveals what shaped his understanding of contemporary art, how he adapts to living in different cultures, and why he opened his own gallery in Los Angeles.
TGL: How was your childhood?
CS: I grew up in San Francisco with my single mother and twin sister. When I was young, I wanted to be an artist, so I drew an enormous amount. From ages 12 to 18, I was a really committed skateboarder. I was sponsored, and I was supposed to become professional. I think this influenced me even more to think about image production and the way images coexist. In skateboarding, image production is super important in terms of the design and board graphics, because of the way stickers and decals sit together on skateboards or different surfaces and how they interact. There were skaters I grew up with who were pretty good at making things look good and skaters who were also artists, like Mark Gonzales or Natas Kaupas.
TGL: What did you do when you were 18?
CS: I got thrown out of school, and I went to college in New York when I was in my late 20s. I studied French literature. My dream at the time was to write the next great American novel or the next great post-modern novel.
TGL: What led you to the art world?
CS: I used to go to shows in Chelsea when I lived in New York, but I never took it super seriously. When I moved to Paris though, working in art seemed like a great way to earn a living as a student. I worked for the artist Piotr Uklanski, who showed with Emmanuel Perrotin at the time. Then, I did an internship at the gallery Air de Paris and eventually, just by being around these people, the gallerist Fabienne Leclerc, invited me to curate a show at her gallery. She sent me on an all-expense paid research trip to New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where I did my first studio visits. And although I knew so little about art, I went back and curated her summer show in 2006.
TGL: How long did you stay in Paris?
CS: About eight years. At one point, not long after doing that show for Fabienne, I got a job at Flash Art in Milan as a news editor. I moved to Milan for about a year and half. I learned a lot working at Flash Art.
TGL: What helped you to shape your understanding of contemporary art?
CS: I did a lot of studio visits. I did a lot of reading and research online. I remember I was particularly drawn to more conceptual practices, but that was also the mode at the time. This is Europe, 2006/2007, so the hot artists were Ryan Gander, Jonathan Monk, and all these third-generation neo-conceptual figures. I read books like Six Years, which I don't think anyone actually reads cover to cover, but I read it cover to cover and studied everything, every reference in it. Then I read everything I could get my hands on.
What I'm interested in and want to show now is totally different than what I was initially interested in. But the one thing that unites these two different moments is my appreciation for economy: economy of means, economy of presentation, radical simplicity in economy, and doing things as honestly and basically as possible. That has always enchanted me.
TGL: What led you to Mexico City?
CS: I went to do a residency in Mexico City after living in Europe for about 10 years. It was January 2012, and I spent a month there. I fell in love with the city. I'd always wanted to go to Mexico and Latin America and live and work there in some capacity for two reasons. First and foremost, because of my love for Latin American literature, everything from Jorge Luis Borges to Bolaño. And second, because I was drawn to the economy of certain art practices in Mexico in the 90s, like early Gabriel Orozco or Francis Alÿs. Francis is probably more conceptual than Gabriel, but I was drawn to their post-studio practice, working just with what they have.
I was also really attracted to the work of Martín Soto Climent, with whom I opened Lulu, and his sense of economy as well. In many ways, Mexico seemed like the promised land of economy. Economy as a kind of conceptual and material framework. So I went and stayed. I did the residency, I decided to go back to teach a class, and I ended up moving in with Martín. He had an extra room in his apartment. I didn't move to Mexico to open a space, I just moved there for the quality of life and my interest in these artistic practices.
TGL: When did you open Lulu?
CS: Not long after I moved there, Martín and I decided to open a space. It was very spontaneous. It's not the reason I went to Mexico, but it definitely became the reason I stayed.
TGL: What is your view of the contemporary art market?
CS: I don't have this allergy to the market. In Mexico, there is a lot of mistrust and suspicion around the so-called neoliberal art market. I think Mexico is similar to the way Paris was 10 years ago, there is this general supposition that if you sell your work or you make work that is so-called market friendly or commodifiable, you're not a real artist. I think this is obviously bullshit. Artists need to make a living like anybody else.
I don't necessarily endorse the wholesale rejection or condemnation of the contemporary art market, but there are certain aspects of it that I find unattractive. One aspect is expansion, the belief that bigger is better. At Lulu, we have shown many great painters who work on a small scale, like Lucas Arruda, the Brazilian painter in São Paulo whose works tend to be small. It's typical that a lot of these artists start working with a bigger gallery, and the gallery puts pressure on them to scale up their work. There's an almost sinister logic in the art world that it's all about size, or size is somehow significant. I think this is a complete fallacy. Scale has nothing to do with it. Sure, it's impressive to see big murals by Diego Rivera and whatnot. That's an enormous amount of work, but it's somewhat misleading. It conforms too readily and uncritically to the logic of capitalism: bigger is better.
TGL: What do you think about the growing trend of studio production in the art market?
CS: Constantly expanding and finding new markets on a social, ethical, or even spiritual level seems so tone deaf and out of sync with what is happening in terms of overproduction and waste. It’s an ecological disaster. I'm more interested in practices that are mindful of the ecological impacts of artist production and keeping things as simple, economic, and low impact as possible. Kate Newby is very mindful of how she produces her work. This is something that people like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst are not mindful of. Can you imagine the carbon footprint of moving one of their works? It just seems so extravagant and inconsiderate.
TGL: You are American, but you lived in Paris for eight years, Milan for nearly two, and then Mexico City seven. How do you adapt to the culture each time and what do these cultures bring you?
CS: Language is very important. I like learning languages. However, living abroad in different cultures, in some ways has made me more American. You don't really understand on a deep cultural level what being American means until you live outside the country. When I moved to Paris, France was in many ways socialist compared to the United States, with its different economic models, work weeks, work ethics...That changed my perception. Living in places like Mexico or Europe as an American, I really realized that the United States is fundamentally an optimistic place. The United States provides the world with optimism. I don't think any other country really does that, at least not at the moment. I'm not sure that America really does it either anymore, but it certainly used to.
TGL: What kind of optimism does the United States provide?
CS: The cultural production of Hollywood, the happy endings, these different quack spiritual theories, religions. There is a sense that anything can happen here and certain things can change on a fundamental level, like laws and civil liberties. There is something about the optimism of the United States, which I didn't really understand until I moved to these more fatalistic places. France is very fatalistic, so is Mexico, and Italy might be the most fatalistic of them all. There's a sense there that you stay in the class you were born into. It has deep roots in former monarchical societies. In France, people are fine with their social situation as long as you don't touch their social security and they get their six weeks of paid vacation a year. The fatalism of Europe, or even Mexico's hybrid fatalism is special, they are these forms of realism, which make American entitlement or privilege seem wonderful and totally ridiculous at the same time.
TG: You are an entrepreneur and opened the gallery Lulu in Mexico City. How did you create your business model?
CS: Martín and I didn't have a business model or plan or anything. We were lucky because it was in a room in his studio in Mexico, so there wasn't much overhead. When we initially started we applied for grants, because there is funding for the arts in Mexico. We didn't get any of the funding we applied for, but we managed to sell a work at our first show, a Jochen Lempert photograph. We had no idea what we were doing, but we realized that this photograph, which didn't cost very much, was enough to pay for a couple months' rent. Not long after, we were invited to participate for free in the first edition of Material Art Fair. I put together a booth with some amazing work. Michael E. Smith, Lisa Oppenheim, Nina Canell, Martín, Jochen Lempert, crazy good work, and I sold a couple of those pieces.
Eventually we had to make the decision about the space, but it was never: this is a commercial or non-commercial space. It was a question of how do we run this space? How do we ensure that the exhibitions we want to happen can happen? We were invited to more art fairs, because everyone wants a new gallery from Mexico. Art fairs were incredibly helpful in terms of meeting collectors all over the world, connecting with people, and learning how to sell art. It was always a hybrid model: a small institution, project space. I was influenced by places like Castillo/Corrales in Paris, which was really important to me when I was developing Lulu. Castillo/Corrales had a bookstore and a more discursive program, but at the same time, they put on amazing exhibitions, while trying to be self-sustaining. They sold art. They didn't really participate in art fairs.
With Lulu, we resisted the temptation to become a conventional gallery and have a standard roster of artists. We functioned like a hybrid between White Columns in New York, and Castillo/Corrales, we showed more established and emerging artists, and we accompanied them for a little while. We typically did a solo exhibition and a solo booth somewhere, and then helped the artist develop an economy and a network, and got them involved with good galleries. At the same time, this helped Lulu sustain its own economy and keep doing the program that we wanted to be doing.
TGL: You still write a lot too, how do you articulate yourself in writing versus curating?
CS: I started writing before curating. I wrote in Paris and different parts of Europe. That's always been really important. And I still curate shows at institutions. I'm working on a show right now in Beijing and the South of France, at la Fondation Carmignac. I try to see it all as part of the same impulse, which is to fight the good fight, to promote the kind of work I think can impact the arc of contemporary art in a positive way. Sometimes I'm lucky to write about an artist that we might later show. For instance, I was invited to write about the artist Jean-Charles Hue for Foundation Ricard and their platform TextWork. I wasn't familiar with the work, but it really grew on me. I eventually wrote this text, and then I invited him to do a solo at Lulu. It was a beautiful show of just one film and a series of photographs drawn from the film called Tijuana Tales from 2017.
It also depends on the context, but if certain people are promoting nothing but Jeff Koons and others are promoting nothing but activism, then maybe I can make a small contribution in trying to direct the discourse of contemporary art towards practices that are very much about art, as opposed to the politics of art, let's say.
TGL: How has COVID-19 changed how you think about art?
CS: I think it merely confirms my position. Who knows how things are going to play out? But the people who are suffering the most right now are those who had too many irons in the fire, expanded too quickly, and have too many employees and too much overhead. A space right next to Lulu became available and we briefly considered expanding, but in the end, it seemed unnecessary and we decided against it. I'm really glad we did.
Art fairs, even the ones we regularly participate in, are constantly putting pressure on us to get a bigger booth. The goal is to have a corner booth at FIAC or Basel, to be in the center of the fair, have the biggest booths, and be selling the biggest art. There is this constant pressure to expand. I think COVID-19 has revealed the fallacy of this pressure. It’s a totally manufactured necessity. It's a real market pressure, but in the end is ultimately specious.
During COVID-19, I opened a space with my partner BB Beugelmans called Feuilleton, in our Los Angeles apartment. This was an attempt to stay engaged and keep thinking about the economy of art, both as a physical object and in terms of distribution. We opened a space dedicated to showing works on paper, hence Feuilleton. The origin of the term is from early 19th century cultural supplements, mostly in French newspapers, where they would publish novels serially. Balzac published a lot of his novels in feuilleton. It's a play on words of paper as a support of distribution. We concentrate on showing small-scale works on paper, because there is so much you can do with that very simple medium. Many see it as a secondary medium, but it also provides a certain sense of intimacy. There's something particular about drawing, although that's not exclusively what we show, that has always disclosed the art-making process in a really interesting way.
TGL: What are the main differences between Lulu in Mexico City and Feuilleton in Los Angeles?
CS: Half the artists at Feuilleton are from Los Angeles, while Lulu tended to be much more international. We showed many Mexican artists at Lulu, but in general, we showed one Latin American artist per year and then artists from all over, like Japan, Australia, Europe, wherever. Here in Los Angeles, we're focusing much more on the local scene, which is incredibly rich. I wish we could be doing more studio visits and whatnot, because you have all these great schools here. There's infrastructure, it's a land of riches.
Feuilleton is medium specific. It's all about paper and it opens up a universe where you can show all kinds of different artists in a low-commitment project space, artists people might not even know have a drawing practice. Whereas at Lulu, we tended to show a lot of painting, in part because nobody really shows painting in Mexico, at least not in mainstream contemporary art. We felt like that was a gap that needed to be filled.
TGL: When did you start to focus more on drawing and painting?
CS: It was when I moved to Mexico. Paris impacted me in a positive and negative way, because after living in Paris, especially in 2010 or 2011, Europe was in a bad place with art. There were exceptions like Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno, but they were totally discursive practices, where somebody held up a receipt and told you what it meant. It wasn't about studio practices. It was all about these clever concepts. I felt like it ran itself into the ground. You had so many practices that weren't about anything, except for art. And that's one thing I really came to dislike: art about art. It feels very self-regarding, totally dismissive of the world.
I got to Mexico and they were dealing with similar problems. They were trying to negotiate the legacy of 1990s Mexico City art with people like Gabriel Orozco or Francis Alÿs by making bad versions of it. There are good artists as well, but the work also relied far too much on language. It was all conceptual or somehow activist, and there was no studio practice.
It really pushed me towards the opposite extreme. Painting was seen as the ultimate commodifiable, politically impotent, non-conceptual form, which I think is a total miss. Painting is an incredibly complex medium, and it's probably one of the hardest art forms to do, given that it has thousands of years of history, whereas conceptual art as an art form is 60/70 years old. Painting was genuinely challenging and provocative and rich, and totally absent from the discourse of contemporary art in Mexico City or in Latin America.
TGL: Which painter’s work has struck you the most in the past year?
CS: The painters we’ve shown at Lulu. We showed Lewis Hammond, who's amazing. He's an English artist from the UK, and he's making some of the most exciting paintings. Aaron Gilbert is another painter from New York. I love the work of Daniel Rios Rodriguez.
TGL: Since you write a lot, do you keep track of all this movement and do you plan to write your own history?
CS: I don't know, maybe. I've been in talks about publishing a book of essays, but, no, not necessarily. I've never thought about it like that. In a way, I'm trying to do it through the practice of running these different spaces.
TGL: You opened Chris Sharp Gallery in January, why did you want to create your own gallery in Los Angeles?
CS: It was a combination of things, I have spent basically the entire lockdown here in Los Angeles and I've been involved with a woman here for the past few years. I've gotten to know the Los Angeles art scene much better, and the more time I spend here, the more I like it. I also realized that there are certain artists like Tom Allen and Tyler Vlahovich, who I've both shown at Lulu, and Emma McIntyre who don’t have galleries here and aren’t really supported. Emma McIntyre is going to be our first show. The work is just so good. We were initially going to do the show in Feuilleton but we realized we needed a larger space. We started thinking about finding another space, and then I realized that maybe the best thing to do would be to open a gallery for this reason.
And with regard to Lulu, when we opened Lulu, there was a gap for us to fill and I'm not so sure that it exists anymore. The art scene has evolved and changed quite a bit. I don't know whether Lulu has the same necessity or the same sense of necessity that it used to. When or if we close, it will have been eight years since we opened, so it will have been around for quite some time.
I wanted to start supporting certain artists on a more committed, long-term basis.
Lulu also feels like it belongs to an international art world, a pre-COVID international art world. We were showing mostly international artists. We have entered a different art world, and the art world during COVID and maybe post-COVID feels a lot more local. That's how I feel about opening this gallery. It's going to be a much more local program, and I'm happy to do that. We will also show international artists, the first year I'm showing artists from England, Slovakia in addition to the rest of the artists who are all based in Los Angeles. I think it's such a rich and amazing scene, so I'm happy to be involved or to try and be involved with it in that way.
TGL: How did you meet Emma McIntyre?
CS: Emma McIntyre is an artist, oddly enough, who I met in Auckland, New Zealand a couple of years ago on a research trip. She's studying at ArtCenter on a Fulbright. Tom Allen initially reminded me that she was here and said she was making amazing work so I reached out to her. She's 30 years old, New Zealand-born, now Los Angeles-based, and a really extraordinary painter.
TGL: Chris Sharp Gallery is the first gallery you opened without a partner. How does this feel?
CS: It’s kind of scary, but it's nice too, because I have these artists who I'm going to be working with, and I feel like we are a community and they are committed to it. It was a different kind of community with Lulu, because we didn’t represent artists.
TGL: Do you already have a roster of artists or you are still building it?
CS: I have an idea of who the core artists will be, but I'm not going to announce it for at least a year. I'm going to take my time with that. I think a lot of them will be Los Angeles-based. It's going to be a very LA gallery.
TGL: Will your collectors be primarily Los Angeles-based?
CS: I don't know. We had a pretty broad group of collectors at Lulu, and I feel like a lot of them will hopefully come with me. They're in New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, Paris, London, Mexico...all over.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
CS: The first person that comes to mind is the American writer, Donald Barthelme. He wrote these perfect short stories. I think he died in the 90s, but he's from Texas and was this amazing character. He was also briefly a curator. For me, he's the most post-modern American writer, he published amazing stories, mostly in the New Yorker in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
CS: A bunch of clichés come into my head. I think about the people I admire in different positions in contemporary art, like Hudson from Feature Gallery or even some of my current colleagues. The one thing they all have in common is that they weren't necessarily paying attention to trends, they really did their own thing. It's really possible to have an impact if you consistently do your own thing. If you develop your own position and voice as a curator or gallerist or artist, it will take on a narrative momentum. It might not immediately, but eventually it will have a real impact. The positions which are idiosyncratic and allergic to trends are the most fruitful.