Born and raised in south Los Angeles, artist Shark Toof incites different reactions with his artwork – gritty yet refined acrylic and spray painted paintings that focus on a singular subject, the shark. As with the simultaneously reviled and revered animal itself, there’s more to these paintings than meets the eye. We caught up with the artist while he was still reveling in the buzz of Art Basel in Miami, where he exhibited with CASS, Contemporary Art Space & Studio at Aqua Art Miami.
Terry Ward: Is there a conservation message in your artwork?
Shark Toof: There is, but even more so, there’s a message of self-preservation. The shark for me plays duality. A comment I get a lot is “Oh, I love sharks. That’s so cool you have a shark flying over a landscape.” But that’s sort of just a visual appeal, and that’s the deception of the work. If you stay a while, there’s something beyond the visual.
Although some may argue figurative paintings must involve the human form, I would argue my paintings are figurative in the sense of how we are connected to animals. Native Americans and ancient peoples identified with animal spirits as being one in the same. My paintings are like mirrors of ourselves. It’s about our social climate, political climate, affairs we may feel down about. The shark is already a loaded animal, and it has all these wonderful traits, too. We all have our defence mechanisms that keep us away from trouble or the things that plague us - including social, economic, racial, and political climates. I love playing with that tension. The paintings remind me I have choices, and people aren’t always reminded of the choices we have. The shark is the perfect conduit to invite and incite curiosity, provocation, unrest and optimism.
How did you choose a gallery to work with for Miami Art Week?
Working with CASS Contemporary out of Tampa, Florida has been very symbiotic from our first meeting. I did a solo show there called “Red Everything” leading up to Basel Miami and was really inspired when CASS mentioned the Tampa Museum of Art was interested in being involved. Instagram and social networking has molded what a street artist or graffiti artist is and told people how to accept it, and CASS puts themselves out there to bring someone like me to their show space. I’m about as far west coast as you can get. I come from the super old school. CASS was open to the total package and they’re getting it. That takes a lot, it’s not something all galleries can do. It’s vital to have that perfect environment to hone the work and bring it out. Museums are definitely where I would love to take my work more in the future, that’s where I feel at home. With all the history I’ve been brought up on as an artist, museums are my aspiration.
How does the ambience during Art Basel and Art Miami inspire you?
Art Basel evokes the spirit of every artist and gallery to shine their brightest. This creates the ultimate environment to see how your own work relates to the conversation. The most joy I get out of being down in Miami for Basel is making sure the colleagues and artist friends I love so much are healthy and still creating their craft in the face of a very harsh reality. It is definitely not easy being an artist. I’ve seen so many artists having to take a 9 to 5 or take a corporate job. And to be able to touch them or hug them and know everything is still amazing, that’s something special. Everyone is here from all around the world during this week, and it is the one place where you can catch up with friends. It’s a very intimate thing. I would love it to stay that way.